On March 20, 2021, Calvin Eng staged his first restaurant pop-up in New York. On the menu were marble-sized wontons filled with fish and shrimp paste in an amber-coloured chicken and Parmesan superior broth. The event was an effort to drum up excitement for Eng’s first solo restaurant, Bonnie’s, which was slated to open in Brooklyn by the end of the year. The dish, a blend of Cantonese wonton soup and Italian tortellini en brodo (filled pasta in broth), was the essence of Eng’s style – playful, delicious and evocative. When Bonnie’s opened nine months later, it was one of the most buzzworthy new restaurants in New York. “We’re very fortunate that people want to eat here,” says Eng. But his success is more than just good luck. In fact, Bonnie’s is part of a much broader trend of new Cantonese cuisine in America. Across the country, a generation of Cantonese-American chefs and bakers are transforming their childhood food memories – memories passed down by relatives from Hong Kong and Taishan – into thriving businesses and brands, leading to a revitalisation of Cantonese cuisine in America. After six years cooking in restaurant kitchens across New York, Bonnie’s is Eng’s breakout project. The restaurant is named after Eng’s mother, Bonnie, who lived in Hong Kong until she was 13, when she emigrated to New York. The menu combines foods Eng ate as a second-generation Cantonese-American kid, including savoury steamed egg, restaurant-style shrimp with walnuts, and, of course, McDonald’s – with his contemporary culinary training. A bestselling item is whole deboned rainbow trout, stuffed with his signature fish and shrimp paste and basted in hot oil. “I used to make that at home with my mom and my aunt,” Eng recalls. Culinary schools typically focus on French technique and the top restaurants are overwhelmingly Westernised. “I never trained under any Chinese chef, that’s why everything I know about Chinese food is from my mother,” says Eng. A pastry chef’s journey from McDonald’s to fulfilling her dream Although high-end Japanese and Korean restaurants are plentiful, there isn’t really an equivalent of masterful Cantonese cooking in America, especially on the east coast. Considering the lack of mentors, the next logical place to look for inspiration is at home. “It’s cheesy, but I always say nostalgia is my favourite ingredient,” Eng says. Nostalgia is especially compelling for a generation living between two worlds. “Food was a way for my family to teach us about our own culture,” says Kristina Cho, the author of a Chinese bakery cookbook called Mooncakes & Milk Bread , released in late 2021. Cho grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, but both of her parents were born in Hong Kong. After the family relocated to the Midwest in the 1980s, Cho’s grandfather opened a few Chinese-American restaurants in the local Chinatown. “Cantonese food was a vital part of my life growing up,” she says. These memories are scattered throughout Cho’s blog, Eat Cho Food, which she started in 2017 from her home in San Francisco. In Mooncakes & Milk Bread , she explores the theme more deeply: sweet and savoury baked goods fill the pages, from cha chaan teng -inspired bo lo bao (pineapple buns) to egg tarts, alongside essays recounting how Cantonese food illuminated her younger years. “For a long time I wanted to be a chef just like my goong goong ,” she writes of her maternal grandfather. For a long time, we were taught to assimilate as much as possible Kristina Cho The rise of identity-driven culinary exploration is also fuelled by a growing sense of pride among second generation Chinese-Americans. “My grandparent’s generation worked in restaurants out of necessity, but my generation is coming back to it as a way to honour traditions and flavours,” says Cho. There is an equal urgency to keep the culture alive in America, as Chinatowns across the country experience hardship in the pandemic. “A lot of places we grew up going to aren’t there any more,” says Eng. “It’s an opportunity to continue something.” Ryan Wong would agree. “I see Cantonese food evolving with the younger generation, people trying to carry on the cuisine they care about,” he says. Wong is the owner of Needle in Los Angeles, a Cantonese restaurant that offers high-quality comfort foods such as a legendary Berkshire pork char siu and free-range, organic bak chit gai (white cut chicken). Before he opened Needle in 2019, Wong cooked at some of Los Angeles’ top French and American restaurants. But that style of elevated Westernised food didn’t always resonate. Wong’s mother grew up in Hong Kong, but she moved to California after she married. Cantonese food “was a way to connect with her heritage”, Wong explains. He recalls eating soy-braised chicken wings and steamed pork patties over rice as a child. Wong’s inspiration for Needle may be the past, but his goal is to push Cantonese cuisine forward, at least beyond where it stands in America. During a few apprenticeships at some top Hong Kong restaurants, including a quick turn at Bo Innovation, Wong realised that the finesse of Cantonese cooking in Hong Kong was missing in the restaurants back home. With Needle, Wong is hoping to change that. “I come from a fine-dining background. My standards are just really high,” he says. It requires courage to pursue a career in food, especially for children of immigrants, who are often encouraged to be more practical with their livelihoods. The main thing here is just a mission to educate people about what Cantonese food can be Calvin Eng of Bonnie in Brooklyn “For a long time, we were taught to assimilate as much as possible,” says Cho. But taking the risk can lead to some pioneering heights. Cho is the first author to write a cookbook dedicated to Chinese bakeries in America. The book’s critical and commercial success – the first print run sold out – helped established a market for the subject of Asian baking, which was once considered too niche. But with representation comes the added task of education, especially as common knowledge about Chinese cuisine varies widely in America. Cho’s voice throughout the cookbook balances her depth of knowledge with the helpful instruction of a genial cultural guide. At Bonnie’s, staff are required to learn the story behind each dish. “It’s obviously not going to be nostalgic for everyone,” says Eng, “but when people understand the story, it’s easier for them to appreciate.” That said, enlightenment is not a total burden. The popularity of Cantonese cuisine comes with its fair share of influence. Cho uses the limelight to celebrate the enterprising qualities of immigrants like her parents and grandparents – “The spirit of Chinese bakeries that exist all over the world, adapting to please their clientele.” At Needle, Wong is steadily pushing against the perception that Chinese food in America has to be cheaply made to be good. “Not everyone appreciates it, but some people do,” he says. “The narrative has changed a lot since I started.” In this business of food, the results are twofold. On the one hand, indulging in nostalgia has a grounding effect; it links Eng, Cho, and Wong to a broader diaspora. “Food is the only thing that connects me to who I am, the people before me, my great grandparents,” Cho says. On the other hand, combining the Cantonese and American experience into something fresh and new evolves the culture, giving it a renewed sense of relevancy in America and thus, longevity. Back in Brooklyn, on any given night of service, the dining room at Bonnie’s is packed. “The main thing here,” says Eng, “is just a mission to educate people about what Cantonese food can be.” Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .