Take a staple of the Chinese-American menu, amp up the flavors and play around with the multicultural possibilities and you have the blueprint for many dishes at Red’s Chinese. Labeling a dish with an East-meets-South moniker fits the irreverent mode at this new Bywater restaurant too.
But in the case of “General Lee’s Chicken,” considering the issues roiling the South since the massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, you have a problem.
That’s why this week, Red’s Chinese changed the name of what had quickly become one the signature dishes at the new Bywater eatery. “General Lee’s Chicken” is now simply “General’s Chicken.”
“The joke had worn itself thin,” said Tobias Womack, the chef and co-owner of Red’s Chinese, which he opened on St. Claude Avenue in November. “We had been thinking about (changing the name) since what happened at AME, and when we had a customer bring it up to us this week we decided it was time to change it.”
That customer was the writer Lolis Eric Elie, the former Times-Picayune columnist and writer for HBO’s “Treme.” He lives in Los Angeles now but returns home to New Orleans frequently, and on his most recent visit this week a friend had brought him a take-out order of the chicken. When he later saw its name on the menu, he felt compelled to ask management if it was intended to honor the Confederate general.
The recipe remains the same, which is good news. The dish is based on General Tso’s chicken, the sauce-soaked, boneless fried chicken known from Chinese take-out menus across the land. Womack’s version uses bone-in fried chicken, a nod to the fried chicken plates of the South, with a bourbon soy sauce, smoked peanuts and lots of hot chiles. It was a personal favorite when I reviewed Red’s Chinese earlier this year.
As the dish mixes flavors, its former name combined that of Confederate military leader Robert E. Lee with a common surname across a broad swath of Asia, thus General Lee’s chicken.
You can say this might have been fraught from the start. But in the city where our own mayor recently acknowledged that he traversed Lee Circle for most of his life without noting its potential to offend, you have to cut these young restaurateurs some slack if they didn’t make the connection too.
And, of course, context is everything. The eye-opening discourse since Charleston has thrown many symbols into new light, even what might have previously seemed a harmless pun printed on a menu.
Changing the name of a dish that no one had heard of before Red’s Chinese opened late last year is not exactly the same as hauling down monuments and landmarks. But that’s not the point.
It’s about making all of your patrons feel welcome and at ease, eliminating factors that might detract from that goal and acknowledging mistakes so they don’t detract from diners having a pleasurable experience at the table. That’s called hospitality and in the restaurant world that’s crucial. For Red’s Chinese, this was a smart move.
For his part, Elie said he liked the cooking at Red’s Chinese, was heartened by the owners’ quick response to his inquiry and would gladly return.
“I’m happy to be that little bit of catalyst,” he said.
3048 St. Claude Ave., (504) 304-6030
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.