Mr. Schoenfeld became obsessed with Chinese food early on.
“I must have been 11 or 12 when I first went to the Great Shanghai on Broadway and 102nd Street,” he told the website Serious Eats in 2018. “I remember having my first spring roll! Not a egg roll – this was thinner and more delicate.”
In his teens, he ate weekly at Shun Lee Dynasty, which opened in 1965, and embarked on a strenuous program of self-study. He studied with Grace Chu, whose cooking classes and cookbooks introduced generations of New Yorkers to the subtleties of Chinese cuisine, and did postgraduate work, so to speak, hosting banquets with the best Chinese chefs in New York.
“When I found a particularly good chef, I would often return to him, hoping that he would delve deep into his repertoire to showcase his skills and art,” Mr. Schoenfeld told the website egullet.com in 2001. . Luck brought him into the hands of Lou Hoy Yuen, known as Uncle Lou, Mr. Keh’s Szechuan Taste, one of the first Szechuan restaurants in New York.
“I was exposed to a level of cuisine that most top professional chefs couldn’t produce, and the standards and flavors I encountered gave me an incomparable education,” said Mr. Schoenfeld. “Uncle Lou never explicitly showed me how to cook a particular item. Instead, he made me observe, like a master and a student. I learned by watching, tasting and ultimately trying to put my knowledge into practice.”
He briefly attended New York University before dropping out to host Chinese banquets, which he financed by driving a taxi. On the side, he wrote a column on food and restaurants, “Gravy Stains,” for the Brooklyn Heights Press newspaper. One evening at Szechuan Taste, he ordered an esoteric carp head soup, which caught the attention of Mr. Keh, the owner. The two got to know each other and in 1973, when Mr. Keh opened Uncle Tai’s, one of New York’s first Hunan restaurants, he hired Mr. Schoenfeld as his assistant.
“I was a hippie-dippy guy and he threw me in the tackiest blue tuxedo with a big frilly shirt and a bow tie,” he told the website Restaurant Girl in 2013. the most popular Chinese restaurant in the country without ever having worked in a restaurant before.”
The wild ride ended after two years, when wars between rival factions in the restaurant’s kitchen claimed Mr. Schoenfeld as a victim.