Jason Wagner on Great Wines, Asian Food & a New Chinatown
Jason Wagner cut his teeth working at incredibly popular restaurants in both The Windy City and The Big Apple, offering up his expert food and wine pairing skills at Chicago’s Nellcôte, RM Champagne Salon, The Gage and Henri, as well as NYC’s L’Atelier de Robuchon.
Today, he’s Partner, GM and Beverage Director of Fung Tu, a modern Chinese-American restaurant nestled on the border of two of Manhattan’s hippest dining neighborhoods — Chinatown and the Lower East Side. We spoke with him about what differentiates Midtown from downtown diners, pairing wine with Asian food and the one thing he wishes restaurant tech would solve for.
What's one big difference between the dining scene in Chicago versus New York?
In Chicago, restaurants they are a lot more focused on craft cocktails and beer as opposed to wine. That’s slowly changing, but it’s still a beer and cocktails kind of town. Also, you see a lot of really good restaurants on the lower end there than on the higher end. The middle is just now starting to get built out, whereas I think New York is very strong in the middle as far as price point and all that.
You worked in several restaurants further uptown before joining Fung Tu. What distinguishes Midtown diners from those you encounter in Chinatown?
The guests downtown are much more happy to explore. On the whole they’re really wide open to having us curate their experience in whatever way we’re offering, whereas the guests in Midtown are looking for a specific experience. They want to drink this brand of wine, and they want to have their salmon and that’s it. Here people come and the food is unfamiliar and the wine is unfamiliar, and they just kind of throw their hands up and they’re like, “Yeah, show me what you got. Take me on this journey.”
As both the GM and Beverage Director at Fung Tu, do you prefer one role over the other?
I’m definitely more driven by the sommelier role that I play here. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about logistical stuff. I think about, “What am I going to do with the wine program?” And that’s where my experience lies as well, since I’ve been a sommelier for most of my career.
Were there any specific challenges in developing the wine program at Fung Tu?
My past experience has been more on high-end stuff. I worked in Midtown a lot which is a very different clientele. Just exploring wines that are at a lower price point, that’s a big thing. When I worked at [L’Atelier de Joel] Robuchon, to sell a $500 bottle of wine was no big deal; it happened every night. Most people at Fung Tu are spending $40-$50 on a bottle, so trying to search through the ocean of wine at that price point to find things that are not only high quality and overperform for their price but also complement the cuisine is tough. I’ve never worked at any remotely Asian place either, much less specifically Chinese. Not a whole lot of Asian restaurants in the country have a really great wine list. There are some in California, but there’s not a big template for that. So that was a big challenge.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The hours suck. I have a little boy, so if I get home super late it’s really hard to get up with him in the morning.
What’s it like running an intimate restaurant in one of the hottest dining neighborhoods in the city?
Everything’s definitely a lot more streamlined at a restaurant of this size. You do a lot more yourself. I call and confirm all the reservations; we don’t have a team of hosts that do that all day long. I manage the floor and I’m the sommelier, so I do all the pairings. There’s not a team of sommeliers. There’s that aspect of just being a smaller place — the scale of it is just very different.
As far as the neighborhood, it’s exciting because we’re kind of reaching a critical mass of exciting places around here — places like Contra and Wildair are bringing more diners to the neighborhood that are excited. And people from other parts of Manhattan are not so weirded out coming down here now, so having extra, well-regarded attention — like from the New York Times — has been interesting. When we first opened [in 2013], it was still very much young artists and people who work in design and now, almost two years in, there are people coming from all kinds of industries — doctors and lawyers, fields like that. It’s also interesting because the crowds we get Tuesday through Thursday are very different from the crowds we get Friday and Saturday because the neighborhood is such a hotspot. There’s a big influx from the entire tri-state area on those nights.
There seems to be a “New Asian cuisine” trend on the rise. Why do you think people are so obsessed with Asian food these days?
I think part of what’s driving it is you’re seeing a generation of chefs that are of Asian descent that grew up in a food culture. For Chinese people in general, food is a very big, central focus of their daily life. And so a lot of kids followed that passion — second generation or third generation Americans. They went to culinary school or started working in restaurants, and now they’re all grown up. And they’re in a position where they can open their own restaurant. And now you have these guys — like our chef Jonathan [Wu] or these guys at Uncle Boons — like, “Yeah, I worked at a three-star Michelin place, and now I’m being creative.”
In what ways have you seen emerging technologies affect your operations?
There’s a lot out there, which is a negative thing. Like, which of the 30 POS systems should I choose? There’s a lot that’s very helpful about it — POS systems have taken a giant leap. They are so much more intuitive, easier to use and faster than even just a few years ago. Same for inventory systems — there are some really amazing tools out there. The hardest part for us is deciding which one to use. We use several reservations platforms, trying to see which one is going to float to the top because they might get bought out or whatever.
Anything you wish restaurant tech would solve for?
Finding a way to drive business at non-peak hours would be a huge thing. Our neighborhood is a very late neighborhood. We will literally have no one here from six to seven o’clock, and then everybody wants to come at nine and we have to turn people away. So if someone could solve that problem, we would be extremely successful. Filling tables at 8:30pm takes care of itself. But how do I get somebody here at 6:30pm?
Favorite NYC haunts or go-to spots?
There’s a restaurant in my neighborhood in Hamilton Heights called The Grange [Bar & Eatery]. It’s not super fancy, it’s just super solid. The service is always good, the beer is always good, the food is always good. And they’re very sweet and cool with my son. I love going there because I can go to and not worry, “Oh, are they going to give me a hard time because I have a kid with me?” You just don’t have to worry about any of that stuff. For me, when I go out to dine, I just want to be taken care of and not have to worry about anything and enjoy myself.