Peter and Lily Fang are a husband and wife team. Together they moved from Shanghai to San Francisco in 1980 with little money and knowing minimal English. They started out in the restaurant industry working in various restaurants as servers to make ends meet. Before Peter immigrated to the U.S., he had a passion for cooking and would spend hours watching chefs cook at his favorite food stalls mesmerized by their methods of preparing simple and delicious comfort food. Cooking and entertaining back at home in Shanghai were some of his most fond memories, and he wanted to recreate that feeling by opening his own restaurant one day.
In 1988, Peter and Lily Fang opened House of Nanking at 919 Kearny Street in San Francisco where Chinatown, the Financial District and Little Italy collide. They came up with the name House of Nanking by honoring Lily’s dad who is from Nanking, China. Peter helped scout the location and coordinated the blessing for the two to start their own business, so it felt appropriate to name it after their hometown. Although the restaurant is called House of Nanking, the cuisine served is not from that region, but is rather authentic Shanghainese home cooking. However, shortly upon opening Peter began to put his own creative spin on traditional Chinese fare making dishes that were pleasantly new.
Chef Peter Fang’s cooking started to evolve when he began experimenting with traditional dishes and fusing them with local ingredients that he loved. His method of service also began to change as he began to realize that the long lines people were waiting in to try his food, meant customers were extremely hungry by the time they sat down, and having them wait longer to order was not acceptable.
He wanted his customers to be greeted with delicious food instantly upon arriving to their table, so he started to order for the customers himself, rather than wait to let them order. He would start to cook for them as soon as they walked through the door so that when they sat down, he could ladle food directly from the wok to their plate.
What started out as a simple operational solution to faster service, turned into House of Nanking’s signature trademark and guests loved it! Everyone now knew House of Nanking as not only one of the best Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area, and possibly all of America, but also the place where the chef doesn’t let you order. Peter’s fame became synonymous to the Soup Nazi in New York and Sushi Nazi. News traveled fast by word of mouth, articles and awards that were coming through. House of Nanking started appearing in several “Best Of” lists and appeared in articles and on TV including the San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Lonely Planet, Travel Channel, and many other outlets. People from all over the U.S. and the world started coming to dine at the restaurant and the lines grew, sometimes spanning the entire block. Everyone wanted to eat Peter’s food including top chefs, actors, athletes, politicians, artists, and other notable celebrities.
In 1997, Peter and Lily expanded the restaurant moving the kitchen to the back and added 25 more seats to meet the high demand. Before the kitchen was in the front of the restaurant and made of glass -- it still is today. The wok/burner faced the front windows which made it fun for customers waiting in line to watch the flames from Peter’s wok, but ultimately the space was too small to accommodate the crowds.
Peter also hired more employees and a sous chef to help him crank out more dishes. To this day, we are the same size as we were when we expanded and have maintained lines outside of the restaurant for over 30 years, which is really incredible in a city where restaurant competition is notoriously high. Restaurants close faster than they can open, and yet new ones pop up relentlessly, constantly challenging the old places that have been holding on since the beginning.
House of Nanking has been open for over three decades now and Peter and Lily still run the business as husband and wife with the addition of their daughter, Chef Kathy Fang. Kathy has followed in the footsteps of her father and has become a notable chef in her own right, appearing on various television shows and won the title of Chopped Champion twice on the Food Network.
After spending close to 15 years in the House of Nanking kitchen, as a child and teenager in between school, Kathy naturally developed a passion for her family’s business and most importantly, for cooking. She now helps manage the restaurant while her mother Lily at the age of 71 still works every single day. Peter now splits his time between running House of Nanking and Fang, the sister restaurant he opened in San Francisco with Kathy in 2009 who serves as Executive Chef.