Personalities

Kathy Fang, SF’s Dynamic Restaurant Scion

By Anh-Minh Le

Kathy wears a smocked-bodice dress by Nicholas, featuring the Los Angeles-based label’s signature bold color palette. (Cody Pickens)

Restaurant scion Kathy Fang brings fresh ideas to the table with her twists on traditional Chinese food.

A hot platter with a heap of rice surmounted by shrimps and veggies lands on the table. The server pours a scallion-studded egg mixture from a pitcher, forming a moat around the rice. As the steam and sizzle cause heads to turn, the various components on the plate are hashed together with two spoons, resulting in fried rice made on the spot.

Kathy Fang’s riff on bibimbap — a Korean rice dish involving a heated stone bowl — is among the specialties at Fang, the Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood that she opened a decade ago with her parents, Peter and Lily. The couple are fixtures on the local dining scene, having started House of Nanking in 1988. The Chinatown institution is as famous for its long lines and charmingly brusque service as it is for its toothsome sesame chicken.

Kathy has emerged as a culinary star in her own right, appearing on Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games, Cutthroat Kitchen and Chopped. (After winning the latter in 2016, she donated the $10,000 prize to the nonprofit San Francisco City Impact.) Her entrepreneurial ambitions extend beyond restaurants, too: Earlier this year, she launched Bon Petit, a line of organic baby food.

When it comes to the family businesses, describing the Fangs as hands-on is an understatement. While Lily remains focused on House of Nanking, Fang occupies most of Peter and Kathy’s days. “All of the dishes and recipes at Fang are created by me and my dad,” says Kathy, who also oversees private dining and catering at the expansive venue. Peter credits her with advancing those aspects of the enterprise, as well as online orders and delivery.

On a recent weekday, father and daughter bustle in and out of the Fang dining room —taking orders, bringing dishes to tables, clearing plates. As the lunch rush gets underway, he greets a group of four diners, one of whom was here two nights before. Rather than peruse the menu, he relinquished control and entrusted Peter to select for him. Today, he and his companions opt to do the same.

This approach to ordering dates back to House of Nanking’s beginnings: It was the quickest way to get food in front of guests a the tiny eatery, which was equipped with a single burner. The seating and cooking capacity have since increased, yet it’s still the way many choose to eat there. And the practice has carried over to Fang. (The sesame chicken is another overlap. Kathy swears that for some reason — maybe it’s the fryer dedicated to the dish at House of Nanking? — it just tastes better at the original outpost.)

Kathy was 7 years old when House of Nanking debuted; it was a means for Peter and Lily to share the gastronomy of their native Shanghai. “All the restaurants in San Francisco were cooking Hunan cuisine,” he recalls,“ and I wanted to bring something different to the restaurant scene — show Americans there’s more to Chinese cuisine.”

Growing up, Kathy, an only child, remembers spending more time at House of Nanking than at home. Since there weren’t a lot of toys at the restaurant, her initial epicurean interests were born of boredom. “I went from helping them dry off plates to peeling eggs,” she says. Soon, she was whipping up sauces.

Kathy, in a red Nicholas dress and Manolo Blahnik heels, poses in Fang’s private dining room. (Cody Pickens)

Along with a burgeoning avocation for cooking, Kathy had a curiosity about food and a knack for parsing flavors and ingredients. “She would eat something and give me feedback on what she was tasting,” Peter recounts. “She also asked questions about the food we ate: Why do they do this? How do they cook that?”

Plus, she was a fearless eater. “She never said no to trying new food and always said, ‘I’ll try first and see if I like it,’” he continues. “That’s a chef’s mind —you always try, taste, smell before you decide how you feel about something. … My sister would tell me how Kathy would drink turtle soup with her and fish head stew. All of this amazed me and helped confirm that she had a future in the food industry.”

Her career path included slight detours, however. Upon graduating from high school, Kathy aspired to be a doctor. At the University of Southern California, realizing that medicine wasn’t her calling, she switched to studying business. A couple of gigs in the corporate world persuaded her to pivot again. She ultimately came full circle — back to cooking and back to her hometown.

Peter was elated. “I had a hard time with her being away at college. I had a lot of sleepless nights during those four years, always wondering if she was OK,” he says. “I was happy to have her move back to our home and work with us. I always thought about what would happen to House of Nanking if my daughter didn’t want to help take over. … I want it to continue on for generations and generations.”

About a year after Kathy’s return, the wheels were in motion for Fang. While the building it’s housed in — formerly an office space — was readying for its new life as a restaurant, she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Los Angeles, thereby complementing her on-the-job experience with formal training.

On her first birthday, Ava (flanked by her parents and grandparents) enjoyed dinner at Restaurant Gary Danko.

Although Kathy is known for her Chinese cooking, at home she favors Italian. Her affinity for the cuisine was sparked by an Italian friend whose relatives welcomed Kathy into their kitchens. “I can cook like an Italian grandma,”she jokes. For the Fangs’ next restaurant, she envisions a convergence of Chinese and Italian influences. But that’s at least a few years away. Right now, there are other priorities: She and husband Caleb Sima, a VP at Databricks, are expecting their second child in March, joining 2-year-old Ava.

It was Kathy’s desire to feed her daughter freshly made baby food that led to the founding of Bon Petit. Kathy prepares the nutrient- and flavor-packed fare and then freeze-dries it, yielding a concentrated powder. The powder is sealed into packets that are shipped to customers. Once rehydrated, the powders morph into repasts like chicken congee and cauliflower pommes puree.

Whether she’s tweaking the menu at Fang, developing morsels for Bon Petit or dining out around town (Ju-Ni, Hinata, Cotogna and Kokkari are some of her haunts), food is a constant source of joy and creativity for Kathy. “I get excited when I come up with something new or I try a new dish that inspires me to make something different,” she says. “When I enjoy a meal that’s incredible, it becomes an experience that is ingrained in my brain. I feel happy, blessed and content from eating amazing food. I want to be able to do the same for others when they come to eat our food at Fang.”

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