Chef Shirley Chung
Driving up to La La Land I am fullof anticipation on my next interview. Shirley has been on my radar for this project since I started it. Seeing her energy and passion on television I can only imagine what I am in store for. I am glad we are meeting at a coffee shop because I definitely will need some caffeine in order to keep up with her.
Can you tell me about your background and how you got into food.
“So I was born and raised in Beijing China. I came to US at age 17. I finished college in California where I majored in business administration. My dad was in semi conductors and wanted me to take over the family business. I worked in Silicon Valley for five years but that wasn’t my dream. I loved to cook and throwing dinner parties. This stemmed from my Grandmother who worked for Red Cross. She would bring home different types of international foods and teach me about them. This really opened up my palette and help create my love for food. I started cooking at an early age of about seven years old because my mom and nannies didn’t cook. This grew into me always cooking for my family. So after the five years in Silicon Valley I had re evaluate what I wanted to do. My husband Jimmy recommended at this time would be perfect opportunity to make a change. We talked about it and after a brief tour at CCA I enrolled. During culinary school I was staging at Gary Danko’s but I wanted The French Laundry (this was when it was at it’s prime, early 2000’s). I would go up to TFL every day after school to see if someone would talk to me. I sent in my resume and wrote letters. Finally chef Mark Hoppers talked to me and ended up being my first chef to work under for my externship. After my externship I got hired at Bouchon as oyster bar for Thomas Keller! I mean hello..I’ll take that!”
You have worked under some legendary chefs. Can you tell me about that?
“After Thomas Keller and Bouchon, I ended up in Las Vegas because my sous chef Mark went there to open Bouchon. So after Bouchon I opened Guy Savoy as a master cook. I then joined Mario Batali group and worked for them for five years. My first chef de cuisine position was at Carnevino. I ended up getting fired from the group due to politics but it was a blessing in disguise. Then Jose Andres ended up knocking on my door. Prior to China Poblano I didn't want to cook my heritage, Chinese food. Jose said to me “you are Chinese, you know so much about the culture”. So I started to cook and really got noticed from James Beard Foundation nomination and especially in Las Vegas. I think this is were I really started to embrace my culture and to cook it’s food.”
What inspires you?
“Life inspires me. What really inspires me the most is emotion. A memory.”
What kind of advice would you give to a young chef?
“The fundamentals are very important. The basics, knife cuts. Don’t try to run before you can walk”.
What kind of emotion does the phrase female chef have on you?
“I think we all want to be just referred to as chef. There is no term male chef. But I think in these changing times if you call me female chef I hope that it gets more attention so as to inspire little girls to become chefs. Then I am ok with it.”
If you weren’t a chef what would you be doing?
“I would like to something in fashion. Probably a shoe designer. The visual, the colors, textures all intrigue me.”
What would your last dish be?
“That’s easy. It’s a Beijing dish with hand cut noodles, with a fermented soy bean sauce and mined pork.”
After sitting with Shirley I am somewhat in awe. Her drive and her passion is infectious. Coming from another country as an immigrant and succeeding as she has is extremely impressive. But within all this is her desire to cook from her heart. She has taken everything she has learned and put it all into her food. Like a warm bowl of hugs.