RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
For more appetizing fare we turn now to a celebrated eatery with a long history in central California. Nestled among the pastures and cotton fields of the San Joaquin Valley, the Imperial Dynasty hosted European monarchs, dignitaries and gourmands from around the world.
The business was run by the same family for 123 years but now, owner and chef, 84-year-old Richard Wing has decided to retire and close the restaurant. Sasha Khokha of member station KQED reports.
Ms. SASHA KHOKHA (Reporter, KQED): Richard Wing's grandfather opened up shop in the tiny city of Hanford's Chinatown in 1883, selling bowls of steaming noodles for five cents. Richard Wing began cooking when he was six years old peeling onions, washing bean sprouts and shelling shrimp.
Mr. RICHARD WING (Chef, Owner, Imperial Dynasty Restaurant): If I ever use a utensil that I can talk to it's the wok. There's a certain tune, a certain rhythm. If my not in tune with my cooking I really get tired fast.
Ms. KHOKHA: Wing left Hanford during World War II to join the Army and in 1945 he caught the attention of General George C. Marshall. The general asked Wing to come with him to China as his personal chef.
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Unidentified Speaker: General Marshall, United States ambassador arrived in Nan king to lend his efforts to the mediation of China's domestic strife.
Mr. WING: It was like a fantastic dream for me. Imagine for a humble Chinese cook to be offered this wonderful privilege to be assigned to the great five-star general.
Ms. KHOKHA: That assignment also included being a food taster. General Marshall was allergic to shellfish and strawberries. Wing tasted food from kitchens in Europe and Asia where he carefully watched chefs and compiled his own recipes. During his service to Marshall, Wing also cooked for Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. When he returned to Hanford in 1958, Wing's mission now was to bring fine dining to California's rural San Joaquin Valley. He transformed his grandfather's noodle house into a five-star restaurant decorating it with intricate jade carvings and tasseled Chinese lanterns. But the Imperial Dynasty was not a Chinese restaurant.
Mr. WING: But yet it's more French cooking than Chinese, but yeah, there's sometimes there's a little Russian accent to it and there's some Italian, maybe some kind of German or some kind of Swiss. So I, I went through all those places and I own the kitchen so I incorporate all these thing in there.
Ms. KHOKHA: Wing's menu boasted Cornish game hen and poached salmon with egg fu yung as the only obvious Chinese dish. Soon the Imperial Dynasty attracted diners from all over the world to this cow town. A group of wealthy New York businessmen used to fly in once a month just for the escargot, a recipe Wing took years to perfect.
Mr. WING: I use some garlic salt and salt each individual shell and put on the sheet pan and then I toast it in the oven. Nobody do a thing like this.
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Ms. KHOKHA: In the restaurant's final months, locals--mostly wealthy farmers, came back three and four times a week just for those buttery snails and to order their drinks from Richard's wife Mary. She was Miss Hong Kong, 1964 and is glad to show off pictures of her younger, slimmer days. She's famous for the way she recites the beer list.
Ms. MARY WING: How 'bout you? You want drink?
Unidentified Speaker: Sure.
Ms. WING: Beer: Coors, Heineken, Sapporo, (unintelligible), Coors Light, Bud Light, Michelob Ultra. That's it.
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Ms. KHOKHA: But it's the wine that's famous here. The cellar in the basement holds 70,000 bottles, some from the 1920's. This wine and Richard Wing's menu won him scores of international awards but his kidney and knee problems have kept him out of the kitchen for the last year. He says he's tired and a fourth generation of Wings doesn't want to take over the restaurant business.
The Imperial Dynasty which anchored Hanford's fading Chinatown has closed it doors. Now foodies will have to visit the Taoist temple and museum next door to see the huge bamboo poles Grandfather Wing used to flatten noodles. For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha.
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MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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