It was a snow day during the spring break when I walked into the Great Wall Restaurant. In this blizzard weather, it was the only restaurant that remained open on Whitney Avenue.
The restaurant has a long history. Its owners, Peter and Michelle Guo, have been running the restaurant since 2007. And before that, a primitive version of the restaurant had existed in the back of the Hong Kong Grocery (next door to the restaurant), which Peter and Michelle launched in 1992.
It was already 2 p.m., but despite the blizzard, there were still a few customers, some speaking in Chinese, others talking in English. I sat down and ordered a bowl of beef noodles. It was just like the taste of noodles I had back in China, splendid.
When most customers were gone by 3 p.m., the chefs and other workers had lunch at the back of the restaurant, while Peter and Michelle greeted me. Having stayed in the US for more than 30 years, they have witnessed the change of the Chinese community in New Haven.
“Things have changed a lot in the past 30 years,” Peter Guo said. “Chinese students 20 years ago thought that a 70-cent white rice [bowl] was too expensive, but now a $20 meal is acceptable to them”. He also said that the new generation of Chinese students and scholars that are coming to New Haven are more engaged with other students, bringing all their non-Chinese friends to visit the Great Wall Restaurant.
Guo takes great pride in his own cooking. He said that he became interested in cooking as a child when he saw chefs preparing a meal at a wedding in his hometown in the Fujian province. He was curious about how the food was made and why particular foods or sauces had specific tastes.
His family ran a seafood business, so he was able to engage with the local restaurants and learn the different ways they prepared the seafood. When he came to the U.S., he first worked as an apprentice in a Chinese restaurant cutting vegetables. But because of his hard work and his experience with food, Peter was soon promoted to apprentice chef and learned how to cook in a professional kitchen. After a few years, he started his first Chinese restaurant in Middletown and moved to New Haven in the 1990s.
He chose to serve mainly Guangdong and Sichuan food at the Great Wall Restaurant, featuring the family-style Chinese dim sum (Guangdong) or hot pot (Sichuan). Guo believes that most of his customers will come back again and they will remember the taste of his dishes for a lifetime.
When I asked whether he will modify the taste of the dishes to suit the taste of most Americans, Guo said, “We are not like those American Chinese restaurants. We provide the most authentic Chinese taste to our customers, and they will love it because it is delicious, and their taste will suit the taste of our dishes, not the other way around.”
Guo said he seldom leaves the kitchen during dining hours, leaving most of the other work to Michelle, because of his dedication and pride in his cooking. “
“If I hear complaints from my customer, I would be so upset that I can’t fall asleep at night”, he said. “Luckily most of my favorite dishes received wide acclaim from my customers.” He compares himself with the craftsmen in China who take pride in preserving ancient Chinese art and whose motivation is solely on people’s enjoyment of their work.
“This may not be a good thing,” said Michelle Guo, “His heart carries too much burden and he devoted too much to making and preserving authentic Chinese cuisine. It hinders the development of the restaurant.”
The couple once had the thought of buying the entire section of Whitney Avenue and turning it into New Haven’s Chinatown, but it was too much work for them, as they didn’t have enough chefs at the time to take care of the restaurant, and Peter was determined to provide the best Chinese cuisine. Now, land prices have risen and they have lost the opportunity. But Peter believes that there will be one day when New Haven will have its own Chinatown.
“It takes more than one person’s effort, but the Chinese community is growing and people are more interested in Chinese culture, so I believe there will definitely be a Chinatown in New Haven in the future,” Guo said. “For me, the priority is to serve the best authentic Chinese food, and I am proud of that.”
And it seems that Peter’s determination to bring Chinese cuisine to New Haven has greatly influenced the New Haven community. Tony Wong ’20, from Hong Kong, said that although the dim sum is a bit salty and not perfect, it still preserves the authentic taste of dim sum and brings the taste to New Haven.
Leslie Stone, the director of education at the Yale-China Association, praised the Great Wall Restaurant as “one of the anchors of ‘Chinatown’ in New Haven,” and said that “Yale-China often relies on the Great Wall’s catering services to pull off its own community events in education, health and the arts.”
Hana Omiya, program officer at Yale-China, thinks that Chinese restaurants like the Great Wall are a fantastic introduction for Americans to what Chinese culture can entail. “It begins with the flavor, the ingredients they use like rice, noodles, eggs and tomatoes, and the interesting combinations of meat and vegetables that create a whole new palette of flavor and cultural pleasure,” she said.
But like all great craftsmen, Peter seemed to be humbled by all these praises. “I am just providing an authentic taste of Chinese food and a venue for people to gather and talk, and enjoy authentic Chinese food,” he said. He thinks that Great Wall Restaurant and Hong Kong Market bring Chinese people together because there is a common language within the Chinese community, and food is the easiest way to bring people together. “The family-style hot pot and dim sum are traditional ways for Chinese families to get together and share delicious food, and I am just trying my best to bring it to New Haven,” Peter said.
Such a spirit of craftsmanship has been prominent and greatly valued in the past. Between the years A.D. 595 and A.D. 605 during the Sui dynasty of China, craftsman Li Chun spent 10 years building a single bridge — the Anji Bridge, which still stands on the Xiao River today after 1,400 years.
But the craftsman’s spirit, the hallmark of one who is devoted to making things with perfection, precision, concentration, patience and persistence, remains in Peter and his cooking.