Pictured: Filmmaker Ian Cheney. Photo Credit: Amanda Murray.

Pictured: Filmmaker Ian Cheney. Photo Credit: Amanda Murray.

GALO: I have to ask, are you yourself a fan of General Tso’s Chicken? And do you recall the first time that you had tried it?

IC: I love General Tso’s Chicken. Even after eating 450,000 servings of it while making this film, I still order it — maybe out of habit? I grew up in New England, where Tso sometimes goes by the moniker “Gau” or “Gao,” and I likely first ate it at a Polynesian-style restaurant on Boston’s South Shore, near an indoor soccer rink, where my parents would order a Pu Pu platter and we’d have Shirley Temples with purple umbrellas. It was exotic! Or so we thought. No one I knew had ever been to China; though my late grandfather told me his best friend’s mother had sailed there to visit with Chiang-Kai-Shek. This remains unconfirmed.

GALO: Several sections of this film are shot in China, a place that is known for its censorship and firm regulations that make filming a tremendous task. Did you encounter any problems or restrictions from the government once you started filming, or even beforehand when you were getting the proper permissions to do so? And what was your experience there like when it came to the people you encountered as well as traveling throughout General Tso’s hometown?

IC: The folks we met in Xiangyin, General Tso’s hometown, were delightfully warm and receptive. The government officials we met were happy to showcase their various General Tso memorials and exhibits on camera. From treating us to lunch at General Tso’s Hotel to personally escorting us around General Tso’s old school and ancestral home, they were as forthcoming and generous as we could’ve hoped. As always happens, I felt sheepish that their story would only be one chapter in the larger film, but I hope we can one day return to share the film in General Tso’s Square.

GALO: Time and time again the documentary accentuates the fact that many Chinese dishes in America, in the past and even now, were given a certain twist to appeal to “white people’s taste buds.” Would you say that Americans will be hard-pressed to find a true Chinese dish in a fast food take-out restaurant that hasn’t been altered (I am not referring to specialized restaurants here that pride themselves on authentic dishes)? And is each Chinese restaurant susceptible to the local palate of the state that they find themselves in? 

IC: I’d wager that a chef worth his/her salt will alter a dish or a recipe they’re given, no matter what. So everything gets altered all the time. That being said, we found that some restaurants adapted more eagerly to regional cuisines, fusing their flavors with local delicacies or dialing up or down the spiciness accordingly. Others stick to the script a bit more with go-to dishes like Beef with Broccoli or Sweet and Sour Pork. The consistency and diversity of the food is one of the more dizzying and delightfully confusing aspects of Chinese restaurants in America: you know what to expect, and you never know what to expect. In any restaurant, it’s worth asking what the chef likes to eat, and seeing if he/she is willing to share something off the menu.

GALO: Adding on to that, I thought it funny when the documentary showed that the fortune cookie derived from America and that people in China did not know whether it was edible or not. It just showcases what Chef Peng said in the film, that Americans have a hard time accepting authentic Chinese food dishes. Why do you think this is the case and why don’t the Chinese try harder at preserving their cuisine — do you think we are too set in our own ways to accept their unique tastes? And is this necessarily a bad thing, or perhaps does it add to the culinary scope of what America is and stands for in the sense of merging various cultures into one?

IC: I hope we see less and less homogenization in America’s food landscape as tastes evolve. Certainly in larger metropolitan areas there’s a remarkable diversity of flavors available. While I don’t think it’s a bad thing that restaurateurs across the country have adapted their cuisines to match local tastes (after all, given the considerable economic and cultural hurdles facing new immigrants, adaptation is often a survival strategy), there’s so much for Americans to discover with Chinese cuisine — it would be a shame if we stopped at the door with General Tso’s Chicken.

GALO: Were you at all surprised when you found out that Chef Peng was the one who originally came up with General Tso’s Chicken, and how quickly his idea was “borrowed” by other chefs, leaving him with no other choice but to go back to Taiwan? Do you think he would have more success with his original recipe now in America than he had back then? 

IC: It’s true that Chef Peng was a little late to the party, if the party is the NYC Chinese food scene of the early 1970s. But many still acknowledge the profound effect he had on the cuisine, and we were honored to spend some time with him and his son at their wonderful restaurant in Taipei. It’s worth a pilgrimage!

GALO: In three words, describe this film. Now do the same for General Tso Chicken, the dish.

IC: Tso conquers America! Sweet and spicy.

GALO: If there’s one thing that you’d want viewers to take away from this documentary, what would it be?

IC: The next time you order takeout, pause and consider: who is on the other end of the telephone line? What was their journey? What is their story? And the food that arrives, what is its story? What does it tell us about the world? Now, get out those chopsticks and dig in!

GALO: Many of your documentaries seem to focus in on the food industry as well as those of the rural American lifestyle and the struggles people encounter in their lives and on the job. What fascinates you about these particular topics? Would you ever consider expanding your repertoire and making a feature film?

IC: Never — from here on out, I’m only making documentary films about chicken dishes and their origins.

GALO: Apart from working on documentaries yourself, you run the Wicked Delicate film production company. Can you tell us a bit more about this company and what your role in it is?   

IC: We focus on making feature-length documentary films, mainly about social and environmental issues but also ranging fairly far afield. Recently, we completed two short films: World Fair, about the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and The Melungeons, about a mysterious tri-racial people from rural Appalachia. We’re co-producing Sharon Shattuck’s new film Project Dad, and we’re also at work on several new films, including Bluespace and North Stars.

GALO: As you’ve just mentioned, you’re currently working on a new documentary titled Bluespace. Can you tell us a bit about this film, and any other projects that you might be considering taking on in the near future?

IC: Bluespace is a hybrid science-fiction documentary exploring terraforming and the waterways of New York City. It began as an exploration of the waterfront around Red Hook, Brooklyn, where I used to live, and the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, where I had an office. What is the future of our relationship to the water in a city like New York, especially in the wake of storms like Sandy? That seemingly simple question has led us on an unusual journey, from Bankgok to Amsterdam to Greenland, as we explore the ways people are responding to life on an increasingly watery planet.

“The Search for General Tso” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, which runs from April 16-27, and can be seen during the following dates: Thursday, April 24 at 9 p.m. at Bow Tie Cinema Chelsea in lower Manhattan. For more information about the film or ticket information, please click here.

Video courtesy of Tribeca Film.

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