Chung serves exuberant Chinese-American food (think cheeseburger potstickers) and cheese-foam tea.
L.A. chef Shirley Chung was born in Beijing and lived there until she was in high school, but she’s always been Chinese-American. She’s part of a Chinese family who’s lived in California since 1900. Her grandfather, who studied medicine in Beijing, migrated back and forth between China and the United States for three decades. Her father was born in New York and had a political career in China that was derailed when he openly supported the Tiananmen Square protest. He moved to California, in search of a freer existence for his daughter.
Today, Chung, who recently debuted a stand at The Fields L.A. food hall, is opening Ms. Chi Café in Culver City for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The restaurant is exuberantly Chinese-American with the jumbo cheeseburger potstickers, served with tomato-bacon jam, that won Chung a challenge on Top Chef. But the story starts much earlier.
“When I was three, my favorite foods were ice cream, spaghetti, and chocolate, and I would ask for them in English,” writes Chung in her new cookbook, Chinese Heritage Cooking From My American Kitchen (out on October 23).
Her grandmother, who was the foreign ambassador for China’s Red Cross, would bring Chung food from her travels around the world. She would also take her granddaughter to fancy government banquets in China. There, Chung would eat beautifully carved cold vegetables and delicacies like abalone and sea cucumber. She was awestruck by the flavors and elaborate plating. Chinese food, she quickly learned, contains multitudes.
Long before she worked for Thomas Keller in Napa Valley and then opened seven Las Vegas restaurants, long before she ran the kitchen at José Andrés’ China Poblano at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, long before she became a two-time Top Chef star, Chung was rolling dumplings at home in Beijing when she was six. By the time she was eight, she started cooking herself lunch like fried rice and “fancy ramen noodles with poached egg, seasonal vegetables, and ham.”
At Ms. Chi Café, Chung is serving scallion-pancake sandwiches stuffed with Chinese-spiced pastrami or avocado, bacon, and chicken. She’s got vegan mapo tofu, which represents so much about L.A. food in 2018, whether you’re looking for a plant-based meal or the fire, mala, and umami of Sichuan cuisine. She’s not making the riffs on ramen she cooked as a child, but she’s got shrimp-and-pork wonton noodle soup with bonito, fennel, and imperial broth. There’s a hot dog bao. There’s a molten dark chocolate bao that looks like a hedgehog, spikes and all.
Chung’s also playing the classics. Ms. Chi serves resplendent and habit-forming wontons in chile oil with Sichuan pickled vegetables. Her comforting Hong Kong minced beef should be in the #UglyDelicious hall of fame, although the micro-cilantro garnish actually makes the dish kind of pretty. Her chilled sesame noodles with chicken and chile oil offer a combination of spiciness and coldness that pleasantly jolts your palate.
Ms. Chi is open all day, and the restaurant is making all its own pastries, including mochi donuts and scallion scones. There’s coffee, lots of boba, and tea topped with cheese foam. The restaurant is counter-service during the day, while table-service dinner includes dishes like garlic gulf shrimp as well as beef and broccoli made with skirt steak. Chung has plans for boozy brunches with tea-based cocktails.
This is just the beginning of Chung’s quest to give L.A. her version of Chinese-American food. She’s also working on downtown’s Madame Chi, a more formal supper club she plans to open in 2019. Expect Beijing duck and large-format seafood dishes presented dramatically to resemble what Chung saw at banquets in China. And, of course, you should also expect some American twists.
“I feel like Chinese-American cooking needs to be modernized to match a lot of other cuisines,” Chung says. “There’s been a movement to modernize a lot of foods. People are so used to Chinese-American cuisine that they almost forget about it.”
So at Ms. Chi, Chung hopes to change the conversation dominated by Panda Express while making everyday food with the skills and worldview she developed working for chefs like Keller, Andrés, and Guy Savoy. It involves, Chung says, “the freshest ingredients I can source and using my experience from fine dining but toning it down to make it more approachable"—like taking ingredients (pasture-raised local chicken) that you’d find in a club sandwich at an upscale California-cuisine restaurant and wrapping these ingredients in a scallion pancake.
“I want to combine things that are familiar,” says Chung, who’s been eating all kinds of familiar things her entire life.
On one level, you can say that life and identity are complicated and often challenging and unpredictable. But if you’re Shirley Chung, you can also just celebrate the best of both of your worlds.