On his third day in the United States, Lawrence Chu went looking for a job. It was 1964, and the 21-year-old had just emigrated from Hong Kong to San Francisco. He spoke little English, but he had one advantage: His father, a well-respected interior designer who had already been in the States for two years, knew one of the bosses of a popular restaurant.
Chu walked to the Trader Vic’s in San Francisco to speak with the company’s Chinese-American vice president, who pointed him toward a manager. And that’s how, on his third day in a new country, Chu got hired as a busboy.
“I’m not ashamed about being a busboy,” Chu, now 75, says of the start of his restaurant career. “Anything you start at the bottom.”
Today Chu has very much ascended to the top as the proprietor of Chef Chu’s, a renowned Chinese restaurant in Silicon Valley. He has three cookbooks to his name as well as numerous awards, cooking classes, spokesperson deals (including an ongoing contract with Kikkoman soy sauce), and TV appearances. He’s served heads of state, celebrities, and perhaps most notably, Silicon Valley’s business leaders. The restaurant’s Los Altos location has gained a reputation as “Silicon Valley’s longest-running power restaurant,” where Steve Jobs ate in Apple’s early days and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Yahoo’s Jerry Yang have conducted business — billionaires striking world-changing deals over $15 plates of Hunan chicken.
Photos in identical gold frames adorn the entry area to the restaurant, commemorating visits by some notable diners outside the tech elite: Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Serena Williams, Jeremy Lin, and Justin Bieber, who brought his pal Jaden Smith along and tweeted his love for the restaurant to his 104 million followers.
But for all the celebrities and politicians it would eventually play host to, the restaurant had humble beginnings. Chu was born in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan and raised in Taiwan, where his family fled after the communists prevailed in China’s civil war. He spent his teenage years in Hong Kong, and those early years spent exploring Taiwan’s night markets and Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan array of cuisines served as an education in eating.
“I learned different dialects, food dialects,” Chu says.
His father first came to the U.S. in 1962 to design the Taiwan pavilions for the World’s Fair in Seattle; a commission to do the interiors of Tao Tao restaurant in San Francisco Chinatown then brought the family to the Bay Area. When Chu joined his family two years later, he attended school during the day, first at an adult school to improve his English, then at a community college where he studied architecture, later switching to photography. At night he worked at Trader Vic’s, eventually getting promoted to waiter.
Though Trader Vic’s mashup of Polynesian kitsch and pseudo-Chinese food conveyed an air of frivolity with its tiki decor and rum cocktails, the training for its staff was strict, Chu says. In its ’60s heyday, Trader Vic’s served as a trendy meeting spot for jetsetters and the well-to-do. There, Chu found that restaurant life appealed to him: “I love to talk. I love to eat. I love to make friends. Restaurant business fits my lifestyle,” he says.
Chu’s father got into the business himself, opening a small restaurant in Menlo Park, California called Mandarin House. Chu split his time between Trader Vic’s and his family’s restaurant, eventually going full-time at Mandarin House, where he learned the fundamentals of Chinese cooking from the head chef.
But it was love that pushed Chu to manifest his own restaurant dreams: In the summer of 1969, he met Ruth Ho, a Taiwanese immigrant, and fell hard for her. To impress her, he told her of his ambition to open a chain of quick, casual Chinese restaurants on every corner in America — a Panda Express before there was Panda Express (that popular chain was founded 14 years later, in 1983).
That November, Chu found a location in a strip mall, a former laundromat that sat between an appliance repair shop and a beauty salon. The architecture classes that he had given up on came in handy after all; he drew his own floor plans. In January 1970, Chef Chu’s opened. It was a tiny hole-in-the-wall with secondhand kitchen equipment and no actual dining room, just a steam table offering 12 items for takeout. Ho, then 20, quit school to help her boyfriend. “I owe her a lot,” he says. Later that year they got engaged, and the following year they married.
That first year at the restaurant, they struggled. But they persevered by listening to their customers and adjusting to their desires: When chefs cook for themselves, and not their customers, they will fail, Chu says. In 1970, people of Asian descent made up less than 2 percent of Los Altos’s population (compared to nearly 24 percent as of 2010). Chef Chu’s clientele was mostly non-Asian, and the Chus gave them what they wanted: sweet and sour pork, chow mein, fried rice, almond chicken — Americanized dishes that originated not from China, but from the “chop suey houses” popularized in the U.S. in the early 20th century. Even today, these four items are among their best sellers.
“It’s Chef Chu’s interpretation of Chinese cuisine,” Chu says. “I modify popular Chinese dishes to American tastes.”
Soon the restaurant expanded, taking over the beauty salon next door and adding dining tables. Three years later, the Chus bought the building. As the businesses around them closed, they expanded and prospered, later purchasing other lots surrounding the restaurant. The business paid for a house in Los Altos Hills and private school for the kids, and today, Chef Chu’s occupies the whole building, including a second floor that once housed insurance offices. The second floor is where the Nine Dragons dining room is located, named for a wall adorned with gold dragons that once decorated Mandarin House, his father’s restaurant.
