Hospitality is in James Yu's DNA: His parents and grandparents were restaurant owners. Even after Yu took the reins at his family's Berkeley, Calif., mainstay Great China, his father still "just wanted to work at the restaurant—literally take people's orders and sometimes hop in the kitchen and start working. Even up until he could hardly walk, he would want to come into the restaurant and hang out," says Yu, 38.
Yu inherited this pride and extended his philosophy of making Great China a friendly and inviting place to the restaurant's wine program: By 2012, it was a standout among restaurants in the Bay Area, with about 350 selections, a reputation for extremely fair prices ("We want the wines to be around retail plus corkage," is the pricing strategy), a fan base drawn from the area's industry insiders and a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence.
But that year, a flue fire ripped through the restaurant, and all the work Yu had put into the restaurant and wine cellar was gone in a flash.
The damage was extensive, but the Yu family was intent on rebuilding, with Yu's architect brother, Tai, planning the restaurant's new digs. In December 2013, nearly two years after the fire, a sleek new Great China reopened just a few blocks away from its original location.
Almost four years later, business is booming for Great China. Editorial assistant Lexi Williams recently spoke with Yu about what he learned from his father, how he rebuilt his wine program to be better than ever, and why there's more to wine and Chinese food pairings than just Riesling.
Wine Spectator: How did you rebuild your wine program after having to start over from scratch?
James Yu: When we reopened … all the money we made, we just kept throwing [it] back into the wine cellar. That was my goal at the beginning, to have another wine list like we had before—if not better—and I think we have definitely gotten better at this point. On any given night at the restaurant, you'll see chefs and somms from three–Michelin star restaurants that are coming to buy wine off our list as well as bring their own wine and share it with us. We've kind of caught fire in the industry. That was something I really wanted to foster, because everyone knows [that] industry people love eating Chinese food after they get off work.
WS: Until quite recently, you didn't often see Chinese restaurants with serious wine lists. Why did you want to go this route?
JY: It started off out of a passion for wine, and as I learned more, I realized it made the experience more special. I guess I'm an old-school romantic when it comes to food, so I want a nice bottle of wine to go with it.
Yeah, there are very few Chinese restaurants that have wine lists. But now more than ever, China is drinking so much wine, and Chinese-Americans are too. I never really reflected on that until recently when I realized that a lot of our Chinese guests were drinking—and some nice bottles! It's not uncommon for me to go on the floor and see first-growths or a bottle of Rousseau being popped.
WS: How do you go about pairing wine with your cuisine?
JY: When I started, the common conception was that if you were going to pair Chinese food, you're going to be drinking Riesling or Gewürztraminer. So when we selected wines in the old days, the reps loved us, because when they came in, I was like, "Look, we're kind of in uncharted territory right now, there's not really a book written on this." I would tell them to bring a large amount of samples. I would then cook an eight-course meal for almost every tasting, and we would drink and eat and see what worked. It took a lot of years of experimentation. The standard building blocks of pairing wine and food [still] work, but there are also those surprises.
With Szechuan spices—like cumin, five spice, jalapeños, serranos and red peppers—oak is not your friend at all. It doesn't matter if you want to pair a Burgundy with lamb; if there's any amount of oak in it, it's not friendly to it.
With our pork belly, it's best with a white wine, even though it's a darker sauce, and with someone coming from a background in French cuisine, you might see them reaching for wines that you would pair with a beef Bourguignon or something like that. But that doesn't really work with the pork belly in our experience. All the rules are meant to be broken, so it's hard for me to set any.
WS: Are there any lessons in particular that you learned from working with your father?
JY: When we were growing up, we didn't have a lot of money; my dad was an immigrant. I would go to the market with my dad and he would teach me how to shop for fruit and vegetables and meat and seafood. So when I started the wine list, I asked my dad how much I should mark up the wine. He always told me, "Don't get greedy."
I think it came down from the immigrant mentality. I'm always value-minded, and I buy the wines like that too. I buy top-notch wines, but I'm not going to overpay for them, and I pass all the savings I get to my customers.
Also, I feel like some restaurants foster a hate for people bringing in their own wine because they have their own wine program and they're like, "Let's make the corkage fee really high so they have to buy our wine." I love when people bring in wine, because I like to see what people want to drink, especially if they bring in cool wine. I love it.