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He helped introduce New Yorkers to the breadth of Chinese regional food with a series of top-rated Manhattan restaurants in the 1970s and ’80s.
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Ed Schoenfeld, who helped open the eyes of New Yorkers to the glories of Chinese regional cuisine with a series of top-rated restaurants in the 1970s and ’80s, notably Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan, Auntie Yuan and Pig Heaven, died on Friday at his home in Newark, N.J. He was 72.
The cause was liver cancer, his son Eric said.
Mr. Schoenfeld, a Jew from Brooklyn who in his 20s looked like a roadie for the Grateful Dead, seemed an unlikely ambassador for Chinese cuisine. But his expertise, earned through years of study with top immigrant chefs, made him an invaluable partner for restaurateurs like David Keh and Michael Tong.
Operating as “consultant, talent scout, taster, manager and public relations man,” as New York magazine described him in 1984, Mr. Schoenfeld helped bring the cooking of Szechuan, Hunan and Shanghai to a city that had subsisted for decades on Cantonese-derived favorites like sweet and sour pork, egg rolls and egg foo yong.
Uncle Tai’s, a showcase for Hunanese cuisine, opened in 1973, with Mr. Schoenfeld, as assistant to Mr. Keh, running the front of the house, on Third Avenue near East 62nd Street. The restaurant earned a four-star rating from Raymond Sokolov in The New York Times, making it only the second Chinese restaurant, after Shun Lee Dynasty, to achieve that rating.
Mr. Schoenfeld, a voluble, hyper-articulate speaker, became a highly visible interpreter and spokesman for the food culture of China, terra incognita for most Americans at the time. He solidified his reputation working with Mr. Tong at Shun Lee Dynasty (on Second Avenue at East 48th Street) and Shun Lee West (West 65th Street). And in the 1980s he joined forces once again with Mr. Keh, helping to create two of New York’s most celebrated Chinese restaurants, Auntie Yuan (First Avenue near East 64th) and Pig Heaven (Second Avenue near 80th).
Edward Lawrence Schoenfeld was born on Sept. 19, 1949, in Jersey City, N.J., the only child of Theodore and Lillian (Pesses) Schoenfeld. He grew up in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. His father was an industrial engineer with the George S. May management consultancy. His mother, known as Lila, was an office manager for a department store and later for the City of New York.
Ed attended the Woodward School in Clinton Hill, a progressive private institution, and later the Poly Prep Country Day School, also in Brooklyn. At 15, he spent a summer studying social issues with the farm labor leader Cesar Chavez at the Encampment for Citizenship in Berkeley, Calif.
When school let out early on Friday afternoons, and his parents still at work, Ed would spend time in the kitchen of his maternal grandmother, Goldie Pesses, helping her make chicken soup, kreplach, kishke and blintzes.
Mr. Schoenfeld became obsessed with Chinese food early on.
“I must have been 11 or 12 when I first went to the Great Shanghai on Broadway and 102nd Street,” he told the website Serious Eats in 2018. “I remember having my first spring roll! Not an egg roll — this was thinner and more delicate.”
In his teens he ate weekly at Shun Lee Dynasty, which had opened in 1965, and embarked on a strenuous program of self-education. He studied with Grace Chu, whose cooking classes and cookbooks introduced generations of New Yorkers to the subtleties of Chinese cuisine, and did postgraduate work, so to speak, by organizing banquets with the top Chinese chefs in New York.
“When I found a particularly good chef I would return to him often, hoping that he would delve deep into his repertoire showcasing his skill and art,” Mr. Schoenfeld told the website egullet.com in 2001. Good fortune placed him in the hands of Lou Hoy Yuen, known as Uncle Lou, the chef at Mr. Keh’s Szechuan Taste, one of the first Szechuan restaurants in New York.
“I was exposed to a level of cuisine that most top professional chefs weren’t able to produce, and the standards and flavors that I encountered gave me an incomparable education,” Mr. Schoenfeld said. “Uncle Lou never explicitly showed me how to cook a particular item. Instead he let me observe, like a master and a student. I learned by watching, tasting and eventually trying to put my knowledge into action.”
He studied briefly at New York University before dropping out to arrange Chinese banquets, which he financed by driving a taxi. On the side, he wrote a food and restaurant column, “Gravy Stains,” for the newspaper Brooklyn Heights Press. One evening at Szechuan Taste, he ordered an esoteric carps-head soup, thereby attracting the notice of Mr. Keh, the owner. The two struck up an acquaintance, and in 1973, when Mr. Keh opened Uncle Tai’s, one of New York’s first Hunan restaurants, he hired Mr. Schoenfeld as his assistant.
“I was a hippy-dippy guy, and he threw me in the tackiest blue tuxedo with a big frilly shirt and a bow tie,” he told the website Restaurant Girl in 2013. “I found myself at the front door of what was basically the hottest Chinese restaurant in the country without ever having worked at a restaurant before.”
The wild ride ended after two years, when warfare between rival factions in the restaurant’s kitchen claimed Mr. Schoenfeld as a casualty.
“It was like a John Wayne barroom scene,” he told New York magazine in 1984, describing his final day at Uncle Tai’s. “During dinner, somebody took a flying tackle at me and knocked me out. I was lying on the floor covered in duck sauce and rice.”
An early marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his son Eric, he is survived by his wife, Elisa Herr; another son, Adam; and four grandchildren.
Mr. Schoenfeld’s second tour of duty with Mr. Keh generated the swanky Auntie Yuan, famous for its Peking duck and orange beef, and Pig Heaven, whose pork-focused menu included Cantonese roast suckling pig and spicy pork with garlic sauce. With Mr. Keh, he also developed Café Marimba, on East 65th near Third Avenue, a showcase for Zarela Martinez, who would go on to become one of the city’s most prominent chefs.
Mr. Schoenfeld went on to work for the Milstein real estate organization developing restaurants at their properties. In 1990, he went into partnership with the restaurateur Vincent Orgera and opened Vince and Eddie’s, on West 68th Street, devoted to homey American fare, and a seafood offshoot, Fishin Eddie (West 71st). He returned to Chinese cuisine in 1992 at the extravagantly kitschy Chop Suey Looey’s Litchi Lounge on West 55th in Midtown. He later opened Chinatown Brasserie in Lower Manhattan, on Lafayette Street, as a stage for his newest protégé, the Hong Kong-born chef Joe Ng.
Mr. Schoenfeld enjoyed a late-career renaissance in 2010 with Red Farm, a farm-to-table restaurant in Greenwich Village developed with the restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, with Mr. Ng as chef. The menu presented an updated array of pan-Asian dishes that Mr. Schoenfeld pronounced, in an interview with The Times, “unabashedly inauthentic.”
An instant hit, Red Farm begat offspring on the Upper West Side and London. Underneath the original Red Farm, Mr. Schoenfeld installed Decoy, a shrine to Peking duck, which soon rivaled Red Farm as one of the city’s most popular Chinese restaurants.
Jack Kramer contributed reporting.
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