When the architect Michael Chen couldn’t travel to be with his family last Christmas, he learned to make one of his mother’s recipes himself.
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By Jamie Feldmar
Michael Chen is primarily known for residential projects and one element of them that the architect particularly enjoys designing is the kitchen. In a brownstone in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood that his namesake New York firm, Michael K Chen Architecture, revamped in 2019, that meant maroon cabinets; an avocado green island with a sink on one side and a cutout for four stools on the other, so that a cook might prep and chat; and tumbling-block-patterned concrete floor tiles. He’s also fond of green serpentine stone (“I think a white kitchen is so boring,” he says), unobtrusive power outlets and high-end induction burners in lieu of gas ranges (“if it’s good enough for Thomas Keller…”). “There’s often a real tension in people’s expectations vis-à-vis kitchens between things that are beautiful and things that are functional,” says Chen, 46, “but I don’t see those qualities as contradictory.” His belief that a space can and should be both stems from his architectural training, of course, but also, like his interest in kitchens in general, from the fact that he is something of a cook himself, and thus able to anticipate a client’s needs in this arena.
His own kitchen, with a stone counter, a Flos light fixture by Jasper Morrison and a profusion of walnut cutting boards and Japanese knives, is the heart of the Chinatown, Manhattan, apartment that he shares with his husband, Andy Beck, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U. Until not so long ago, the apartment was the site of countless dinner parties that allowed Chen to show off his culinary skills and since, as he puts it, “acquisition is a bit of an occupational hazard in my line of work,” the many beautiful dishes he’s collected over the years, including asymmetrical ceramics by Eric Bonnin from Mociun in Brooklyn, vintage chartreuse Russel Wright lug bowls scored on eBay and marbleized plates from MK Studio purchased on a trip he and Beck took to Copenhagen. The pandemic put a pause on such gatherings, but, in the early days of it, Chen could still be found in the kitchen, nursing his sourdough starter or rolling out pasta dough for homemade lasagna. Then, last December, he decided to try his hand at another labor-intensive recipe: his mother’s beef noodle soup.
Known as niu rou mian in Mandarin, the dish is ubiquitous in Taiwan, where many mainlanders, including Chen’s parents, Robert and Grace Chen, moved during the Communist revolution of the 1940s. Accordingly, many of the regional characteristics of distinct noodle soups merged, creating what Chen describes as a bit of a mishmash. “It’s like Taipei’s answer to a hot dog. My parents used to talk about getting this dish from street vendors when they were young — if they had some extra money, they’d order it with meat but, if not, they’d just get the broth,” says Chen.
But while his parents were sampling the same street food in Taiwan in the ’50s, they didn’t meet until they were graduate students in Florida in the late ’60s. The following decade, they moved to Contra Costa County, which sits just east of San Francisco, and that is where Chen would come to love niu rou mian, or at least the version of it that his mother adapted in keeping with the health-conscious culinary mores of Northern California. “There’s this leanness to the way our family cooks,” says Chen. “It’s less spicy, less fatty, more concentrated and clearer than what you might find in a restaurant.” Though this made it no less of a treat: Chen’s mother would prepare the dish every year for Christmas Day lunch, and extended family would descend on the house for a taste.
When the pandemic derailed Chen and Beck’s plans to travel to California for Christmas last year, Beck insisted that they have the soup in New York. “It had become a tradition for me, too,” he says. And so, Chen asked his mother to walk him through each step of her recipe, which involves braising and carefully skimming the contents of multiple pots, each containing a different cut of beef — brisket, shin (or shank) and tendons — and a neatly bundled spice packet fragrant with Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, fresh chiles, garlic, ginger and more.
“It’s not the kind of braise you do in an Instant Pot,” says Chen. “It’s meditative. You tend to it over the course of an afternoon, very slowly and over a low temperature, taking care not to disturb the meat, which can make for a cloudy, greasy broth.” The last steps are to boil the Chinese flour noodles and serve everything together in bowls topped with blanched vegetables and pickled mustard greens (which themselves take several days to make). Chen says the finished product has a quality, both “ethereal and carnal,” that he didn’t fully appreciate as a child. It is a gift to taste it now.
