NEW YORK — RedFarm is a trendy Chinese restaurant full of quirks, like a menu featuring Pac-Man dumplings and pastrami egg rolls and a rustic decor more Americana than Mandarin.
But perhaps the biggest curiosity of all is the man working the front end of the restaurant on a busy weeknight — the guy who came up with RedFarm's concept and is a reigning monarch of New York City's Chinese food scene — an affable 62-year-old white man.
Ed Schoenfeld has been involved with some of New York City's most notable Chinese restaurants since the '70s. Part gourmet, part showman, Brooklyn-bred Schoenfeld has done the improbable and thrived in the often insular world of Chinese restaurants.
And RedFarm could be his most unique trick yet — a much-buzzed-about restaurant that reveres Chinese food even as it makes playful tweaks. He hopes to expand the concept into take-out next year.
"The younger generation thinks that authentic is good. I don't believe that. I don't think homemade means good. I don't think grandmother's cooking is good. I don't think authentic is good," Schoenfeld said during a recent interview at the restaurant, located at 529 Hudson St. In the West Village. "I think good is good ... my own priorities are for deliciousness over authentic."
With its mismatched chairs and red-and-white-checked booths, RedFarm's look is a far cry from the dragons-and-calligraphy motif of many Chinese restaurants. Likewise, chef Joe Ng's creations can veer into almost surreal. The Katz's pastrami egg roll does indeed include a slice from Manhattan's famous Katz's Delicatessen ("We made kind of the ultimate New York Jewish, Chinese item," Schoenfeld said). The Pac-Man dumplings are multi-colored video game ghosts with sesame seed eyes. Schoenfeld calls these items "head turners."
Schoenfeld, with his snowy beard and suspenders, has been likened to P.T. Barnum — a comparison he seems to relish. He is not shy about offering strong opinions, usually in the middle of a story about Chinese culinary history or New York City's roiling restaurant scene.
Speaking just before a Tuesday dinner rush, Schoenfeld asserted that RedFarm is "clearly the best Chinese restaurant in New York City," and boasted that RedFarm's celebrated dim sum chef Ng can make 1,000 kinds of dumplings. He said the restaurant has turned away 15,000 people since it opened in late August and that its high-tech toilet cost thousands.
"The food is fun," he said, "And then at the end when it's all over the flush is fun."
RedFarm has been a hot spot since it opened in August with Ng in the kitchen and prominent restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow as a financial partner. Midweek walk-ins regularly need to wait at least 30 minutes for a table.
As Schoefeld sees it, Ng is the artist of RedFarm, and he is the director. It's a role he has been playing throughout his professional life.
Schoenfeld was a young man from Brooklyn with dreams of becoming the next James Beard or Craig Claiborne when he became fascinated by Chinese food. He was in the right city at the right time.
A number of top-flight Chinese chefs who had lost their wealthy patrons after the communist revolution had come to the United States starting during the mid '60s following the loosening of immigration laws. The chefs showed Americans reared on chop suey the pleasure of Sichuan and Hunan cuisines.
Schoenfeld did a sort of Chinese food immersion: He took cooking lessons, hosted dinners and met a lot of people. One was Chinese restaurant impresario David Keh, who hired him and eventually made him captain and the maitre d' in 1973 at Uncle Tai's (which would become one of two city restaurants to debut an Americanized version of General Tso's chicken, though not the version that caught on nationwide).
"I said, 'If you're going to open a midtown restaurant and you think a white guy would make sense for you, think of me,'" Schoenfeld recalled. "And six months later he called me up."
Schoenfeld recalls greeting diners in a wide-lapelled blue polyester tuxedo that made him look "kind of like Bozo the Clown," but he knew the food and the job opened doors.
He created and opened a dizzying series of restaurants through 1993. There was The Bear in Woodstock for Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman. He partnered with Keh on a series of restaurants, including Pig Heaven, which served Chinese food in a barn-like atmosphere complete with straw on the floor. Madame Chiang Kai Shek's former chef worked in the kitchen.
There was Cafe Marimb in 1984, Vince & Eddie's in 1990, Fishin' Eddie in 1991 and Chop Suey Looey's Litchi Lounge in 1992, among others. He sold his shares in all the restaurants in 1993 to concentrate on consulting for others. Quotable and knowledgeable, Schoenfeld has long been a go-to guy for reporters seeking an expert on Chinese cuisine.
"I always say he's a boy from Brooklyn who fell in love with Chinese food and he hasn't looked back since," said Ed Levine, founder of the website Serious Eats. Levine gives Schoenfeld high marks for his creative touch and for his deep knowledge of food.
"I think it's hard being a non-Chinese Chinese food expert because people tend to pooh-pooh your knowledge or it seems somehow politically incorrect to recognize your knowledge and skills," Levine said.
RedFarm is actually a first step in another big Schoenfeld idea. Next year could bring another location and he wants to launch a high-quality home delivery service around the city.
While Chinese delivery storefronts are as ubiquitous in New York as manhole covers, they usually are small operations with near-identical menus of moo-shu and the like. Schoenfeld believes New Yorkers would happily open their wallets a bit wider for higher quality RedFarm food.
"By and large, take-out in New York City is about little mom-and-pop neighborhood places where you get a lot of food — tasty food, not necessarily the best quality, but good enough."
Under his vision, fresh food would be prepared at a centralized location, then cooked at and delivered from kitchens around the city.
For instance, the exacting tasks of making dumplings would be performed at a central location before delivery to a kitchen. Schoenfeld explains that would offer quality control to keep the dumplings as good as the ones served at the restaurant — as good as the Pac-Man dumpling left on a plate over the course of lengthy interview.
"This has been sitting out for a long time," he said, holding the dumpling between his thumb and finger. "This is supple. In Chinatown, it would be hard."
He pops it in his mouth and chews, highly satisfied.
"This is an A-plus dumpling!"