Profile: Retired Professor Phebe Chao
Phebe Chao is a very good cook. A few years ago, just a stone’s throw away from the Pacific Ocean on a quiet residential street in Santa Monica, Phebe’s son Stephen bought three pairs of classic California bungalows with a garden courtyard in the middle. He closed off the street view by connecting the two front houses, rearranged the layout by knocking out a few walls, and created a cozy, private U-shaped compound with spacious common areas for family gatherings and smaller rooms for relaxation.
Here is where Phebe—a retired Harvard and Bennington College professor of English and film studies—and her husband Roger spend five months every winter to escape the grim weather in Strafford, New Hampshire, where they live on an old farm the rest of the year.
Phebe was born in Shanghai, China, an only child of a diplomat father and stay-at-home mother. Growing up, she didn’t know much about food or how it’s made. “There had always been lots of help in our house,” Phebe says in her dining room one recent Friday afternoon, snacking on a Sumo orange. “Back then, well-bred girls didn’t go to the kitchen. My mother, as a child and later as a wife, had never learned to cook, either.”
Things changed a few years later, when she and her parents moved to the United States. “I eloped at 17,” remembers Phebe, who until then barely knew how to boil water. “My auntie Rhoda took pity on me and came to my apartment to teach me a Chinese dish or two and a few principal types of cooking, like ‘red cooking,’ which is the Chinese version of braising.” She improved her kitchen skills and continued practicing with recipes from The Joy of Cooking and Julia Child’s cookbooks. “Her roast leg of lamb is one of my favorites,” adds Phebe.
Hometown Shanghai, China — Where do you live? Strafford, New Hamphire and Santa Monica, California — Occupation Retired — Signature dish I don't know that I have one — Who taught you how to cook? My auntie Rhoda — Favorite kitchen tool I'd have to say a very sharp knife – particularly necessary for Chinese cooking. I always liked my Sabatier, the old carbon steel ones; I like my hand-made knives from Japan that I bought in Kyoto, but they take a lot of upkeep. Recently, I've bought cheap Thai-made knives from Chinese grocery stores that are very sharp to begin with, not very thick stainless steel, a little bendable, probably won't last too long. I figure I can afford to buy another one. I wish there were good artisanal old-fashioned knife sharpeners around; the machines are OK, but they don't replace people. — Always in your pantry Ginger. As well as sea salt, sugar, flour, cornstarch, soy sauce (old/dark and new/light), canola oil, olive oil, cooking wine, vinegar (wine, balsamic, rice). — Go-to snack Fruit (fresh and dried) and nuts. If by some chance there's junk food around (not likely), I indulge. — Favorite cuisine Asian, Italian, Middle Eastern — Do you diet? The few times I've tried to diet, I hated it. So, no, I don't diet. I lost a lot of weight in the past few years because of a series of illnesses. — Food addictions Maybe when I was a child. At 10, when I arrived in the US, I missed Chinese food. So I guess at 10, I was addicted to my native cuisine. — Food allergies I've been off-and-on allergic to seafood, but that hasn't stopped me from going right back to it as soon as the rash/hives disappear. — Food fad pet peeve I dislike food fads; for example, I'm tired of seeing kale on every menu in every restaurant. — Who’s your sous chef? My husband, most regularly. My adopted son, my daughter-in-law, and occassionally Bruce and Stephen, two of my sons. — Drinking while cooking? Why not. I have a glass of wine sometimes, because I've pretty much stopped drinking. I guess one could call that "dieting." Alcohol turns to sugar, which soon turns to fat. — What’s for dinner tonight? I've cooked less than I used to. We eat lightly at supper. I don't know ahead of time. Often soup and salad. — Do you ever cry over spilled milk? I'm too old to cry over spilled milk. — Best meal you ever had Hard to say. We try to eat well every day. I firmly believe that in order to be a good cook, you have to know good food. You have to try every kind of cuisine, discover delicious foods that's not your tried and true. You need to test your palate against what you're not familiar with. I cook a lot of Western meals – probably at least 65% of the time, sometimes trying to copy what I liked in a restaurant, sometimes looking at new recipes in magazines and books that read as if they'd be really tasty.
Chinese Beef-Carrot Stew With Star Anise
This dish probably originated in Shanghai’s French Concession, a fashionable, posh neighborhood that existed from 1849 to 1943. Not unlike bœuf bourguignon, the meat is first browned and then braised for couple of hours in red wine and soy sauce. Star anise—a spice that has a cool, licorice taste and is widely used in Chinese cooking—is at the heart of this laid-back yet utterly vivid stew.
Phebe makes this Chinese red-cooked dish on special occasions and is always asked for the recipe. “The quality of the beef is very important,” she says. “The meaty part has to be nicely marbled with fat. I found that an under blade cut of chuck works well. Depending on what sirloin tips look like, they can be good too. Steaks might be too lean.”
- Serves 6–8
- ¼ cup canola oil
- 1 tablespoon ginger, peeled, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
- 3 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- ¼ cup red wine
- 2/3 cup soy sauce
- 2 whole star anise
- 6 large carrots, cut diagonally into ½-inch slices
- Heat the oil in a large pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the ginger and garlic, and sauté until the garlic is about to change color, about 2 minutes.
- Add the beef and brown on all sides. Sprinkle the sugar over the meat, and add the red wine and soy sauce. Wrap the star anise in a piece of cheesecloth, tie it up with kitchen twine, and add to the pan. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 1½ hours, then add the carrots and cook for an additional 45 minutes. Discard the star anise and serve with rice.
You can add another ½ cup of wine if the beef seems too dry.