When Mr. Schoenfeld was a child, he developed a taste for Chinese cuisine.
The first time he visited the Great Shanghai on Broadway and 102nd Street, he was probably 11 or 12 years old, he recalled to Serious Eats in 2018. First spring roll! I can still remember it! ” Thinner and more delicate than an egg roll.”
In his teens, he ate at Shun Lee Dynasty every week and began a gruelling self-study programme. As a student of Grace Chu, whose cooking lessons and cookbooks introduced generations of New Yorkers to the intricacies of Chinese cuisine, he organised banquets with the best Chinese chefs in New York City as postgraduate work, so to speak.
Mr. Schoenfeld told the website egullet.com in 2001 that he would return frequently to a chef he felt exceptionally talented, expecting that he would go deeper into his repertoire and display his expertise and art. Lucky for him, Uncle Lou, the chef of Mr. Keh’s Szechuan Taste, one of New York’s earliest Szechuan restaurants, was there to guide him.
“The standards and flavours that I encountered provided me an unmatched education,” Mr. Schoenfeld said of his time as a sous chef. “Uncle Lou never specifically demonstrated how to prepare a certain dish. Instead, he stood back and watched, as if we were both teachers and students. The way I learned was by studying what others were doing and then putting what I had learned into practise.”
He studied briefly at New York University before dropping out and working as a cab driver to pay for Chinese banquets. “Gravy Stains,” his food and restaurant review column for the Brooklyn Heights Press, was something he did on the side. His order of a carps-head soup at Szechuan Taste one night attracted the attention of the restaurant’s owner, Mr. Keh. Uncle Tai’s was one of New York’s first Hunan restaurants and Mr. Keh employed Mr. Schoenfeld as his assistant in 1973.
According to him, “I was a hippie and he put me in the tackiest blue tuxedo with a large frilly blouse and a bow tie.” Before I had ever worked in a restaurant, I found myself at the front door of what was basically the country’s most popular Chinese eatery.
After a two-year rollercoaster ride, Mr. Schoenfeld was killed in a scuffle in the restaurant’s kitchen between rival factions.