HOLMBERG: What makes Peter Chang cook?

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RICHMOND, Va. -- It's unlikely pepper spray would slow down the mysterious and industrious Peter Chang.

He cooks Kung-Fu fast in a veritable fog of eye-watering spices.

On a recent, jam-packed night at his latest, newly-opened Richmond-area restaurant on W. Broad Street at the Boulevard, everyone in the kitchen was sweating a bit, and not just from the furious pace set by this renowned master of authentic Chinese cuisine (with an emphasis on the Szechwan pep).

And the pace is amazing. The dining area and bar are full. There's a line to the door, and it seems the 53-year-old Chang is playing a role in every dish.

When he steps out in the dining area to chat, he is quickly mobbed for photos and handshakes.

Peter Chang

Peter Chang

Chang smiles broadly and nods, but says little.

Even though he has nine restaurants - and a 10th very soon (a noodle-based spot by his Short Pump restaurant) - and his work has been heralded by the New York Times, the Washington Post and The New Yorker magazine, he speaks little English.

But his absolute love for what he does transcends words.

It's why Peter Chang is one of the premiere chefs in all the land.

He told me (through an interpreter) that he always loved cooking and he went to culinary school after graduating high school in the Hubei section of Wuhan in 1981.

He laughed when I asked if that gave him an opening.

No, he said. He worked in restaurants from the ground up, mopping floors, bussing tables, washing dishes and chopping vegetables for eight years. He saw little of his wife and little girl.

Peter Chang

Peter Chang

"To learn my skills, I had to travel all over the country to visit every restaurant to learn the cooking. I had to pay all the expenses myself."

He estimates he traveled half of China.

In 2000, he said, there was a national competition to select a chef to cook at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. He won.

After two years, Chang started cooking in Chinese restaurants around the beltway.

His dishes were so distinctive and flavorful, foodies and food critics followed him around, from Georgia to D.C., sort of like a mouth-watering version of "Where's Waldo?"

"Where Peter Chang cooks, they will follow," was the headline on a New York Times story.

Chang told me he was looking for the right place and time, and he found it seven years ago in Charlottesville.

Then came Richmond, Williamsburg, Fredericksburg, Virginia Beach and Arlington. (Emphasis on Richmond because "it is a very important city in the South" and he felt he could be successful here.)

Chang said his father was a traditional Chinese medicine doctor who was also very passionate about his profession and its recipes for healing.

His mother, a housewife, taught him the value of hard work, he added.

Peter ChangHere's a guy who cooks like he absolutely loves it - and works as if it's his first month on the job instead of his second quarter-century; a guy who often stays in dorms with his workers when he's working at his different restaurants.

So with his big reputation and resume, why not New York City or Paris?

"I love it here in Virginia," he said. "Also, Virginia has given me a lot of opportunities."

That sense of commitment is one of the reasons Peter Chang is loved and admired here, why they hug him like family.

"My passion comes from my responsibility to my profession," Chang said. "And also my responsibility to my customers."

His small break over, he rushed back in the kitchen to make sure those customers got Peter Chang's very best.