The Chairman's bright red truck, decorated with a Chairman Mao-style panda designed by Taiwanese-American artist James Jean, always stands out at street food events in California. And the lines of hungry customers are equally impossible to miss.
The Chairman is wildly popular for its creative mashup of Asian food that’s both familiar and new.
The original concept for The Chairman was based on gua bao, a Taiwanese street food from Taipei. Owner and operator Curtis Lam explains that the traditional cuisine is usually made with pork belly in a clamshell style-steamed bun with peanuts, brown sugar and cilantro.
Since launching in 2010 with a single food truck, Lam's business has expanded to three trucks and a restaurant in San Francisco, where his roots run deep. His grandfather moved to the Bay Area 45 years ago, and his family started a dim sum restaurant in San Francisco’s Richmond District. That’s where Lam’s parents met and worked together.
The Chairman's steamed and baked buns come from that same dim sum bakery. “The yeast was brought over from China 30 years ago and gives the buns some authenticity,” Lam says. “A lot of people notice a difference between the buns they purchase elsewhere and what we serve. Freshness is key… we have them delivered fresh every day."
The Chairman offers both steamed (the overwhelming customer favorite) and baked buns with signature fillings such as Coca-Cola-braised pork based on Executive Chef Hiroo Nagahara's mother’s recipe. Nagahara was born in Tokyo, but his mom is Taiwanese.
“Growing up, my mother always paired Coca-Cola and soy sauce together with aromatics when braising pork and cuts of beef,” Nagahara says. “It always added a pleasant savory sweetness to meats; it's comforting."
The recipe starts with pork shoulder or pork butt braised with aromatics and charred brûlée onions for color and flavor. There's also pink peppercorn, garlic, ginger and brown sugar, as well as mustard seeds, which Lam says pair particularly well with pork.
Lam, who grew up in his family's restaurant, also has fond memories of Coca-Cola. “It was the only thing my dad drank when he worked on the line at the restaurant,” he recalls. “He spent a lot of time in the kitchen… and drank at least two or three cans (of Coke) a day."
In addition to the homemade buns and Coca-Cola braised pork, another Chairman specialty is homemade pickles. The restaurant offers dishes with turmeric-pickled daikon, panchan-pickled carrot and cucumber, preserved mustard seeds and chili pickled burdock. “We love our pickles!” Lam says. “Making pickles is part of the food preservation in Asian culture.”
Pickles add complexity and depth to Asian dishes, Lam says, and help set The Chairman’s menu apart. “We use a combination of Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese and Mandarin-style garnishes,” he explained. “It's also part of the way we put a modern twist on the food and make it our own.”
Lam’s business is poised for growth with a second restaurant in the works in Los Angeles with a partner, Mobi Munch. The Chairman's trucks have traveled to food festivals in Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Las Vegas, earning a loyal following beyond the Bay Area.
The Chairman's restaurants provide an opportunity for greater creativity and larger menus that include rice bowls, seasonal greens and noodle bowls, as well as more protein options. The trucks, meanwhlie, offer flexibility and serve as a steady source of catering business. The Chairman’s trucks have catered everything from bar mitzvahs to kids’ birthday parties to corporate events, and make regular stops at festivals such as the San Francisco Pride Celebration & Parade.
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