How This Restaurateur Is Using Technology—and His Mom's Recipes—to Reinvent Chinese Takeout
When Mike Wang immigrated to the United States as a child, he was baffled by Chinese food here. Oil poaching, sugar glazing, deep frying, dousing with viscous sauces—the techniques that were used to prepare popular Americanized Chinese dishes like General Tso's, egg rolls and even chicken and broccoli, did not reflect the way his family ate at home on Long Island. In fact, many of the dishes stood in stark contrast to the medley of vegetable-forward stir-fries he was used to, which had thinner sauces and just enough oil to get the job done.
Since it was introduced in 1849 during California's Gold Rush, Chinese food in the U.S. has gotten a nutritional bad rap. Many chefs found they needed to adapt their cooking to better suit the tastes of American customers—swapping out "strange" ingredients, adding more sugar and oil—and the cuisine collected negative stereotypes and a reputation for being unhealthy.
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Wang, who went on to earn a doctorate in nursing practice, and specialized in acute care and cardiothoracic surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, says that it became clear to him that the way Americans thought about Chinese food ought to be rethought. He envisioned introducing his patients to the cuisine he grew up with—to prove that Chinese food could be good for you as well as delicious—and to do it in a way that preserved the flavors and traditions unique to his culture.
This revelation—compounded with a decline in the number of Chinese immigrant chefs, the rise of national chains using unhealthy shortcuts, and a growing public emphasis on wellness—convinced Wang to discontinue his medical career and lead the change he wanted to see in the food world.
In 2013, he began developing MÓGŪ, a quick-serve Chinese restaurant that brings takeout into the future. (MÓGŪ means "mushroom" in Mandarin, a symbol of good luck, longevity and health in Chinese culture.) And interestingly, Wang's vision started not with recipes, but technology. "The key to Chinese takeout is the art of wok-cooking—the nuances of flavor that high heat and constant tossing over a fire provides," he says. "I wanted to recreate those subtleties in a way that uses less oil, salt and sugar but maintains the techniques and chemical reactions that make the food so good."
Wang enlisted a team of pioneering engineers from top institutions around the country to invent an automated robotics cooking platform; it's powered by a proprietary hybrid heating mechanism that uses super-powered air-frying capabilities. The devices cook to consistent precision based on algorithms created for each dish, which are designed to emulate the art and science of food made by a trained Chinese chef. He market tested the system at his mother Jen Li's takeout restaurant in January 2019. And in September 2020, Wang unveiled the first dedicated MÓGŪ fast-casual restaurant in Farmingdale, New York—a sleek, modern space that has a kitchen filled with custom-designed, fully automated robotic cooking devices that produce healthy dishes for delivery or takeout. And the whole process is contactless—all the more important during a pandemic.
The ingredients for each dish are prepped, assembled and sealed in packets in advance at the central kitchen at MÓGŪ headquarters just blocks away. When an order comes in, one of six staffers simply adds an ingredient packet to a cooking device and activates the cooking algorithm by touching a button.
The menu items themselves have been re-imagined by a recipe-development team led by his mother and MÓGŪ's executive chef A Cong, both of whom Wang tasked with interpreting classic Chinese American dishes—and family recipes like scallion pancakes and Kung Wow chicken. "Fresh vegetables take a starring role, we lower the amount of cooking oil and aim for a minimum 30% reduction in sugar and sodium compared to national-chain versions," says Wang. "We also derive flavors from real sources, like orange peels instead of extract for Tangerine Chicken, and fruit juices rather than sugar." The final recipes are then analyzed to ensure they meet the American Heart Association's criteria for a heart-healthy diet.
That's just the start. Wang aims for expansion, and this auspicious mushroom is poised to usher in a whole new way of enjoying Chinese American food—not to mention how we think about its healthfulness. All of that is good for our hearts, too.