Jeff Stoneberger, a thirty-something chef trained at the renowned Culinary Institute of America, sees himself as the culinary version of Richard Nixon. Working in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, he named his recently launched and quickly popular pop-up ramen stand, “2Nixons,” both as an homage to the 37th president of the United States’ historic opening to China and as way of claiming for himself a bit of gastronomic history.
If this makes any sense to you at this point, you are far more perceptive than I was when I first heard about “2Nixons” a few days ago. My wife, daughter and I spent Christmas in Charleston with my son, Bobby, and his wife, Ivy. Among the many fun activities they planned for us during our visit was dinner at a small microbrewery that was for one night hosting the “2Nixons” ramen stand.
My children have long known that anything Nixon is sure to pique my interest, and this was certainly no exception. Why, I wondered, would a young chef name his pop-up ramen stand, the 2Nixons? So although I am not a big fan of ramen, I was looking forward to this meal, not as much for the food as for the opportunity to talk to the chef himself about his curious choice of a name for his venture.
We arrived at the microbrewery early in the dinner hour, because we had read that when the day’s supplies were exhausted, the ramen stand closed up for the evening and we didn’t want to miss out. As we pulled up to the place, it was already rapidly filling with people looking forward to enjoying a bowl of Chef Stoneberger’s latest creation.
Fortunately, for me, dinner was self-service – you ordered your ramen at the bar and then waited where the chef was preparing the meal in his field kitchen outside the building. While waiting for my order, I took advantage of the chance to introduce myself and ask him why he named his ramen stand “2Nixons.” His explanation both surprised and delighted me.
He recounted for me that he was captivated by the boldness President Nixon showed in his historic visit to the People’s Republic of China and how that visit changed America’s thinking about what we had long considered to be Chinese food. He spoke with passion about the famous photograph of the President eating authentic Chinese cuisine with chopsticks in the Great Hall of the People, and how that image – and the accounts of what was on the menu – would lead to a revolution in how Americans perceived, and enjoyed, Chinese food.
I must admit, I found his story both fascinating and amazing. Fascinating in that I had never before considered how President Nixon’s trip led to a redefinition of how Americans viewed Chinese food, which prior to 1972 was mostly limited to Choy Suey, Chow Mein, and Egg Foo Yung – dishes developed outside China by Chinese immigrants. And amazing that a young chef, who wasn’t even alive when the President made his historic trip, found inspiration for his own cooking in that iconic image of Nixon with chopsticks.
His explanation made sense to me, but still, I wondered, why two Nixons? He was quick to explain. Stoneberger sees himself as another Nixon, breaking new ground in how Asian food is presented to American diners just as President Nixon broke new ground with his opening to China.
Stoneberger went on to tell me he had grown tired of preparing “white guys” versions of Asian food, and wanted to take Asian cuisine to the next level. More than four decades later, the boldness of Nixon’s historic visit to China inspired Stoneberger to take a bold, new approach to his cooking.
Because the place was so crowded, I wasn’t able to spend much time talking with Chef Stoneberger, who was busy preparing bowl after bowl of that night’s special, Singapore Chicken Ramen. But as we finished our meal (which was delicious!), the chef stopped by the picnic bench at which we were eating to bus the table and ask if we enjoyed ourselves. I assured him that we did, and that I especially appreciated his tribute to President Nixon’s “week that changed the world.”
And I thought to myself how great it is that more than 40 years later, President Nixon’s statesmanship and vision is still inspiring others to change, in unexpected yet delightful ways, their own corner of the world.