Johnny Chu Dishes on Hong Kong Street Food and the Questionable Authenticity of Local Chinese Restaurants
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
SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar
2801 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix
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.