The wok and the pot.
Back in the day, the late 1960’s/early 70’s, living in Newton, Massachusetts, an urban suburb of Boston, we discovered the Joyce Chen Restaurant in Cambridge. We came in 1968 from Roanoke VA, where nearly everything new and good was “over the mountain” from us. Cambridge was a revelation! Everything was new and different and good, from Design Research to good Chinese food.
We went to Joyce Chen on celebratory occasions, often with a like minded group, as the restaurant had big round tables with a lazy susan in the middle. Joyce Chen had a cooking show in WGBH, the Boston PBS station where Julia Child honed her TV chops.
Joyce Chen’s restaurant was on the second floor of a three story wooden building in Cambridge near Central Square, a neighborhood less toney than Harvard Square; a place where new restaurants got their start. Legal Seafood started there at about the same time; another venue celebrating good food that has grown and flourished.
Joyce Chen was content with her single location, but soon enough, she opened a store on the street floor where she introduced a line of Chinese cooking utensils. I’m pretty sure I bought my first wok there, a big, steel 14 1/2-inch wok that over the years has become well seasoned. I still use it.
Eventually, her name and influence in the restaurant and design world faded. Joyce Chen died in 1994 and her restaurant closed in 1998.
In 1992 my wife and I moved to San Francisco. I moved three months before her, and in barely equipping a temporary bare bones kitchen, bought a small black aluminum calphalon wok shaped pan, only 8 inches in diameter. When Carol arrived with our furnishings and cookware, it got buried the cupboard.
Recently, I rediscovered it at the bottom of a stack, and used it to warm some soup. Marvelous! Because of its shape and high conductivity, it warmed the soup all at once, rather than starting from the sides and working to the middle. I started using it more and more, but clean up was a burden. So I went looking for a non-stick, small wok. I hit the internet and found that the Wok Shop on Grant Avenue in Chinatown listed 9, 10 and 11 inch non-stick, so I hustled on over there, carrying my little wok for size comparison.
“How do you cook with that, it’s so little?” said the gal in the shop. She pointed to one of the many hanging from the ceiling, “That’s the smallest we have,” she said. I reached up and pulled it down. The wrap around label said: “JOYCE CHEN spun cast iron non-stick wok.” It measured 11-inches. The gal explained that they used to have smaller, but they didn’t sell so they didn’t reorder. Figuring that’s the best I’d be able to do, I bought it.
When I got home and Carol said, “Joyce Chen! We’ve always loved her stuff.” But the test is in the cooking.
I checked around for what we had on hand that would work with the new wok. We always have some shrimp in the freezer, so I whipped up a stir-fry with green vegetables and shrimp with soy sauce and rice wine. That was just a test drive for Sunday dinner, always a casual, quick deal. When I got my act together, I made Madher Jaffrey’s Noodles with Leftover Flank Steak. Yum. Many more wok meals were in store.
Just yesterday, I had two leftover scallops, half a tomato and 4 ounces of fresh fettuccine. I used the JC wok to quickly boil enough water for the fettuccine. In the three minutes it took to cook that, I chopped the tomato and scallops and threw them in the little wok with some olive oil. Toss toss and that’s lunch. As quick as heating a can of soup, and way way better.
THE CLAY POT
Coming home from the hairdresser, Carol often walks up and down Polk Street to see what’s up. On a recent Saturday, she called me. “I’m at Cole Hardware and they’re having a sidewalk sale,” she said, “They have a Joyce Chen, 6 quart clay pot for 14 dollars, shall I buy it? We could give it to Brian.”
“Buy it,” I said, “I want it myself.”
When I got serious about cooking beans a few years ago, I admired the collection of clay pots Steve Sando displayed on his Rancho Gordo website. In a metal pot, I always had trouble getting the simmer just right. I blamed it on my pots. I didn’t have the right size cast iron pot for batch of beans, and the stainless or aluminum saucepans I have had hot spots.
I found out I could get a clay pot at The Spanish Table in Mill Valley. I’ve been cooking my beans in it ever since. I liked it so much that I wanted to use it for braising, but at 2 1/2 quarts, its too small for most dishes. The 6 quart Joyce Chen would be perfect.
Carol brought it home and I washed it. The very next day I cooked Coq au Riesling — a Nigella Lawson dish of chicken braised in Riesling wine — in that pot… EZ and wonderful. A couple days later I cooked Lamb Stew.
I started to think that I could get rid of all my pots and pans and just use the Joyce Chen wok and Joyce Chen clay pot. Of course that’s folly, but I do love them.