By Caitlin Raux
“During the Qin Dynasty, a scholar was studying for an exam. He went to a park on an island to study. The scholar’s wife wanted to bring him noodles for lunch and she had to cross the bridge.” Simone Tong (Culinary Arts, Culinary Management ‘11) was filling me in on the legend behind “crossing the bridge noodles,” also called mixian (mee-syan), the Yunnan province specialty that New Yorkers are eagerly slurping at Simone’s new East Village restaurant, Little Tong Noodle Shop. “She discovered, because she was very smart — smarter than her husband, obviously,” Simone continued, with a chuckle, “that a layer of chicken fat covering the broth would keep the noodles hot while she crossed the bridge. And then she cooked the raw food in the broth once she arrived.”
Ingenuity, it turns out, also finds its way into the kitchen of Little Tong, where Simone’s impeccable technique and reverence for each ingredient is met with her own brand of creativity and humor. The result is dishes like the “Lijiang old town grandma-inspired” Grandma Chicken Mixian: an addictive combination of light chicken broth, tender chicken confit, black sesame garlic oil, tea-steeped eggs, house-made fermented chili and pickles, finished with a smattering of bright flowers. Simone, who cooked with Chef Wylie Dufresne at wd~50 for nearly five years, explained, “I want my food to be seriously tasty, but also have a hint of elegance, a hint of humor and a hint of surprise.”
On a recent Wednesday morning, while the shutters of Little Tong were still drawn, Simone and I chatted about her path from the kitchens of ICE to wd~50 to her own bustling downtown restaurant.
What inspired you to enroll in culinary school?
The first real inspiration came from my mom. My parents are art dealers, so they had a lot of beautiful paintings. My mom had the idea to create a restaurant where they could hang some of their paintings, mostly renaissance period, and she could sip coffee all day. She had no idea what owning a restaurant entailed, so she hired a chef and opened a restaurant called Café Firenze. One day a French chef walked past the restaurant and he thought the restaurant was decorated in good taste, so he wanted to become the chef. I was home from college for the summer, so I helped translate his French-accented English to my mom in Sichuanese. He went into the kitchen and started cooking these beautiful, classic French dishes like tomato concasse. That was my first inspiration.
Then after I graduated from college, I saw a show called “After Hours with Daniel.” Chef Daniel Boulud would visit different restaurants, talk to the chefs and bring his own ingredients. The first episode of the first season was wd~50 with Chef Wylie Dufresne. I was so wowed by it — the combination of art, science, cooking and food. It seemed so fun to be a chef. You get to sit around, drink, talk about food, taste food.
Read on to learn how Simone followed her culinary aspirations to ICE.