Johnny Chu Dishes on Hong Kong Street Food and the Questionable Authenticity of Local Chinese Restaurants

Johnny Chu-seated.jpg
Nikki Buchanan
Johnny Chu in dining room at Sochu House

See also: Johnny Chu Opens SoChu House with a Hip Ambiance and Plenty of Cocktails

Johnny Chu
SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar
2801 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix
602-340-9777

This is part one of my interview with Johnny Chu, chef-owner of the just-opened SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar. Come back tomorrow for part two, when Chu talks about what Americans don't get about Chinese food and the kind of food he really likes to eat.

It's 4:45 on a Thursday afternoon and Johnny Chu is getting ready for a 5 p.m. grand opening at Sochu House, his sleek but sultry new restaurant on Central Avenue, which partially clones the former Sens downtown. As he glides from room to room, checking the sound system and giving instructions to his staff, he's a poster boy for the Dry Idea "Never Let Them See You Sweat" campaign -- nervous but unruffled, the picture of Confucian steadiness and calm.

Born in Hong Kong, Chu came to Arizona with his family when he was 13, graduated from Camelback High School, and spent lots of time in the kitchen with his father, who taught him the rudiments of Chinese cooking. At age 16, he also worked as a prep cook in the family's Chinese restaurant. But Chu likes to say he earned his culinary education by dining around the world. He's traveled to Hong Kong and Vietnam extensively and eaten his way through Asian and other ethnic communities in Vegas and Los Angeles.

So when his father suggested (post-graduation) that Chu either go to college or make a career of the family's Chinese restaurant business, he took a third option: doing his own thing by opening a restaurant that would draw from Chinese traditions without adhering strictly to them. In 1998, Chu opened Lucky Dragon in Tempe (a restaurant and art gallery with live music) and garnered his fair share of buzz.

Eager to be part of downtown Phoenix's burgeoning art scene, he closed Lucky Dragon and opened pan-Asian Fate in the heart of Roosevelt Row's art district in 2003. A trip to Vietnam (and some landlord disputes) inspired him to close Fate and open Sens, a hip but elegant spot predicated on Asian tapas, in 2008, followed by Chandler's Tien Wong Hot Pot in 2011. Learning what a struggle operating a downtown Phoenix restaurant could be, Chu closed Sens in late May to open SoChu House in CenPho.

Chu and his wife, Linda, also will open Lantern, a modern Asian restaurant in Peoria, in the coming weeks.


Location Info

SoChu House

2801 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, AZ

Category: Restaurant

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4 comments
lovethenew
lovethenew

I am not sure why people are hating on this guy...sounds to me its a little persona, but the way I see it Phoenix needs more people like Chu to bring fresh new concepts and restaurants.  Phoenix is a large city and there is a lack of these kind of places to dine and lounge.  Seems like he has managed to open and still open independent restaurants that others including myself love.  For this I will support Chu for providing the peeps in Phoenix and myself to enjoy good food and great drinks..

nothingbutlies
nothingbutlies

This dude is not born in Hong Kong and never graduated Camelback High although he did attend Camelback for a VERY short time. They're family is from Vietnam, a region of Vietnam where 2nd to 3rd generations are the majority. I had the chance to meet his father and mother, 2 very down to earth people who this dude never appreciated and continue to take advantage of.  I will never support this dude and I know I will get an earful but I've known this family since the days of Lucky Dragon and all this dude wants is to be set on a pedestal and everyone to look up to him. Ask anyone who has ever worked for him, worked "with"him, or did business with him. One word, shady! Karma's hanging over his head!

SkilletDoux
SkilletDoux

"There are authentic Chinese and Asian restaurants here, but compared to other large cities, Phoenix has a lack. Lots of places in Arizona are stuck in 1975-1985."

 

Oh, well, then opening Asian fusion joints that are stuck in 1990-1995 totally makes sense.

SkilletDoux
SkilletDoux

 @lovethenew I can't speak to anything nothingbutlies has said, but I have to (politely) fight you on this.  These kind of long on style, short on substance, quirky fusion without a strong technical foundation places are precisely what Phoenix does *NOT* need.  We're up to our *eyeballs* in globally influenced small plates served with trendy cocktails in an ultralounge atmosphere, and most of it is awful.  That kind of food can be great when it's solidly grounded in the cuisines from which it's derived, but fresh and new for fresh and new's sake is bullshit.  Everybody wants fresh and new and there's no place to get shabu shabu.  No live coal Korean BBQ.  No yakitori.  No decent ramen shop.  No reliable Sichuan.  Barely any regional Chinese other than Cantonese.  Weak Thai.  No izakayas... look, the point is as a city, we're trying to do cool creative stuff with cuisines that aren't even represented here in their *traditional* state.  You have to walk before you can fly.  And all would be forgiven if these fusion restaurants were good, but they're not.  They're just not.  They're flashy and cool and neo and trendy and creative window dressing covering up mediocre food that's completely lost the soul of the cuisines that inspired it.  If Johnny Chu laments that people here don't know what real Chinese food is, I wish he'd show them what real Chinese food is rather than opening his 37th hip fusion sake joint.

 

One man's opinion, obviously, but we most emphatically do *NOT* need more of that.

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