Michael Chen is primarily known for residential projects and one element of them that the architect particularly enjoys designing is the kitchen. In a brownstone in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood that his namesake New York firm, Michael K Chen Architecture, revamped in 2019, that meant maroon cabinets; an avocado green island with a sink on one side and a cutout for four stools on the other, so that a cook might prep and chat; and tumbling-block-patterned concrete floor tiles. He’s also fond of green serpentine stone (“I think a white kitchen is so boring,” he says), unobtrusive power outlets and high-end induction burners in lieu of gas ranges (“if it’s good enough for Thomas Keller…”). “There’s often a real tension in people’s expectations vis-à-vis kitchens between things that are beautiful and things that are functional,” says Chen, 46, “but I don’t see those qualities as contradictory.” His belief that a space can and should be both stems from his architectural training, of course, but also, like his interest in kitchens in general, from the fact that he is something of a cook himself, and thus able to anticipate a client’s needs in this arena.
His own kitchen, with a stone counter, a Flos light fixture by Jasper Morrison and a profusion of walnut cutting boards and Japanese knives, is the heart of the Chinatown, Manhattan, apartment that he shares with his husband, Andy Beck, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U. Until not so long ago, the apartment was the site of countless dinner parties that allowed Chen to show off his culinary skills and since, as he puts it, “acquisition is a bit of an occupational hazard in my line of work,” the many beautiful dishes he’s collected over the years, including asymmetrical ceramics by Eric Bonnin from Mociun in Brooklyn, vintage chartreuse Russel Wright lug bowls scored on eBay and marbleized plates from MK Studio purchased on a trip he and Beck took to Copenhagen. The pandemic put a pause on such gatherings, but, in the early days of it, Chen could still be found in the kitchen, nursing his sourdough starter or rolling out pasta dough for homemade lasagna. Then, last December, he decided to try his hand at another labor-intensive recipe: his mother’s beef noodle soup.
Known as niu rou mian in Mandarin, the dish is ubiquitous in Taiwan, where many mainlanders, including Chen’s parents, Robert and Grace Chen, moved during the Communist revolution of the 1940s. Accordingly, many of the regional characteristics of distinct noodle soups merged, creating what Chen describes as a bit of a mishmash. “It’…….