ICE Alum Simone Tong Opens Silver Apricot Amid the Pandemic
The New York City chef is bringing new Chinese-American cuisine to the West Village.
Simone Tong (Culinary/Management ‘11) gained wide recognition for her contemporary take on Yunnan rice noodles called mixian at Little Tong Noodle Shop. Now she’s opened the doors at Silver Apricot, on a mission to introduce a new type of seasonally driven Chinese-American cuisine to New Yorkers — while nine-months pregnant during a pandemic.
It was an admittedly random dream to work for chef Wylie Dufrense that first pushed Simone to pursue a culinary career. While watching an episode of “After Hours with Daniel,” she was mesmerized by the way Chef Wylie combined art, food and science in his molecular gastronomy kitchen. The Chengdu native, who grew up between Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia, chose to enroll at ICE because WD~50 was among the externship sites.
Simone arrived in New York in 2010 with a degree in economics and psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as a childhood of eating diverse, delicious food. As her family moved from country to country, she had been exposed to Sichuan, Hong Kong-style Cantonese, Macanese-style Portuguese, Singaporean and Southeast Asian cuisines. Her only cooking experience, however, was what she taught herself from watching videos of Jamie Oliver. “I had no fear because I was very naive,” Simone reflects.
Though her parents thought she was crazy to want to cook professionally, Simone excelled immediately upon beginning classes. “ICE was great,” she says. “It was easy because I’m the kind of Asian that’s good at studies so I tried to learn everything and go to every class. I got the highest honors.” Simone fondly remembers constantly raising her hand and taking advantage of extra educational opportunities. She liked all of her instructors, made lasting friendships and gained basic foundational skills like how to brunoise and butcher chicken.
Ultimately, Simone got exactly what she wanted out of ICE. “During culinary school, I fulfilled my dream of externing at WD~50, and I continued to work there until they closed,” she says. “I worked every station from stagiaire to prep cook to garde manger to entremet to hot apps. I was a fish cook and I did a little bit of pastry. It was a great family and such a great institution. I learned so much — not just cooking, but also how to be a person with integrity and honesty and how to work under pressure. It was a lot of mental and physical challenge.”
After about three and a half years at WD~50, Simone completed stints at Alder and 15 East before embarking on a research journey through the Yunnan province of China. This trip informed the menu of her first restaurant, Little Tong Noodle Shop, which debuted in March 2017 with rapid success. “We were really lucky,” Simone recounts. “We were too lucky. We got too much attention too quickly. We got a two-star review in The New York Times in three months. That was a big deal.”
Simone was honored by the support and love of press and diners, but the rate of business was overwhelming. People were lining up out the door, while she was trying to juggle management, employee training and multiple restaurant repairs. She was working too hard and sleeping too little, doing her best not to burn out. “Those are the things that you don’t really learn until you become a chef-owner,” Simone explains. “Cooking was the easiest part, but everything else was very challenging. You have to learn as you go.”
Eventually, the rush calmed down and Simone achieved balance. She and her general manager partner, Emmeline Zhao, expanded from their East Village shop to an outpost in Midtown and, recently, a third in the new Garment District food hall, The Deco. Up until the pandemic hit, business was doing fairly well.
“The early impact of the pandemic, when people were afraid of Chinese restaurants, we were affected by it. That early wave when people were not coming so much to Chinese restaurants, we felt that at Little Tong,” Simone admits. That is why she and Emmeline decided to close the original East Village location. At the same time, nonprofit Rethink Food NYC approached Simone to become a chef-partner in its fight against food insecurity and food waste.
With the blessing and approval of her staff who have worked with her through the pandemic, Simone quickly transformed the East Village Little Tong into a Rethink kitchen for the remainder of the lease. She and her team spent four months cooking 300 meals per day for those less fortunate. “We could make nutritious food on a very small budget because we’ve come up with a system where we don’t run a loss, while also doing charity and retaining our cooks who need jobs,” Simone says proudly.
Since the East Village Little Tong shuttered in June, the Midtown location has taken over Rethink duties, as well as operating for normal takeout and delivery. Unfortunately, the commercial area is not very active while people remain away from the office. “Little Tong is not entirely shut down, but it’s quite slow,” Simone laments. “It’s quite sensitive to the current situation. We’re keeping it open because whoever wants us, we hope to make food for them and give them some happy thoughts.”
At the moment, Simone’s main focus is her newest venture. In mid-July, she and Emmeline premiered Silver Apricot at 20 Cornelia Street, a little space in the West Village. Named for the ancient Chinese ginkgo tree, which appears throughout the city and neighborhood, the restaurant is focused on mixing local, tri-state-area produce with nostalgic Chinese-American flavors. “We call it new Chinese-American because I think it is something that nobody has described, a genre of cuisine,” Simone enthuses. “We’re not doing anything that is available. We’re doing something that we think is quite original.”
With seasonal ingredients and classic techniques, Simone is cooking specifically for New Yorkers. She wants her version of Chinese food to be relatable and craveable. Due to the pandemic, however, Simone has had to slightly change course. “It was meant to be a tasting menu, with small bites and edgy, creative flavors, but we have this challenge, we have this special situation nobody has imagined 2020 to be, so we’re adapting,” she explains.
The current three-course menu is more homey than the original plan and can be enjoyed for takeout, delivery or outdoor dining, where Emmeline’s list of domestic beer and wine pairings is on offer. Dishes will rotate, and Simone predicts that the “delightful” scallion puffs will become a mainstay. Inspired by the beloved scallion pancake, puff pastry is brushed with zhajiang, a sweet and savory soybean paste, scallion butter and dehydrated scallion powder. “We want to make memories and build stories to celebrate America and the Chinese cuisine that has developed and been created in the country,” she says.
On top of all the usual obstacles of opening a restaurant, Simone has done it while expecting. She welcomed a healthy baby, Tong Sheridan “TS” Hyland, with fellow ICE alum Matthew Hyland (Culinary, '05) on Aug. 6. “I felt like if I didn’t open before the birth of my first child, I would have to wait even longer,” Simone says of her decision. “Even though it’s almost unthinkable to open a restaurant while being nine-months pregnant, I think it would be even more challenging if I were to open while trying to breastfeed a newborn baby. I compared the two options and chose the slightly less challenging one.” She did have to remind herself to slow down and rest throughout the process and credits the dedication of her team for making it possible.
On Thursday August 6, just as I finished cooking dumplings for dinner at home, my water broke. Baby Dumpling here could not wait till August 12 to meet the world, he wanted out sooner. We went into the hospital at 8:30 pm and 12 hours later, he said service! Hot behind!! Please meet Tong Sheridan “TS” Hyland — 唐海岚 🤰🏻❤️🧔🏻❤️👶🏻❤️🤱🏻
Simone is taking time off to spend with her son and acknowledges that her restaurants, like most small businesses in the country, are in survival mode. She doesn’t know what the outcome will be, but she remains optimistic. When she decided to become a United States citizen, she had an idealistic, romantic notion of equality and human rights. Simone still sees America as a beautiful, powerful country, but has become somewhat disenchanted by the handling of the pandemic.
“When you love a country like you love someone, you have to take the good and the bad,” she observes. “The hard times are hard, but the good times are great. It will just take time for us to get over this. I have a very hopeful point of view that we will get through this together as a country, but everybody will have to be more disciplined and a bit of a team player.”