What a gas stove ban means for Korean and Chinese cooks in L.A.

Dinner at Park’s BBQ in Koreatown is sure to start with a small fire.

Even before greeting and ordering drinks, your waiter lifts the grid on your grill and turns a knob. There is a faint smell of gas and an unpleasant hissing sound. When the lighter is turned on, the flame begins to dance under the grill.

It’s a meal-starting ritual, repeated at numerous Korean BBQ restaurants around town, setting tables for the arrival of meat, vegetables, and seafood.

Ryan Park, general manager of Park’s BBQ, said: “The gas grill on the table is an important part of our Korean food culture. “It’s connected to the taste of food and the way we cook it.”

All of that could change in 2023 — at least in the new Los Angeles buildings. The LA City Council last week passed a motion to ban most gas-powered appliances in new-build residential and commercial areas in the city, citing efforts to combat climate change.

LA County generally aims to be carbon neutral by 2045.

It is recommended that relevant city agencies prepare an implementation plan for approval by the end of the year.

Councilman Nithya Raman, lead author on the policy, wrote in a statement to The Times: “The passage of this legislation kicks off a multi-stage process before full implementation.

“Ultimately, it is too early to say what the impact of commercial kitchens will be,” the statement added.

A wide range of meats from Parks BBQ

Traditional Korean BBQ relies on a gas grill to grill cuts of beef and pork.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles is the latest city to move toward phasing out gas in new buildings, following similar ordinances passed in more than 50 other California cities and counties, including Oakland, Ojai and Santa Clara. But voices in the restaurant world have sounded the alarm.

“Given the number of restaurants in LA, this will have a huge impact on the future of the restaurant industry and how much variety of cuisines on offer,” said Jot Condie, president of California Restaurant Assn.

Without any specific exceptions being made for restaurants in Los Angeles, many chefs and restaurateurs that rely on gas to cook their food are expressing concern. The move could increase the cost of doing business and push some cooking techniques, and many cooking styles, out of the city’s new development.

Leo and Lydia Lee, owners of RiceBox, a Cantonese BBQ restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, use gas to cook their entire menu, except for the rice. The gas that powers the stove is used to cook dishes in the pan, and the custom oven is used to prepare the restaurant’s signature Char siu Duroc pork, which is grilled on low and slow speed with yeast. sweet honey.

“The pan itself is really essential to Asian cuisine,” says Leo. “By taking away the gas, you’re telling us we can’t use the pan anymore, essentially taking away our identity and our heritage. It forced us to adapt to American culture.”

Without gas, Lee said he “wouldn’t even consider” opening a second RiceBox location in Los Angeles.

‘Fire is very important’

California Restaurant Assn., a lobbying organization for restaurant owners in California, worked to prevent a gas hookup in 2019 in all new residential buildings and most non-residential buildings. reside in Berkeley. In a lawsuit against the city, which is still being sued, the CRA argues that restaurants “rely on gas to cook specific foods, whether that’s charred meats, charred vegetables, or the use of heat. high from the fire under a pan. “

The lawsuit goes on to argue that members of the CRA “would not be able to prepare many of their specialties without natural gas and would lose speed and control over the manner and flavor of their cooking.” Food Processing.”

Owner Leo Lee demonstrates how to make his chile oil at the RiceBox downtown, over a gas-powered fire.

Owner Leo Lee demonstrates how to make his chile oil at the RiceBox downtown, over a gas-powered fire.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“Fire is very important to [chefs] to create their masterpieces,” said Condie of association members. “It’s like asking an artist to throw away all their little brushes and start painting with a roller.”

At Chengdu Taste in Alhambra, one of the city’s most highly-rated Sichuan restaurants, managing partner Sean Xie says everything from fried rice to sautéed eggplant and kung pound chicken is made using the same method. high heat usage on gas powered equipment.

“There is no substitute if you ban gas equipment,” said Xie. “For Chinese cuisine, we use a technique called stir-frying and temperature is key.”

Many dishes at Chengdu Taste require high heat to caramelize and toss the surface of meats, vegetables and seafood; what Xie said can only be achieved by increasing the heat and reaching a certain temperature, quickly.

“Electricity doesn’t reach such a high temperature in such a short period of time, and that has to do with the taste of the food,” he said.

A chef cooks with a pan in the kitchen at Chengdu Taste.

A chef cooks with a pan in the kitchen at Chengdu Taste.

(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Wok hei (“pan’s breath”), the distinct flavor imparted to food when cooked at high heat in a pan, is a hallmark of some dishes. It’s that baked, golden, burnt flavor that creates a bowl of noodles, clams with black bean sauce, string beans and anything else cooked this way, that seductive smoky ingredient.

Historian and cookbook author Grace Young describes wok hei in her 2004 book “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen” as “when a skillet injects energy into a stir-fry, giving the food a unique concentrated flavor and aroma.”

It’s an essential ingredient in several dishes at Bryant Ng’s Cassia in Santa Monica, where 20% of dishes are cooked in a pan or tandoor oven, both of which run on gas.

“With the wok… not only the high heat makes it unique and gives the dish ‘wok hei’, but also the natural combustion of oil and moisture when the food in the pan is sautéed and cooking,” Ng wrote in an email. That is the basis for many (not all) dishes cooked in a pan.”

Although it is difficult to switch to electricity or induction, Ng thinks it is possible.

A chef cooks orchids at Cassia.

A chef cooks orchids at Cassia.

(Silvia Razgova)

Condie is hoping for an exemption for LA restaurants, similar to possible waivers being considered for restaurants in Sacramento that could represent the challenges electrifying the business poses.

“For the most part, I believe most cooking can be done with electric or induction cooking equipment, but getting there will require a lot of retraining, which is not necessarily the case. bad and better for the environment”. write Ng. “But you will have to have the resources to do so…”

Xie estimates that he pays about $500 to $700 a month for gas and about $1,200 for electricity.

Lee says running an all-electric kitchen can double his monthly expenses. There’s also the issue of buying new electrical appliances and having trouble with your existing stoves and ovens, with little chance of reselling them on a secondary market full of other business owners converting to electricity.

“It could be banned for many restaurants,” said Ng. “And will discriminate against POC-owned restaurants.”

But the city seems poised to move forward. “The question,” the council proposal states, “is not whether we will require decarbonization of new buildings – but when.” What a gas stove ban means for Korean and Chinese cooks in L.A.

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