By Lani Furbank, photography by Jennifer Chase
For one day each year, all of chef Peter Chang’s restaurants close for business.
“Thanksgiving Day is the day we show our staff how grateful we are for their hard work with us to build this brand,” Peter says, with his daughter, Lydia, interpreting. “Taking this day off is a great way to appreciate being in this community, being in this country, that enabled all of this to happen.”
It wasn’t always easy for the Chang family. Growing up, Peter lived an austere, rural life in the Hubei province in China. He rose through the ranks of society when he had the opportunity to attend culinary school and become a master of Sichuan cuisine while working on cruise ships, and then to cook at luxury hotels in China. In 2001, Peter moved to the U.S. to serve as the personal chef to the Chinese ambassador.
After two years at the embassy, Peter and his wife, Lisa, decided they wanted to stay in the U.S. and build a life here for their family and their teenage daughter. To do this required making a discreet exit before his contract ended. So, early one morning, Peter, Lisa and Lydia left the embassy and never returned.
The chef then spent years moving from restaurant to restaurant, covering his tracks whenever he turned too many heads. “The longer he stayed at a place, the less secure he felt about the safety for the family,” Lydia recalls.
During that time, celebrating Thanksgiving was put on the back burner. “Other restaurants used to be open all the time, so that wasn’t a decision made by him; it was the owners or the partners,” Lydia says. “They wanted to open for business, and that basically meant we didn’t get the chance to celebrate—we’d be working.”
As time passed and his reputation grew, Peter found the right business partner and took the risk of opening his first restaurant under his own name. Today, he and his family run a culinary empire with 11 restaurants that stretch from Stamford, Connecticut, to Virginia Beach. Still, every Thanksgiving, they give their staff the day off. “Now we can make the call,” Peter says. “The business will be closed on Thanksgiving because we want to stay with our family … we want to give everyone the day off to embrace Thanksgiving and what it means.”
Over the past several years, the Changs formed their own Thanksgiving tradition with a unique Chinese flavor: a snowy day skiing, followed by a family hot pot. It’s the first chance each season for Peter and Lydia to ski and snowboard, respectively.
“In the winter, we either work very hard because it’s the holiday season, the most busy season for restaurants, or we’ll be skiing on the mountain, which is more tiring than work. Can you imagine?” Lydia jokes.
“After a day of skiing, we’ll be exhausted. Nobody wants to spend hours and hours in the kitchen,” Lydia says. Their solution? Packing up a pot of broth and an assortment of ingredients in a cooler that comes with them.
The convivial group of family and friends comes in from the cold and gathers in the kitchen of their Vermont hotel room or rental house. With a portable burner, a pot of broth and an array of meats and vegetables, they are ready for an après-ski feast. “You don’t have to cook anything,” says Lydia. “You can just boil everything in the pot.”
Peter is a carnivore, and goes for strips of beef tenderloin dipped in the broth. Lisa, a seafood lover, cooks pieces of blue crab in the steaming pot and then extracts the meat from its shell. As the vegetarian of the family, Lydia enjoys any type of bean curd, as well as starchy items like Japanese pumpkin. In addition to all the standard ingredients that get dropped into the hot pot, the Changs add a taste of their hometown with a Hubei-style fish cake.
“I think the fun in the hot pot is—whether you are having it with new friends or old friends or family members—it’s about sharing, eating from one pot,” Lydia says. Hot pot, like Thanksgiving, is about bringing people together.
For Lisa and Peter, hot pot and other food celebrations are a way to keep their family heritage alive for their daughter while living an ocean away from home. “Throughout my upbringing, they’ve tried their best to connect me to our culture, to our tradition,” Lydia says. “That’s the way of doing it, by embracing this Chinese tradition at home and spending time together.”
“My dad tells me every time, ‘The main reason we stayed here is for you,’” she says. “But I think the successful business is a side perk.” When she asks her dad why he chose to stay, his answer is simple: “The pursuit of happiness. This is the greatest country.”
Embracing American traditions hasn’t erased the pride the Changs feel for their home country, but Peter explains, “Thanksgiving is about being thankful for the family. Do we feel Westernized? We would be eating a turkey if we felt that way,” he says with a grin.
How to Make Your Own Hot Pot Happen
Start with a Rich Broth
The foundation for a great hot pot is the broth, which can take hours. The Changs’ chili oil broth recipe involves a triple chicken stock and lots of heat. Don’t skimp on the time it takes for the chicken stock to reduce.
