Andrew Zimmern admits it: He was being a little greedy. When the celebrity chef first spoke with South Beach Wine & Food Festival founder Lee Schrager about hosting an event this year, he mentioned Jason Wang.
"Nothing could be more selfish. I love Jason Wang," Zimmern says. "Lee Schrager and I are both also big fans of Khong River House, so we thought, Well, wouldn't it be cool if we had a dinner with the Xi'an Famous Foods guys down at Khong. And everyone just said yes. It took all of about ten minutes to go from an idea to an event, and ten minutes later, it became a sold-out event."
His feelings for Wang certainly aren't new. For years, Zimmern has been a supporter of the New York family-owned restaurant Xi'an Famous Foods: "I've been a big fan of Jason's for a long time. I'm fascinated by his story."
Wang's tale is rooted in family. "Jason's father, David Shi, came over here from China and, to make extra money, would cook 20 to 30 portions of noodles in a little apartment in Queens, then take it to a local food mall -- food court is almost too generous a term. He would stand in the corner and literally sell it out of his cooler, pocket the money, and go home," Zimmern explains.
Shi's impact would stretch further than those tiny digs. With Xi'an Famous Foods, he single-handedly introduced New York to the cuisine of Xi'an, a capital in northern China. Today, his recipes -- hand-pulled noodles spiked with lamb, fiery spices, black vinegar, and soy sauce -- have garnered a devout following.
"That little home noodle experiment that Jason's father started has now created five or six locations of Xi'an Famous Foods," Zimmern says.
The TV host shows his support in any way he can. In addition to pulling Wang's name into SOBEWFF, Zimmern has featured Xi'an's lamb face salads, cold skin noodles, and wide hand-pulled noodles on his Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods America and the online series Appetite for Life.
"It's the classic American immigrant success story. Jason's father worked hard, put his son through college, and now his son is applying modern-day business school principles and marketing to this incredible world of food that his father has created."
This story involves much more than the American dream, though. Zimmern believes 25-year-old Jason Wang is part of a bigger movement, a generation that's improving the world. "Twenty-somethings are the generation that's going to save our planet. The ones who are smart are asking themselves, Why not? Why can't I do something in a different way?
"That spirit, that sort of problem-solving anarchy, has not been alive in our country since the '60s. It's what's going to drive a lot of the big cultural successes in our country in the next 20 years."
So Zimmern will celebrate Wang and his family's story at the Intimate Asian Dinner at Khong River House on Saturday, February 22. They will cook alongside Sudarat Loasupho (Chef Pai), who's behind the stoves at Khong.
Zimmern's portion of the menu will include a goat tartare with roasted tomatoes and yuzu, as well as crispy quail with basil, chilies, and lemongrass, served with a side of sticky rice.
"We're all contributing to a sort of dessert trio, and I'm going to do a little frozen passionfruit mousse thing. It's going to be very tropical, very Miami, with toasted coconut and lime," he adds.
In addition to his dinner with Wang and Chef Pai, Zimmern will close out the festival with The Munchies: People's Choice Food Awards on Sunday, February 23, at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach. Nominees were all selected by food pros and celebrities, led by Zimmern, but winners were chosen by an online audience.
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So here's a useful tip for next year's Munchies hopefuls: One of Zimmern's favorite foods is hand-pulled noodles smothered, of course, in spicy chili sauce.
Intimate Asian Dinner hosted by Andrew Zimmern & Jason Wang with Sudarat Loasupho (Chef Pai): Saturday, February 22, from 7 to 10 p.m. at Khong River House , 1661 Meridian Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets are sold out.
Best of The Munchies: People's Choice Food Awards presented by PepsiCo hosted by Andrew Zimmern: Sunday, February 23, from 6 to 9 p.m. beachside at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach, 1 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $85.