Michael Chen’s Beef Noodle Soup
2 pounds Hong Kong-style beef brisket (if not available or desired, a regular brisket will do)
2 pounds boneless beef shin (if not available or desired, a beef shank can be substituted)
1.5 pounds beef tendons (about 3 tendons)
Spice packet (the below makes one but you should use as many as you have pots of meat)
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
3 star anises
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
2 dried chile de árbol or fresh chiles
3 smashed garlic cloves
4 slices ginger, about ⅛ inch thick and 2 inches long
2 scallions cut into 2-inch segments
2 bay leaves
Braising liquid (for one pot)
2 cups chicken stock
⅓ cup good dark soy sauce
2-3 tablespoons dry sherry or rice wine
1 tablespoon honey
Kosher salt, to taste
1 pound baby bok choy, Chinese broccoli, choy sum or other Asian green
2 additional quarts chicken stock
6 slices ginger
Chinese flour noodles
1 scallion, thinly sliced
Pickled mustard greens (recipe below)
1-2 sprigs cilantro
Sichuan chile crisp, to taste
Sherry vinegar or Chinese black vinegar
1. Trim as much of the visible fat off the meat as possible, but preserve the connective tissue. Soak each piece of beef in a bowl of cold water for 20 minutes and rinse well.
2. Blanch each cut individually for 5 minutes in boiling water, then let them cool enough to handle.
3. Split the tendons lengthwise and then into 1-inch to 1½-inch pieces. Cube the brisket and shin into pieces, about 1½ to 2 inches.
4. Prepare spice packets by combining the Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, fennel seeds, chiles, garlic, ginger, scallions and bay leaves into cheese cloth bundles or fillable tea bags. Make one packet per pot.
5. Each cut of meat should be braised separately. Place the cubed meat, a spice packet and 2 cups of chicken stock in individual heavy-bottomed Dutch ovens and add enough water to cover the meat by about an inch.
6. Bring the liquid to a boil and immediately reduce the heat so that you only see the occasional bubble. Add a healthy pinch of salt. Braise, partially covered, taking care that the liquid does not boil until the meat is very soft but still holds its shape, for about 3 hours. One hour into simmering, add the soy sauce, sherry and honey. Skim the fat and foam from the liquid as often and as thoroughly as possible. The resulting liquid should be dark but not cloudy.
7. Tendons cook at a different rate and may take between 2-4 hours. The same precautions apply. Take care not to boil the liquid, and cook until the tendons are very soft and the braising liquid has a syrup-like viscosity.
8. Once everything is cooked and soft, prepare the soup. Heat the remaining chicken stock with some slices of ginger in it. In a separate pot, bring four quarts of salted water to a boil. Blanch the quartered baby bok choy or choy sum for 1 minute and remove from water but do not drain. Bring the same water back to a boil and cook the noodles until soft, 1-3 minutes (check package instructions). Drain water. Portion the noodles into deep soup bowls, top with the blanched green vegetables; a few pieces of beef and tendon; a ladle of braising liquid, including some of the tendon braising liquid, which adds tremendous body and heft to the broth; and a ladle of hot stock. Top with chopped scallions and chopped pickled mustard greens. A drizzle of chile crisp is nice, as is a splash of sherry vinegar.
Pickled Mustard Greens
Break apart about 1 pound of mature mustard greens. Slice the thick ends of the leaves into ¼-inch slices.
Lay the mustard greens on a baking rack on the counter to wilt for a day.
Toss the leaves and stems with ½ cup of kosher salt, place in a colander to drain overnight. You can weigh the greens down with a can.
The next day, drain but don’t rinse the greens. Pack them in a clean, sterile jar. Add three cloves of garlic and a chile and fill the jar with boiling water.
Leave the sealed jar out for at least a whole day at room temperature, then let the whole thing ferment in the refrigerator for 3-5 days and enjoy. Use within a week after opening.
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