You can also make a milder broth like mushroom or tomato and have them both boiling simultaneously using a pot that has a divider in the center.
Gather the Ingredients You Like
The beauty of hot pot is that it can be customized to suit your tastes. “When you think of it, it’s not just one dish, it’s the dish that could change into so many forms,” Lydia says. Their skiing group simply stops by the nearest supermarket and grabs whatever they find. “The only thing I would never put in a hot pot is cheese. Everything else is fine,” she adds.
Get the Guests Involved
With the broth made in advance, Lydia says you can have the hot pot ready to enjoy in under 30 minutes with the help of many sous chefs. “If you have a group of 20 people and everyone takes charge of one [ingredient], you can be done in, like, 10 minutes. Everyone is working on something and you enjoy your work.”
Once all the ingredients have been chopped and sliced, they go into the hot pot raw and unseasoned, and the boiling broth does all the work for you.
Use Tools That Will Get the Job Done
All you really need to pull this off is a portable burner, a heatproof bowl or pot and chopsticks. Don’t worry too much about the equipment. Lydia says you can get a gas or induction burner from an Asian supermarket or on Amazon. (Just don’t use a chafing-dish fuel can, as it likely won’t be able to bring the broth to a boil.) “It’s not about procedure. It’s not a ceremony,” Lydia says. “At end of the day, it’s food. It’s how you want to enjoy.”
Pay Attention to Cooking Times
After the broth is at a full boil, each ingredient only needs to stay submerged for a short period of time. “You have to be fast with that,” Lydia says. “You don’t want to overcook it; you don’t want to undercook it.”
There are general rules for the length of time each item should cook, but Lydia says that “the best way to test it is to use your chopsticks. Take it out to see the color; to feel the texture.” It should be firm, but not falling apart.
“The key to making a successful hot pot is not to put everything in and make it a swimming pool of ingredients,” she adds. Cook a few ingredients at a time and monitor how long they are in the broth.
Lydia shared a few guidelines for specific ingredients:
Meat: 30 seconds to 1 minute
Seafood: once it begins to turn color but before it becomes too tough
Mushrooms and seaweed: soak for as long as you’d like
Starchy vegetables: 1 to 2 minutes, but not so long that they dissolve in the broth
Firm tofu: 3 to 4 minutes, enough time for it to absorb the flavor (soft tofu is not ideal for hot pot)
Dumplings and noodles: pre-cook or soak these items and then dip them for 15 to 30 seconds so they can pick up flavor from the broth
Fight for Your Food
Lydia says eating hot pot with a large group can be like war. “You have to fight for the things you put in, but that’s where the fun is. You have to act fast. If you are on your phone for too long or if you are getting away with chatting, then forget about the meal,” she says with a laugh.
Spend Quality Time Together
Eating hot pot is a long process. Lydia says her family is known to spend at least an hour or two at the table, cooking and eating the ingredients. “You are there to enjoy, you are not cooking everything and finishing it at once.”
Gradually cooking and eating is an ideal meal for Peter. “For Chinese people, we love to eat food super hot,” he says.
Beware: Over the course of the meal, the broth will begin to cook away and reduce. Lydia says you can either add hot water or add a clear broth to keep the flavor from being diluted.
Hot Pot 火锅
Chili Oil Broth
1 cup red chili oil
4 cups dry chili pepper
5 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorn seed
5 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
5 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
5 tablespoons fermented black beans
1 cup Pi’xian bean paste
10 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorn oil
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorn powder
3 tablespoons sugar
Heat a 3- to 4-quart saucepan until hot, add red chili oil, dry chili pepper, Sichuan peppercorn seed, ginger, garlic, fermented black beans and bean paste.
Stir-fry evenly on medium heat for about 10 minutes.
Pour in chicken stock. Over medium to low heat, cook for another 15 minutes. Drop the Sichuan peppercorn oil, powder and sugar into the boiling pot for 3 more minutes.
Move the pot to a portable gas burner and let the liquid come to a boil. You are now ready to hot pot!
Suggested ingredients (pictured):
Sliced beef tenderloin
Beef meatballs (seasoned with soy sauce, mushroom powder, salt)
Chinese yam, thinly sliced
Japanese pumpkin, thinly sliced
Wood ear mushrooms
Broccoli, broken into florets
Firm tofu, in thick slices
Bean curd skin