Johnny Chu of Sens & Tien Wong (Coming Soon), Part Two

Categories: Chef Chat

Yesterday, we heard from Johnny Chu. Today, the conversation continues.

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Hannah E Williams
Chef Johnny Chu cooks up traditional Asian fare in the open kitchen at Sens Asian Sake & Tapas Bar, infusing life into downtown Phoenix with his own eclectic décor and sleek outdoor patio. Now, he's working double time to open the Valley's first authentic Asian hot pot/shabu-shabu restaurant called Tien Wong in Chandler.

For Chu, being a chef is an artistic expression not necessarily a business decision. "We live in the moment," he says. "We live for today, and we don't really know about tomorrow." Luckily, his risks have paid off, and we have high hopes for his next bet.

Today Chu tells us he why he stayed in the restaurant business (to avoid college and hunger), how hot pot cooking works (sizzling hot soup), and what he's eating right now (it's not sweet-and-sour pork).

Click through for the details...

How did you get involved in the restaurant scene in the first place? It was a choice between going to college to get a better job or staying in the restaurant scene and making money. Most Asian families in the Asian food business are in it to 1) make a living and 2) not worry about two meals a day. You have two meals a day for sure. I just don't want to be hungry, that's all.

What motivated you to take the leap to open another restaurant? I always have something in mind, something I want to create concept-wise. The food has been there for a while, but nobody ever does it. I think you could put it this way: If you're a chef in the business, you get cold feet to do a lot of things, because you always think about the money. If you're an artist, you really don't think about money: We live in the moment. We live for today, and we don't really know about tomorrow. And that's the difference between an artist and a business guy. When you're in art, it doesn't matter how much money you spend on a piece you create. You never think about the market, if they really want it or what. But you try. If you think about the market, it's a business decision. You do something that people have done before because there's a market for it.

What's the idea behind Tien Wong? My wife and I have thought about it a lot, because that's the food we enjoy: All the fresh ingredients. Asian has a hot pot; Japanese call it shabu-shabu. You use all fresh ingredients, cook it the natural way and taste it. Arizona-wise, no one's opened one. We just decided to do it, because we believe in it. A second reason we opened it is because the real estate is so low. We're taking a very big risk to open a hot pot place; hopefully it'll work out. I don't know.

How does hot pot cooking work? We use an Asian soup: Chicken stock or daikon. You can order pretty much any way you want it. We have like six different types of mushrooms and six different types of tofu. It's not a fast-paced restaurant. You go to really enjoy the healthfulness. It's not stiry-fry, so no oil's involved. And it's revealing at the same time: You can see how fast the chicken and the beef will cook and get the taste of the natural ingredients.

You're the interior decorator as well as the chef, what was your design plan for Sens? We wanted to make everyone feel comfortable. The ambiance is really important. We wanted to bring something different. Interior doesn't have to cost a lot of money: It's having the vision, setting up the lighting, etc. If you're a low-budget guy without a lot of money behind you, you have to do everything.

Do you ever get nervous in the open kitchen? No. [Laughing.] The concept is letting everyone see how we cook food. I think the food tastes better when it comes up on the stove and right to your table. It just feels like home. If the kitchen's tucked away somewhere, then you really don't know what they're doing back there.

Where are you eating out right now? In town, I go to Yasu quite a bit, on Tatum and Cactus, for Japanese food. I eat at Pasta Bar sometimes for Italian. We don't eat out very much, because I'm here all the time. We probably go out maybe once every two weeks. I have two kids too, so it's not easy.

What do you cook at home? Today I craved lots of greens, so I added a little bit of ginger, a little bit of oil, a little bit of garlic, and pan-fried it. That's natural, doesn't have a lot of stuff in it. That's what Asians normally eat at home: Stir-fried vegetables, steamed chicken, or pan-seared fish. That's what we eat at home; not sweet-and-sour pork.

Check out part one of our Chef Chat with Chu for more details on his traveling inspiration and the big deal about the Asian markets, and check back for a recipe of authentic Asian home-cooking.

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