Chinese Cuisine in Charm City: Chef Peter Chang’s NiHao Serves Szechuan Food to Baltimore

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Chef Peter Chang at work in the kitchen (David Stuck)

A well-known figure in the world of Szechuan cuisine, Chef Peter Chang’s name is synonymous with Chinese food in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. areas.

Tucked away in Baltimore’s Canton historic district, Chang’s restaurant NiHao has found much success with its blend of traditional Chinese cuisine and American Chinese food trends.

NiHao is one of 17 restaurants helmed by the chef. It recently reopened in February of 2023 following a period of renovation.

It is a well-recognized restaurant, having placed fourth in Esquire magazine’s list of best new restaurants in America after its initial 2020 opening. Chang himself has been a finalist for a James Beard Award.

But Chang’s origins as a chef are humble. Born in a rural village in China’s Hubei province, Chang became involved in the culinary field by chance when he was applying to college.

“In China, people want to live in the city,” he tells Baltimore Style. “I really wanted to take the college entrance exam that would let me go to college in the city, so I applied to be admitted to whatever major would accept me. That happened to be culinary school.”

Szechuan popcorn chicken (David Stuck)

Chefs were considered a low-class career in China at the time, and Chang initially struggled in culinary school. But he developed a passion for cooking, going on to win several cooking competitions in China and becoming a chef at the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. in 2001.

At the embassy, he began to think differently about Chinese food and how American embassy guests received it, which was something he did not have to consider in China.

Cooking for a different audience helped him develop his culinary style and the fusion approach that NiHao now takes to Chinese cuisine.

“I really had to think about how to cater to American guests. Authentic Chinese food isn’t necessarily what Americans like, so I had to balance what Chinese people like and what Americans like,” Chang recalls. During this time, he researched the DMV area’s culinary landscape to determine what was well received, basing his approach to cooking around that.

The idea for NiHao specifically came from Chang’s daughter, Lydia, who manages his restaurant group. Lydia Chang, along with the other members of the Peter Chang restaurant group’s senior management, came to the United States from China like her father did. Chang noted that it was important for his executive staff to understand both Chinese and American cooking culture.

“I really appreciate the diversity of the United States, so I want my restaurants to be popular among all sorts of different demographics so everyone can enjoy their food,” Chang says.

Peter Chang holds a plate of grandma braised pork belly, a dish on NiHao’s menu that’s based on a recipe Chang’s mother used to make. (David Stuck)

Many of NiHao’s most popular dishes have a distinctly American influence. The Szechuan popcorn chicken is a fresh take on the popular bite-sized appetizer, seasoned with the spices that Szechuan cuisine is best known for. Others are inspired by Chang’s own experiences—the menu’s grandma braised pork belly is based on a recipe his mother would cook for him when he was a child. Chang says he was initially worried about how well received this dish would be by locals, but it is now one of the restaurant’s most popular items.

Of course, no Peter Chang restaurant is complete without the chef’s signature Peking duck. Other fan favorites include classic dishes like mapo tofu and kung pao chicken.

“I’ve been very happy to see that these traditional dishes are popular here in Baltimore,” Chang says, noting that he has been glad to see people enjoying the restaurant’s spicier Szechuan offerings. He aims to bring more authentic Chinese food to the menu, cooked in ways that Americans would like.

NiHao’s local nature extends far past the chefs it hires and the influences it takes. Chang’s restaurant group works with local farms, wineries and tea companies to source ingredients, with the hope that the restaurants will one day be all farm-to-table. Chang himself notes that he has a particular affinity for working with Amish-run farms, and he has hosted a few crab feast events featuring Maryland crabs in NiHao’s newly renovated private dining room.

In the future, he wants to expand his Chinese cuisine empire further into Baltimore, because he sees potential in bringing his specific brand of cooking there.

“A lot of Chinese chefs don’t think Baltimore is a big market for Chinese food, but I don’t agree,” Chang says. “My Baltimore restaurants have been a huge success, and I want to serve the Baltimore community with more Chinese food.”

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