Peter Woo and his family have been striving to change the American perception of Chinese food for more than 30 years. Now at his new post as executive chef of Social House in Crystals at CityCenter, Woo has yet another opportunity to demonstrate the beauty of Asian cuisine.
Social House is a sleek, modern restaurant specializing in pan-Asian cuisine. Ambient electronic beats pump through the air past tables of well-dressed guests sharing plates of food family-style. Refined Filipino dishes mingle on the menu with sushi, sashimi and modern presentations of Chinese dishes. Woo has seen Asian food come a long way in Las Vegas.
Woo himself has been cooking for about 35 years. “Seriously,” he admits, “for around 20.” He was raised in Las Vegas and the restaurant business, clinging to the skirts of his mother, Ming See Woo, whom he considers among his greatest influences. Woo is also a protégé of legendary Japanese culinary pioneer Nobu Matsuhisa, having served as executive chef of Nobu at Hard Rock for six years, opening the restaurant in 1999.
Part of Woo’s legacy is that he comes from the family that built one of the first authentic Chinese restaurants here, Mayflower. Back then, Woo recalls, Chinese food to Americans basically meant Americanized dishes such as chop suey and fried rice.
But Mayflower’s American diners were always curious about what the Chinese tables were eating. “A group of Chinese people eating are never quiet,” Woo says with a laugh. “They’re loud, and they’re laughing and they attract attention. So they [non-Chinese] would look at the other tables and say, ‘What is that? Why does it have a head? I want that!’” And the Woo family was happy to introduce them to a world beyond sweet and sour. “We were definitely among the first to make authentic Chinese food for Asian people,” Woo says.
The original Mayflower, located near McCarran International Airport, catered mostly to the Chinese tourist junkets that would frequent Las Vegas, offering what Woo calls “a homegrown type of comfort food.” Mayflower was famous for its clay pots. “Fifty to 100 people would come in and they would wait for this giant clay pot of rice with meats and vegetables in it. A group of 10 at a round table would eat it and say, ‘That wasn’t enough, make me another one.’ That’s how we made our business 30 years ago.”
The second Mayflower concept, Mayflower Cuisinier, at 4750 W. Sahara Avenue at Decatur Boulevard, opened after the original location was sold to expand the airport. This restaurant presented a more upscale experience, serving cuisine as individual portions rather than family style.
Now at Social House, Woo continues on his path to expand and educate the palates of those seeking real Asian flavors and an authentic dining experience. He’s new, having been named as executive chef only in the past two months, but he obviously feels at home here. In this new kitchen, Woo returns to the idea of the shared meal that was the cornerstone of the philosophy of the original Mayflower.
“The concept [of Social House] is very sound,” Woo says. “And one of the main aspects is that it’s a shared experience. I want them to be debating if you liked the yellowtail jalapeño or salmon with wasabi creme. I want people to be arguing which one was the best one and ultimately say, ‘You know what? This was a great experience. We loved the food, and we still don’t know which one we liked best.’”
Political correctness be damned
One of Chef Woo’s favorite ingredients to work with isn’t typically found in most Asian cuisine. “I love foie gras. It’s maybe not the most politically savvy, but I love foie gras because it’s so rich. I’ll work with that year round.”
Already on the menu when Woo arrived was the Crispy Pata, a Filipino dish of braised then deep-fried pork shank, served with chili vinegar and pickled vegetables. “Some things can be so rich and so monstrous. It’s very hard for me to finish a pata. I can take a quarter of it down, and I think that it’s so rich! And I eat foie gras!”
Keeping it in the family
Woo’s family is extensive with a “minimum 70 people” living in Las Vegas, Woo says. Like him, Woo’s three children, aged 10, 7 and 14 months, grew up at Mayflower. “We have pictures of them at the three-compartment sink, washing salad mix, on a stepladder, they’re getting all wet. Of course we have to go back and wash everything.”
When in doubt, Woo reaches for …
“Basically some type of vinegar or acid. Everything in Asian food seems very sweet and spicy, so a good balancing agent is something acidic or vinegar-based. We’ve got tons of different toys we have to play with to add that one element to balance it out.”
Discovering something new
The jury’s still out on just what Chef Woo is going to do with it, but when we spoke to him, Woo had just received a golden crab from Florida and couldn’t wait to crack it open. “It looks amazing. I can’t wait to break into to see what the gao [crab fat] looks like. It’s supposed to be very sweet and very tender, and people can tell me about the meat but can’t tell me about the gao, and to a Chinese guy, that’s the best part!”