These San Gabriel Valley Restaurant Owners Think Giving Up Gas Stoves Will Make Their Food Mushy

Chef Chun Lei dishes up shrimp over a gas stove in the kitchen of the Shanghailander Palace in Arcadia. (Josie Huang/LAist)

ACROSS THE PLANET, HUNDREDS OF NEWS ORGANIZATIONS — INCLUDING THIS ONE — ARE SPENDING A WEEK FOCUSING ON ALL THINGS CLIMATE CHANGE. THE GLOBAL COLLABORATION IS CALLED COVERING CLIMATE NOW, AND THIS STORY IS PART OF IT. YOU ARE ALSO PART OF IT. USE THE FORM BELOW TO TELL US WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND, OR IF THERE'S SOMETHING YOU'D LIKE TO KNOW.


In the kitchen of Shanghailander Palace in Arcadia, chef Chun Lei tosses raw shrimp into a wide wok bubbling noisily with oil. BAM! A sizzling thunderclap. Flames shoot out from under the wok. The shrimp turns a lovely pink.

Cooking with gas is dramatic, sweaty, and part of the rhythm in the fabled kitchens of San Gabriel Valley's Chinese restaurants. But some chefs like Lei worry that days of the gas stove could be numbered.

"When it comes to taste, this will have an impact," Lei said in Mandarin.

California is moving to eliminate its dependence on fossil fuels like natural gas as it works to become carbon-neutral by 2045. And that has those in the gas industry — and loyal users — worried about their future, and speaking out now.

A volcanic burst of heat shoots out of one of the gas stoves at Shanghailander Palace in Arcadia. (Josie Huang/KPCC)

While no law requires Californians to ditch their gas stoves and other appliances, state regulators have identified electricity as the cleaner alternative. Some city officials are taking an accelerated path to all-electric buildings; both Berkeley and San Jose recently moved to ban gas hook-ups in new construction.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a Green New Deal in April. The proposal calls for all new buildings in the city to be carbon-neutral by 2030, and for 100% of buildings — new and existing — to hit that goal by 2050. Santa Monica officials this year adopted a plan that aims to reduce carbon emissions in the city by 80% as of the year 2030.

Stoves consume far less gas than water or space heaters, but they generate more emotions tied to cooking and culture — and therefore, more debate.

Lei, who has been cooking with gas for 17 years, says preparing meals over an open flame gives dishes the perfect texture and chewiness, which Mandarin speakers describe as "Q" or "QQ." While some newer models of electric cooktops using induction heat up faster than gas and do better in product testing, Lei still worries the food could turn out mushy.

"I feel like there'd be a lot of problems if you use electric," Lei said.

The dinner crowd arrives at Shanghailander Palace in Arcadia. (Josie Huang/LAist)

In their messaging, the gas industry has seized on people's attachment to gas stoves. A non-profit funded in part by the Southern California Gas Company called Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions has done outreach to restaurant owners and chefs, including those specializing in Chinese cuisine in the San Gabriel Valley. Its website features images of families of color cooking over gas stoves.

Jon Switalski, who heads the non-profit, said reducing greenhouse gas emissions must be done in a way "where we're bringing all consumers along, where we're bringing communities of color along."

Representatives from labor unions and the business community sit on the board of Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, as does an executive from SoCalGas. The utility has provided seed money to C4BES, although Switalski will not disclose how much.

To environmentalists, C4BES is a front group for the gas industry. They say the non-profit is exploiting restaurant owners from the SGV, as well as those from the Latino community, to stall progress on climate change.

"I feel like they're trying to drive a wedge along lines of race and class," said Rachel Golden of the Sierra Club.

Screenshot from website of Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions.

Golden added that the gas industry is misinforming the public about the availability of renewable gas, which can be captured from places like landfills and dairies, while staying silent on the health risk posed by the fuel. Studies have shown that gas stoves release chemicals like nitrogen dioxide and formaldehyde.

"This leads to levels of indoor air pollution that would be illegal if measured outside," Golden said. "These sources of pollution are not emitted when you cook with electricity."

But Charles Lu, who owns the Shanghailander Palace in Arcadia and a second location in Hacienda Heights, is unmoved by arguments for going electric. In July, he took part in a Chinese-language press event organized by C4BES and the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership.

Hosted by Meizhou Dongpo restaurant at the Santa Anita Mall in Arcadia, the event drew local officials and a chef from Michelin Star restaurant Bistro Na in Temple City. For Lu, the stakes felt high.

"If you tell me will be no more gas, please, you can take my business," Lu said. "I want to sell."

Charles Lu, owner of the Shanghailander Palace in Arcadia, has become an outspoken proponent of gas stoves this year. (Josie Huang/LAist)

Across Los Angeles, other restaurant owners are loathe to give up their gas stoves. But that prospect hits a special nerve in the San Gabriel Valley, which has become synonymous with some of the best Asian cuisine in the country.

San Gabriel councilman Chin Ho Liao said Chinese restaurants are vital to his city's economy and identity.

"A lot of people from all over just come to San Gabriel for great Chinese food," Liao said.

Liao said switching to electricity will be too expensive for homes and businesses. He reached out to restaurant owners like Lu, who complain of razor-thin profit margins because of increases in the minimum wage and the cost of cooking materials.

The councilman said restaurants are already taking a hit from the trade war with China, with fewer Chinese nationals visiting the SGV.

"We're losing tourists, unfortunately, because this trade war affects everybody," Liao said.

San Gabriel councilman Chin Ho Liao has warned area restaurant owners about the phase out of natural gas and move to all-electric buildings. (Josie Huang/LAist)

Liao said he brought his concerns about a phase-out of natural gas to Lu, who in turn shared the word with several Chinese American organizations.

On August 20, Liao and his fellow San Gabriel councilmembers passed a pro-gas resolution drafted by SoCalGas a month-and-a-half after a presentation before the council by a representative from the utility.

SoCalGas spokeswoman Melissa Bailey said that nearly 100 cities across central and southern California have adopted similar resolutions calling for "balanced energy solutions." They include other SGV cities known for their Asian restaurants such as Rosemead, Arcadia, Alhambra and Diamond Bar.

Bailey said in a statement that, "California can still meet its ambitious climate goals while ensuring energy reliability and affordability for its residents."

At Shanghailander Palace, Lu said he recognizes the need to reduce emissions, but he doesn't want his gas stoves to be touched. He doesn't mind if it looks like he's being used by the gas industry.

"If they use us, I don't think it's really bad," Lu said. "The result — if it's good — is good."

Kelly Fan (l.), a restaurant owner visiting from Anchorage, dines with her granddaughter Angela Fan (r.) at Shanghailander Palace. (Josie Huang/LAist)

Regulators say they are listening to the concerns of groups like the SGV restaurant owners. Edward Randolph, who oversees energy policy at the California Public Utilities Commission, noted that the current group of commissioners come from a range of ethnic and racial backgrounds.

"It's really important that you have diverse commissions and diverse staff so that you you don't miss the cultural uses of energy," Randolph said.

But for the Chinese food enthusiasts at Shanghailander Palace, it's braised pork — not energy policy — that's on their minds.

Graduate student Jeremy Liu of Arcadia, who was dining at one of the circular tables with his extended family, said he wouldn't be able to tell if a dish were cooked with gas versus electric.

"I wouldn't consider myself an especially discerning customer," Liu said.

All he cares about, he said, is if the food tastes good.