When their server placed a family-style bowl of rice on the table, one of the diners raised an eyebrow.
When their server placed a family-style bowl of rice on the table, one of the diners raised an eyebrow.
The offending check at Peter Chang in Arlington, courtesy of a diner. MUST CREDIT: The Washington Post
The offending check at Peter Chang in Arlington, courtesy of a diner. MUST CREDIT: The Washington Post

Washington - The story had all the elements to hook readers from Washington to Guangdong.

Server-diner conflict. A famous Chinese chef. Insults. Crude language. Mansplaining. Cultural insensitivity. Petty revenge. Firings.

But, according to experts and those who have eaten widely in China, the incident that inspired the 'plad-gate' incident could have been avoided, if only the diner at the centre of the Peter Chang controversy in Arlington, Virginia., had a wider perspective on Chinese rice.

If you're not familiar with the tale, here are the details: On May 7, four diners, three dressed in plaid, were feasting at Peter Chang in Arlington, one of seven restaurants the Chinese master chef has opened. When their server placed a family-style bowl of rice on the table, one of the diners raised an eyebrow. He had lived in Beijing for much of the 2000s and had apparently only seen rice served in individual bowls. The server offered to bring them individual bowls, but the diners declined.

“She said, 'No, no, I can bring it for you,'“ related another diner in the party, Matt, who asked to use only his first name. “He said, 'No, no, don't worry about it. It's fine. Just wanted to let you know that's the way it's done in China. It's not a big deal.'... It just got really awkward.”

The diners thought that was the end of the episode until it came time to pay. (The group asked to split the bill four ways, to which the server apparently said, “That's totally how they do it in China.”)

When the bill arrived, it included two insults typed at the bottom via the restaurant's point-of-sale, or POS, system: “im a plad [sic]; a---.” The other: “i have a small penis.”

One of the diners provided a copy of the receipt to The Washington Post.

Several days later, as the story spread, Peter Chang and his business partner, Gen Lee, fired the manager who worked that night, along with the two servers who had forgotten to delete the comments after typing them into the system, and even promised to axe the chef's daughter, Lydia Zhang, who serves as general manager of the restaurant. The owners were deeply apologetic and promised to bring service and management back up to typical Chang standards.

Numerous people, of course, pointed out that the former Beijing resident was promoting a gross generalisation about rice in China, a country too large and complex to adopt any single way of serving the grains. At least one writer took to the internet to methodically disprove the diner's theory: Brian Glucroft, who says he has been based in China for more than eight years, offered these thoughts at the end of a blog item filled with examples of family-style rice in the country:

“So if I had been at that table in Virginia, I would have asked Matt's friend what in the world he was talking about and pointed out that serving family-sized portions of rice is certainly another 'way it's done in China,' particularly in a place such as Sichuan,” Glucroft wrote.

Glucroft was not alone in his assessment. Writer and bread baker Sam Fromartz (full disclosure: he's a friend) says he travelled widely in China in 2014, frequently eating in non-tourist restaurants.

“With a big group, like a table of 8-10 that we usually had, rice did not always come in bowls,” Fromartz wrote via email. “Usually it came in a big bowl in the middle of the table, which was then placed into the soup bowl when done with the soup. Also in a more formal setting you don't get rice (or noodles) until the end of the meal. Sometimes the server served it up in bowls, but often not. My sense was it's not a uniform thing and does depend on the size of the group, attentiveness of the server, etc. Definitely in the more down-home, laid-back, country joints where we ate, with scarce wait staff, a server was not going to dole out 10 bowls of rice to our party.”

Fromartz then suggested I contact his friend, Tobie Meyer-Fong, professor of Chinese history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Meyer-Fong lived in China as a graduate student in the 1990s and says she has been “travelling back and forth professionally ever since.” She has dined widely in China over the past 25 years.

Meyer-Fong sees a dichotomy between high-end and casual, home-style restaurants in China.

“In my experience, rice is usually served in individual bowls,” the professor wrote via email. “And the fancier the restaurant, the more absolute this rule. In inexpensive family-style restaurants, the rice sometimes reaches the table in a large bowl for distribution into individual small bowls by the diners. In American-Chinese restaurants, large parties are often served rice this way - with rice for the group in a large family-style bowl - especially if diners seem likely to use forks and plates rather than small bowls and chopsticks.”

Rappahannock Oyster Company co-owner Travis Croxton, who just returned from a marketing trip to China, conducted some research for me while overseas. He asked numerous people - his interpreter, restaurant and hotel employees and other professionals - about how rice is served in Chinese restaurants. Croxton found a similar split between low and high-end restaurants.

“In Shanghai and Guangzhou we were told [the] same thing,” Croxton wrote via Facebook. “Only served in individual bowls at 5 star restaurants. All other restaurants and at home they are served family-style.”

Finally, I put the question to Lee, Peter Chang's business partner. Lee said the main reason restaurants in China serve rice in individual bowls is because they charge customers for the grains. It's easier to tally up the bill when the rice is served in individual bowls.

“They ask how many bowls you want,” Lee told me. “We give rice for free. That's the difference.”

Washington Post

* Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draught horse.