Chef Jonathan Wu on the esoteric vegetable that blew him away.
Come late April, you’ll always find Jonathan Wu, the chef at Fung Tu in New York City, here: up on a wooden ladder, plucking thin, dark green toon leaves from a tree in his grandmother’s backyard in Yonkers, New York.
“Grandma would chop the leaves and fold them into scrambled eggs,” says Wu. “I was out of my head when I first tasted them. The flavor blew me away: garlicky, mineral, earthy, bitter and unmistakably wild, like nettles or ramps.”
Which is exactly how Wu treats the hyper-seasonal leaves of toona sinesis, a deciduous tree native to eastern, central and southwestern China—like the frenzied wild leek.
“I got into them seven years ago, and they’re the vegetable I look most forward to coming into season,” he says. “As far as I know, no one else in New York City is using toon leaves.”
The leaves are his best-kept secret, but this year, he’s spreading the toon love. With the few hundred leaves he harvested, he’s riffing on his grandmother’s simple egg and toon leaf creation for an off-the-menu item at Fung Tu. The Per Se alum taps his fine-dining background for his Toon Cloud, a savory take on the classic French dessert of Île flottante.
He infuses egg whites in an aromatics for eight hours, then poaches the whites in a lightly smoked fish broth. He scatters the raw leaves on top, perfectly untouched.
“Everything that I cook has a story behind it, most of the time relating to the personal: family recipes, stories and memories. These stories behind the dishes gives them soul, and this is tremendously important to me.”
Next year, Wu plans to salt excess leaves to preserve them and crackle into a toon salt for, what else, soft-boiled eggs. But for now, you know where to find the next leafy, onion-y spring vegetable before it’s on every other menu.