But one thing hasn’t changed over the years: Chu’s attention to service and focus on communication with his customers. Since the very beginning he’s been eager to chat up customers about anything on their minds, including his Chinese heritage. “A Chinese restaurant is like any other ethnic restaurant. It’s like a cultural center,” Chu says, explaining that customers might ask him about a dish’s provenance, Chinese culture, or how to pronounce Chinese words. “That’s powerful.”
Anyone who meets Chu would not doubt his ability to talk all day. He is tall, with a gregarious presence, and talks with his hands, waving them around for emphasis and frequently adding sound effects: “Bap! Bap!” he cries, mimicking oil hitting a hot wok.
One morning in September, he held court with a visitor on food-related topics such as why Taiwan has such great food (because those who fled from China to Taiwan were the country’s elite and they brought their cooks with them, who then started side hustles); why drinking ice water with Chinese food is a terrible idea (because water and oil don’t mix, and the oil will rise to the top of your stomach); and why cooking Chinese food requires skill. “You can copy [other forms of cooking] because you can control the timing,” he says. “Wok cooking, you cannot control the timing. It’s a skill, it’s intuition, it’s the experience — together.” He talks about how he cooks certain dishes, but also about the philosophy behind those dishes, and more broadly, the history of Chinese food and its migration.
Chu’s thoughts roam quickly, going back and forth between topics, picking up and dropping threads, but he also speaks in sound bites, in short dad aphorisms.
“Treat every day like it’s grand opening day,” he says more than once.
“We don’t use MSG. We use TLC!”
Chu talks about Chef Chu’s so much, it’s sometimes hard to tell if he is speaking of the restaurant or referring to himself in third person. They are, in a way, one and the same: Diners may come for the candied pecans with jumbo prawns, but they return for the big personality making his way around the dining room. Even at 75, Chu still comes to work every day, ensuring that every dish leaving the kitchen adheres to his standards.
Though the Chus banned their kids from working in the restaurant when they were growing up, encouraging them to pursue their own dreams, three of them have gotten involved in the family business. After a stint in sports and event management, Larry, Jr., the eldest Chu sibling, joined his father 18 years ago as manager; he oversees the front while his father looks after the kitchen. Chu’s daughters, Jennifer and Christina, have been familiar faces at the host stand, welcoming diners.
Jon M. Chu, the youngest of his five children, has brought a new power-restaurant sheen to the business in recent months: A Hollywood director whose recent film Crazy Rich Asians has grossed $232 million worldwide, he brought stars Constance Wu and Henry Golding to the restaurant for a press event in August ahead of the film’s release. They filed out of a car and up the stairs to the dining room, a TV camera crew trailing them, where a line of Chef Chu’s employees in black-and-white uniforms greeted them. After posing for photos, the stars lined up for the buffet. On offer: popular Chef Chu’s dishes like basil beef and his famous chicken salad.
Chu doesn’t like to be away from the restaurant for too long, 45-year-old Larry says. When the family attended the red carpet premiere of Crazy Rich Asians in Los Angeles, Chu and Larry stayed just one night, skipping breakfast with Jon the morning after the premiere and party. “That drives Chef Chu crazy — if I’m not here and he’s not here,” Larry says. “Dad and I were on an 8:30 a.m. flight [back].”
Between the two of them, Larry says he’s the more traditional one when it comes to food. His father is the one always pushing things and trying new ideas. That may have earned Chef Chu’s a reputation amongst food snobs for being inauthentic Chinese — but what is authenticity, really, when a cuisine migrates with a people?
After seeing Crazy Rich Asians, in which the protagonist goes to Asia with her Singaporean boyfriend and meets resistance from his family for being too American and not Asian enough, Larry sees what his father has accomplished in a new light.
“I used to get upset when people used to say, ‘Oh, this is not Chinese Chinese food. This is Chinese-American food.’ I’d say, ‘No. All our chefs are Chinese from different provinces. They do authentic cuisine.’ But then I realized, after the movie, that we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. We should actually be proud that this is considered Chinese-American food because without Chef Chu, without doing this in 1970 and expanding everyone’s palates, there would be no Little Sheep,” he says, referring to the popular Mongolian hot pot chain.
“There would be no specific Hunan place, no Sichuan place where they can do a soup so spicy most Americans can’t eat it,” Larry continues. “Those restaurants wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Chef Chu’s.”
Melissa Hung is a writer whose essays and reported stories about culture, race, and immigration have appeared in NPR, Vogue, and Catapult. Michelle Min is a food and travel photographer based in San Francisco.
Editor: Erin DeJesus