This Chef Has Dedicated His Life to Perfecting Hainan Chicken and Rice
Johnny Lee has dedicated the last six years of his life to perfecting Hainan-style chicken and rice and will stop at nothing until the world knows what constitutes a proper version of it.
All photos by Javier Cabral
The milky, aromatic steam that wafts from Hainan-style chicken and rice—redolent of chicken fat, ginger, and sharp alliums—is an intoxicating one.
On a nippy Thursday afternoon, it has attracted a small crowd to huddle around Johnny Lee around his makeshift canopy in the middle of LA's Chinatown. He has been eating this dish his entire life and has spent the last five years perfecting it, and he will stop at nothing until the world knows what constitutes a proper version of Hainan-style chicken and rice.
"I've developed a sixth sense when it comes to it," Lee says. "I know when the chicken and rice is done just by looking at it. It's kind of weird, but I just want to keep on perfecting this dish." The young chef tells me this as he scoops an eyeballed pile of jasmine rice cooked in luscious chicken stock, tops it with a handful of dark and white meat that is still has a blush of pink on the inside, quick-pickled cucumber slices, a chunky and pungent ginger-scallion sauce, and finally an egg fried in an ungodly amount of thick chicken fat.
He then places the generous plate into a tabletop steam-oven for a couple of minutes. "It bring the chicken's flavors out again after it has been sitting," he says as he opens the oven to show me the result, which is drenched with chicken juice perspiration. The resulting plates disappear in front his customers in five minutes or less. "You don't have to settle for mediocre versions of chicken and rice—it doesn't have to be that way. When I saw a terrible iteration of it become the standard, I started to get annoyed, so I did something about it."
He has no reservations about calling out that place by name: Savoy Kitchen in Los Angeles's San Gabriel Valley, a restaurant where people sometimes line up for an hour or more for chicken and rice that some have called one of the best versions in America. "This happens by default because there are no other versions," he says. "It is a very simple dish but there are a lot of components to it. It is kind of like sushi in the way that every component has to be carefully considered."
He also uses whole chickens—head on and feet on—because the stock that it produces 'is much more complex,' according to Lee.
The final dish is definitely as easy to eat as sushi, too. I gulp mine in a matter of minutes and am even tempted to go back for another bowl. The medium-rare chicken breast is among the tenderest I have ever had; I suspect that is because of Lee's sixth sense. He says that most restaurants will "boil the chicken to death," because Asian restaurants here have many things on the menu to cater for everybody. "I've been eating pink chicken my entire life," Lee responds when I ask him about the under-doneness of his chicken. "I've never gotten sick."
No one else seems to mind the pinkness-for-tenderness tradeoff, either.
Louise Yang, a resident of the San Gabriel Valley who has been writing about its vast regional Chinese food scene for ten years on her blog, agrees with Lee's sentiment about Savoy. "Johnny's is as good, but without the lines, and you don't feel disgusting and greasy after downing all the chicken fat rice." A Chinese-American herself, she grew up going to Savoy whenever she craved it. Nonetheless, on this night, she took the LA Metro from her suburban neighborhood located 14 miles away just to eat Lee's chicken and rice for dinner.
The dish is not a very common one in the Chinese food diaspora, but there is a version of it in every Asian country. "Everybody cooks it. For Asians, it is our roast chicken, except with gelatinous skin," Lee says. The minimalist dish originated in Hainan, an island in the South China Sea, but Lee made it his own by borrowing from Singapore's style of cooking the rice like a pilaf with chicken fat, garlic, ginger, and stock.
He sources his large-breasted specimens from live poultry shops in Chinatown and goes through about 60 pounds per service. "I've developed my own way of cooking chicken and rice that integrates Western and Asian techniques—whatever makes the most sense to bring out the most flavor of the ingredients used in chicken and rice." He also uses whole chickens—head on and feet on—because the stock that it produces "is much more complex," according to Lee. "The chicken fat should be bright yellow and not gray—that is when you know that the chickens were naturally raised."
On the rare occasion that he doesn't sell out, Lee forces himself to eat chicken and rice for days straight. "I try to not have leftovers, as I hate wasting food," he says humbly.
Lee is using this monthly pop-up at Chinatown's After Dark series to get him ready to open up his first brick-and-mortar restaurant in the San Gabriel neighborhood of Arcadia. He's also responsible for Thai version of the dish at Sticky Rice in Grand Central Market.
Lee has embraced his obsession. "This is my craft," he says.
This story was originally published in March, 2016 .
Update: Chef Johnny Lee has opened a brick and mortar Hainan chicken restaurant in Arcadia, California. For more information, check out Side Chick's Facebook page.