It's a busy month for Chef Shirley Chung. After opening Ms. Chi's door at The Field's, she's now preparing for Ms. Chi in Culver City. We recently sat down with Shirley and talked about cooking, cultures and fast food.
This is her story.
Where did you grow up? and how it affect your early interaction with food and cooking?
I grew up in Beijing and spent last part of my teenage years in the Bay Area California. My grandmother loved food, she would sneak behind my mom's back and brought me to night markets for street foods, but also brought me to formal national banquets where I got to taste and see lavishly carved vegetables, shark fins soups and bear's paw stew all those priced Chinese delicacies and traditional fancy Chinese cuisine as a child.
What brought you to the states?
My family moved to US in the 90s after my father was asked to exit the communist party and resign from his position in Chinese government technology department, after he openly supported student revolutionists during 1989 Tiananmen square protest. There are 5 generations of Chung family that live throughout Southern California, my father was also born in US, he was brought back to China by my grandparents in 1949. So moving to the US was a home-coming for my father to be reunited with all his extended families, it was also because my parents wanted to give me a better education, but most importantly, freedom of choice.
How did the journey change your cooking style, moving from SF to Vegas to LA?
I started in Napa Valley [cooking alongside Chef Thomas Keller of French Laundry], cooking very classical French cuisine with California ingredients, moved to Vegas, continued to cook French for couple more years, then started to cook Italian followed by Chinese and Mexican food. I only wanted to work for the best chefs in the world, it was all about building my resume. I was really good at translating their vision and had a reputation in Vegas as the best "opener “, " Shadow Chef". I found my culinary voice and started to cook Chinese American cuisine my way. Cooking my heritage on [BravoTV] Top Chef , follow by opened a Modern Chinese restaurant in OC. After 2 years in the OC, I finally found a location in LA. It has come full circle, dumplings are the first thing I learned how to make as a little 5 year old, now with what I know from all these years of cooking fine dining, and my passion for Chinese American food, Ms Chi Cafe will be opening soon in Culver City.
How has working in the kitchen in French Laundry and working with other celebrated chefs defined you as a chef?
Working in some of the best kitchens in the world taught me about discipline, working hard, importance of building a good foundation of skill sets, and what it takes to be successful in our industry. I was fortunate to learn from the best ,and be able absorb that and create my own path.
What is your perspective on LA dining after being one of the pioneers to modern Chinese cuisines?
I am looking forward to be part of exciting, inclusive LA dining scene. Now I live here, I am just stoked about having all of my favorite food within 10 minutes to my house, taco, pasta, noodles, dumplings and gumbo!! LA's food is crave-able, packed with all the exciting ethnic flavors, fresh and healthy, and a little laid-back at the same time. All eyes are on us- chefs from other cities are all coming to check us out. It's good time to be here.
How has being on television and Top Chef changed your lifestyle?
How has Top Chef changed my life style? Haha, for one thing, I try to wear makeup most of the time and look put together when I step out the house. There are just too many times that I looked like just rolled out of the bed and people asked to take selfies... And if strangers smile at me or stare at me, I will automatically say 'hi' to them.
What’s getting you excited lately?
I am helping Chinese Sichuan Master Chef Yubo look for a location for his first US restaurant here in Los Angeles. He will be cooking and serving an imperial style Modern Chinese tasting menu. I went to his house for a family meal, 14 courses later, I am in awe. To be able to watch him cook, and talk to him about the future of modernizing Chinese cuisine is the most exciting experience I had in all 15 years of my culinary career.
What is 'Chi' in Ms Chi?
Chi in Ms Chi has double meaning. Chi, when pronounced "Chee" means Energy ; Chi, when it pronounced with Chinese pingying "Chr" means Eat .
If you HAD TO pick a favorite meal from a fast food chain, what would it be and why?
You don't have to twist my arm, I love In N Out, burgers only. My meal there is always 2 double doubles with grilled and raw onions, no fries, their fries sucks and I don't drink soda, so I just eat more burgers. Especially when I came back from international traveling, it's always the first stop. I don't feel like I am home until I eat my double double.