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Articles & Essays

"Change comes in its own good time"

Published 01/23/05
The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
At the start of a new year, many people at least think about change. That's why, in January, gyms are bursting with folks in shiny, new running shoes (check back in March and see how many are still there). Time to redo the living room, sign up for that class or ban junk food from the pantry.

But most annual resolution makers and breakers know little of truly diving into new directions, of taking risks for a dream. Chef David Mao can teach something about that and serve a great plate of dumplings at the same time.

Mao's life of change has gotten him where he wanted to be when he came to Raleigh 30 years ago. His Asian bistro, The Duck & Dumpling, in downtown Raleigh has collected a string of good reviews since it opened in November 2002, most recently a mention in Southern Living.

If you missed the article, it's blown up to banner size and posted on the wall behind the bar. It makes a fitting, if large, addition to the timeline of Mao's life and career represented by the two framed pictures beside it. One, taken in the 1960s, is a photograph of Mao in his early 20s, one of his older brothers and his father in the brother's Saigon restaurant. Beside them is the actor Glenn Ford.

Nearby is a small card from the old Seth Jones French restaurant in Raleigh, which announces an "Oriental dinner" prepared by Mao.

One giant chunk of the chef's history is missing from the little display, however: Mandarin House Chinese restaurant in Cameron Village, which Mao started and operated for 25 years.

Mandarin House served stereotypical American-style Chinese food -- sweet and sour pork, deep-fried egg rolls and so forth -- in a stereotypical, faux-Chinese dining room. Nevertheless, it offered good versions of that kind of food and gained a following. Also, that was the kind of Asian food that Raleigh was ready for in 1976, and even later.

The first time I ate at The Duck & Dumpling, I couldn't believe that the silken dumplings and steamed sea bass were prepared by the same chef who had churned out moo goo gai pan in a shopping center. Even Mao's occasional versions of Chinese classics are far beyond takeout, as in moo shu made with smoked duck and homemade pancakes.

The decor looked as though it belonged in New York or Washington, D.C. Not a dragon or lantern in sight, but sophisticated paintings and hints of black and red, as in the red ceiling lights glowing through opaque, curved plastic panels. (The interior is the work of Ted Van Dyke of New City Design.)

The distance between the two restaurants can't be measured in miles, nor even with a straight line. It's more like a circle, because Mao, 61, says that this is the kind of food he wanted to offer 25 years ago.

His story also reflects the changes in the city's dining scene over the last quarter-century. Raleigh eaters are more open now, he believes, but a restaurant like this is still a risk here.

What's life without risk?

Mao was waiting tables and cooking in his brother's restaurant, which catered to American officers and other luminaries during the Vietnam War, when he met Hal Hopfenberg, now an N.C. State University professor. Hopfenberg loved Mao's food, so much so that Mao traded him meals for math tutoring.

After Hopfenberg finished his duty overseas and returned home, he offered to sponsor Mao to come to the United States.

"He asked me to come over in '67," says Mao, who still speaks in heavily accented English. "I'm not ready then. I wait till '72; then I'm ready."

Mao lived in Hopfenberg's home for about three years, working at area restaurants.

"When I work in my brother's restaurant, I dream of my own restaurant," Mao says. "Then, the chance comes."

He thought of the fresh, unusual ingredients at his brother's restaurant back in Vietnam. But this was Raleigh in 1976. He even rejected his friend Hopfenberg's suggestion to name the restaurant, fearing people wouldn't get it. Mao held on to the name, though: The Duck & Dumpling.

It doesn't matter if you serve the best food on Earth if your potential customers aren't ready for it. So, Mao went with the kind of Chinese food familiar to his diners. His parents were from northern China, so he knew that style of cooking.

Mandarin House it was. Life proceeded well. Over time, Mao operated and closed two other Chinese restaurants, one downtown and another in Mini City. There was a son, now 26. In 1980, he bought a house next door to his old friend Hopfenberg. Mao brought his Auntie, who raised him after his mother died when he was 1, to live with him. Many of Mao's 11 brothers and sisters moved to the United States.

In 2001, Mao says, rising rent at Cameron Village forced him to close Mandarin House.

The old dream came back. And, this time, Raleigh was ready ... maybe.

Raleigh's dining scene has changed slowly but surely in the past decade, and the level of sophistication in both chefs and diners has risen. The ethnic influence has grown, and residents have become more accustomed to encountering unfamiliar ingredients. Food fans are educating themselves about cuisine.

Mao agrees that there have been changes -- "I try to serve this food 30 years ago, I wouldn't have lasted" -- but sees Raleigh as a still conservative environment, food-wise. For example, he has learned that despite the ideas he has for Asian-style preparations of whole fish, he will sell very few at his restaurant because many people don't want to see a fish head on their plates.

But if he wants to offer a dish like that, he will.

"Anything is a risk in business," Mao says, with the smile that seems never to leave his face. "This is the kind of place I always wanted to have."

At some point, everyone has to make a leap into the life they've always wanted.

"In this country, things change so fast," he says. "But that is what has kept this country so powerful, on top, because we always try the new thing here."

Here's a belated, but still bubbly, glass of new year's champagne to Mao's delicious new thing, and to whatever may be yours in the coming year.


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