“I didn’t think what we were doing at the restaurant was that fascinating to people,” chef and restaurateur Kathy Fang tells NextShark the day after her new reality docuseries premiere.
Food Network’s “Chef Dynasty: House of Fang” follows Fang as she sets out to expand and modernize her family’s restaurant business with fresh global spins on traditional Chinese cuisine — but only if she can succeed in receiving her father’s approval first.
Kathy is the daughter of Peter and Lily Fang, the husband-wife duo behind San Francisco Chinatown institution House of Nanking. Established in 1988, Peter’s idea to merge traditional Shanghainese flavors with local ingredients quickly turned the restaurant into a global dining landmark. The pilot episode of “Chef Dynasty: House of Fang” highlights how Peter once drew inspiration from the beloved Thanksgiving pairing of turkey and sweet potatoes to create the restaurant’s staple: Nanking sesame chicken, a crispy and spicy chicken dish coated in sesame and coupled with glazed sweet potato.
That forward-thinking was passed down to Kathy, who pushes for “Chinese food world domination,” while Peter, now 74, would rather stay true to his traditionalist roots. Aside from House of Nanking, the pair operate the restaurant Fang in San Francisco, which Kathy considers to be like a House of Nanking: 2.0. While its menu is evenly split between Peter’s classic dishes and Kathy’s own creations, Kathy says it is a day-to-day struggle to negotiate the restaurant’s menu with her father.
When we first opened [in 2009], my dad was 14 years younger. He was a lot more adventurous, he was a lot more risk-taking and very aggressive as far as creating new stuff. As he’s gotten older, he’s veered a lot more towards tradition, tradition, tradition. He doesn’t like things that are overly fussy. In fact, if things are overly fussy, he would rather not eat it.
Kathy understands her father’s viewpoint — many of their customers come back for the dishes they have loved for the last 34 years. But she says those dishes were innovative for their time, and now, it’s her time.
Fang represents the next generation’s voice, which is mine, but also combining it with my dad’s so that you’re not losing touch with where it comes from. If we want to be relevant and stick around for another 34 years, we’re going to have to innovate because that’s how House of Nanking was put on the map in the first place. That’s not to say we’re going to change it completely — we need to keep the soul of House of Nanking and Fang — but we also need to live with the times and stay at the forefront.
Keeping it in the family
Subscribe to NextShark's Newsletter
A daily dose of Asian America's essential stories, in under 5 minutes.
Get our collection of Asian America's most essential stories to your inbox daily for free.
Although Kathy grew up in House of Nanking and knew she wanted to be a chef from the age of 7, her parents pushed her to get a business degree from the University of Southern California and pursue a corporate job.
“My biggest passion has always been food and cooking and entertaining,” she says. “And I kept thinking to myself, why am I not doing this? Like, my family has a restaurant that’s very successful. I spend 80% of my time on food, why am I working at a place that doesn’t make me happy?”
Kathy eventually left L.A. and moved back in with her parents in San Francisco. She worked at their restaurant for a year, challenging her father’s skepticism.
“He never even suggested that this is something that I could consider because restaurant life is difficult. It’s hard on your body, it’s very stressful, you don’t have a life,” says Kathy, who suspects that her father saw a silver lining in her return.
He’s never actually said this, but deep down, I think he was actually very happy. What he’s created at House of Nanking is something very special. He’s thought about what would happen to it if, say, [his] kids don’t take over. I think he wouldn’t actually go and sell it to anybody. I think he would just close it. It would be like the end of a chapter to him because it’s so personal to him.
From Fang to Food Network
During the early years of operating Fang, Kathy, who was inspired by trailblazers like Emeril Lagasse and Martin Yan, tried to pitch a TV show with a typical stand-and-stir concept to potential producers. After that failed, she put herself out there by competing in reality TV shows, becoming a two-time “Chopped” champion and appearing on “Beat Bobby Flay,” among other shows.
“Never in my mind did I ever think that I would want to actually do a real reality show,” she shares. “I’m not an overly dramatic person. My dad and I work really well together. For a lot of Chinese families, the whole reality type of concept is scary, right? We’re very private people. We never air out personal family drama. We don’t talk about things. We’re not emotional. We’re just not the type.”
But an email from a casting agent and producer during the COVID-19 pandemic led to a fruitful conversation and an eventual sold pitch. Multiple companies were vying for the show, but Food Network ultimately won.
A decade and dynasty in the making
“Just not the type” is something Kathy grew used to hearing after pitching to TV networks for over a decade. Even though House of Nanking predates Food Network by five years, Kathy views many networks as older and risk-averse, not wanting to invest in what has not been done before.
“I went through pitches where people told me: ‘Chinese food is too exotic. People are not ready for your type of food,’” Kathy reflects. “If you show them data points that there’s more Chinese restaurants than McDonald’s, it doesn’t matter. In their eyes, it doesn’t have the same excitement as all-American food.”
Kathy credits the rise of Asian representation in the media to Asian-led successes like “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and K-pop. “You started seeing a lot of support from the Asian community in trying to support these new stories… People started to realize, Asians are a very big demographic. People do actually want content that’s different. Stop thinking about what other people want to actually watch and just put it out there and see how it will do.”
“If I tried to pitch [our] reality show eight years ago, there’s no way it would have ever gained any traction. I think that’s one of the reasons why now we can have shows like this. I hope that really paves the way for more Asian representation on food and travel shows.”
As for the impact of her show, Kathy hopes viewers can see themselves in the Fang family and their story.
What’s special about our show is that if you look at other reality series, I think it’s very unrelatable. What you’re going to see on our show is real. It’s not just for Asian immigrants, but all immigrants. I hope that people – whether it’s first generation, second generation or people like me – can relate. What my family has created in moving here is worthy to be on national television. These are real success stories that are notable. Maybe thank your parents and appreciate what your parents have done. They didn’t create what Mark Zuckerberg created or whatnot, but having a successful restaurant, having a successful laundromat, whatever it is that they’ve done, is noteworthy.
Many people might not know this, but NextShark is a small media startup that runs on no outside funding or loans, and with no paywalls or subscription fees, we rely on help from our community and readers like you.
Everything you see today is built by Asians, for Asians to help amplify our voices globally and support each other. However, we still face many difficulties in our industry because of our commitment to accessible and informational Asian news coverage.
We hope you consider making a contribution to NextShark so we can continue to provide you quality journalism that informs, educates, and inspires the Asian community. Even a $1 contribution goes a long way. Thank you for supporting NextShark and our community.