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 an egg roll — this was thinner and more delicate.”
In his teens he ate weekly at Shun Lee Dynasty, which had opened in 1965, and embarked on a strenuous program of self-education. 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, by organizing banquets with the top Chinese chefs in New York.
“When I found a particularly good chef I would return to him often, hoping that he would delve deep into his repertoire showcasing his skill and art,” Mr. Schoenfeld told the website egullet.com in 2001. Good fortune placed him in the hands of Lou Hoy Yuen, known as Uncle Lou, the chef at 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 weren’t able to produce, and the standards and flavors that I encountered gave me an incomparable education,” Mr. Schoenfeld said. “Uncle Lou never explicitly showed me how to cook a particular item. Instead he let me observe, like a master and a student. I learned by watching, tasting and eventually trying to put my knowledge into action.”
He studied briefly at New York University before dropping out to arrange Chinese banquets, which he financed by driving a taxi. On the side, he wrote a food and restaurant column, “Gravy Stains,” for the newspaper Brooklyn Heights Press. One evening at Szechuan Taste, he ordered an esoteric carps-head soup, thereby attracting the notice of Mr. Keh, the owner. The two struck up an acquaintance, 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 hippy-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. “I found myself at the front door of what was basically the hottest Chinese restaurant in the country without ever having worked at a restaurant before.”
The wild ride ended after two years, when warfare between rival factions in the restaurant’s kitchen claimed Mr. Schoenfeld as a casualty.