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Crazy Rich Asian Chefs

What do you get when you mix three OG Asian chefs, a hot grill, and a healthy dose of dad jokes? If you’re lucky, lifelong friendships.

From left: Martin Yan, Lawrence Chu, and Khai Duong.

Editor’s Note:
This is one of many stories San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the October 2018 Legacy Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

When Martin Yan
is coming over for lunch, most chefs pull out all the stops. But when Khai Duong, the chef-owner of Khai, a modern Vietnamese restaurant in the design district, invites Yan to a backyard barbecue at his sister Ngoc Anh Hodges’s palatial estate in Los Altos, he isn’t trying to impress a celebrity chef. He’s simply catching up with one of his best friends. Two of his best friends, actually.

So as Duong sets up the sumptuous lunch spread, it’s with the kind of casualness reserved for family. He fires up the grill and preps the three whole ducks he plans to throw on top, heads still attached. This is going to be an Asian-style barbecue, after all. Yan is the first to arrive, looking serious and jet-lagged, having just returned from a long trip to Korea. (Even as he approaches his 70th birthday, he still spends two-thirds of the year traveling, he later explains.) Next is Lawrence Chu, proprietor of Chef Chu’s, a 48-year-old Los Altos institution, who’s giddy over the recent success of Crazy Rich Asians, which was directed by his son Jon M. Chu.

Later, holding a cleaver to cut up one of the ducks with the flamboyant confidence familiar to millions of viewers all over the world, Yan ad-libs, “You’ve seen Crazy Rich Asians. But have you seen crazy rich Asian...chefs?”

Duong and Chu have been friends for 16 years, ever since they started working together in the Asian Chefs Association, an advocacy and fundraising group that Duong cofounded in 2002. Both of them have known Yan for more than 30 years, their friendship with him dating back to the days when his PBS cooking show, Yan Can Cook, was a relatively new phenomenon—before he became one of the most recognizable Chinese Americans in the country.

Yan refers to the culinary trio as the “three amigos.” They’ve traveled overseas together for charity fundraisers sponsored by the Asian Chefs Association. They celebrate most holidays together—including this past Father’s Day, when, much like today, they met up at Duong’s sister’s home, fired up the grill, and cooked a simple meal. Yan and Chu are his brothers, Duong says. They’re his best friends.

The three chefs’ accomplishments speak for themselves: almost 100 combined years of restaurant-running experience and more than 3,500 television episodes filmed (with Yan alone accounting for most of those). Yan likes to say that he’s been only “mildly successful,” but he hasn’t stopped filming new episodes of Yan Can Cook since it debuted in 1982, making it the longest continuously running cooking show on television. The guy is still able to break down a chicken in 18 seconds flat.

Chef Chu’s has an even older pedigree. It opened in Los Altos in 1970, when the chef was 26. In the five decades since, the business has grown from what was essentially a precursor to Panda Express (12 simple dishes, served from a steam table) into one of the South Bay’s most glamorous Chinese restaurants—the kind of place where the wall is covered with framed photos of visiting dignitaries, from Justin Bieber to Margaret Thatcher.

How rarefied is the space that these guys occupy within the landscape of Asian American cooking? When Yan first met Duong at his family’s restaurant in Hartford, Connecticut, in the 1980s, Jacques Pépin was the one who made the introduction. And Duong himself has since achieved legendary status in the Vietnamese food community—for his pioneering nouvelle Vietnamese restaurant Ana Mandara, which had a 12-year run in Ghirardelli Square before closing in 2012; for the four years he spent as the taciturn head judge on Iron Chef Vietnam; and for his triumphant return to San Francisco to open Khai, a tiny restaurant that boasts a brilliant, boundary-stretching 10-course tasting menu.

Back at our little cookout, though, none of the chefs carry themselves with the kind of lofty demeanor that you might expect from living legends. Instead, the vibe is something akin to hanging out with your dad—or, well, three Asian dads, gathered together to give a supportive push to their wayward son. I say this as a son of Chinese immigrants who has been blessed with more than his share of Asian Dad Advice over the years. At 69, Yan is almost exactly the same age as my father. The important thing, if you want to be successful, he says, is that you have to be persistent—you can’t be afraid of failure. “Nothing is impossible. And impossible is nothing,” he says, dead serious, quoting the Adidas ad. After seeing him on Yan Can Cook, you might expect a repartee machine of sorts, a nonstop stream of corny jokes and wild hand gestures—the bit where he gives the chicken a vigorous massage before cutting it up, or the one where he just marvels at his own handiwork: “Look at this! Look at this!” But in person, the chef is reserved, intense, and almost professorial in his manner. He has a collection of 4,000 cookbooks in his office—he’s as proud, it seems, of his accomplishments as a scholar as he is of his feats of showmanship. “Very, very rarely do people get to know me,” Yan says. “They just see Martin having a good time.”

The friends’ personalities fit together like the pieces of a well-constructed puzzle. Of the three, Chu is the charmer, the spitballer, the one most likely to bust your chops. He’s tall, thin, and, even at the age of 75, impossibly spry. He recently cultivated an interest in salsa dancing, and every once in a while he busts out a hip wiggle, a little shuffle step. Duong, who’s 60, is by far the most soft-spoken, which makes him something of a silent assassin: When Chu is reminiscing about the long hours he worked the first few years after he opened his restaurant, Duong chimes in out of nowhere with a zinger: “You know what he was busy doing? Making babies. Five children in the first five years! That’s what kept him busy.”

These are markers of any normal friendship. But the three chefs do share a unique bond: They all started cooking Asian food in America more than 30 years ago, before that was any kind of obvious path to success—before today’s Asian American superstar chefs, the Brandon Jews and David Changs of the world, could have even imagined such a future in food. What was it like for Chu to open his little restaurant in a place where 90 percent of his customers were white and many had never experienced much Chinese food beyond chop suey? What was it like for Yan to start cooking on TV in 1982, thick accent and all, when there wasn’t any Martin Yan for him to look to as an example—when there were barely any established models, really, for an Asian face to be so prominently featured on the screen?

Yan recalls an incident in the ’80s during a cooking demonstration in Calgary, Alberta, when someone in the crowd shouted out that Chinese food killed, that it was loaded with MSG. Yan says he stopped his demo and asked the man if he’d ever seen MSG used on Yan’s show. Did he know that MSG was naturally created by the human body? Did he know how old Yan was? “I’m 88 years old,” he said. “My mother is the longest-living human being—136 years old!” Everyone laughed, and just like that, he won the moment.

In some cases, the chefs’ friendship has been precisely what helped them get through adversity—like the time, six or seven years ago, when the organizers of a fundraiser Duong and Chu were cooking for asked the Vietnamese chef not to make his signature durian dessert, because of the tropical fruit’s notorious smell. When Duong asked his friend for advice, Chu told him, “You have to cook the durian. If they like it, they will love you.” Even if they hated it, he told Duong, they would remember him for his daring. In the end, Duong served the durian, and everyone liked it so much that they wound up giving him an ovation.

One of the biggest perks of being friends with a couple of world-beating chefs is that you wind up eating pretty damn well. There’s a Vietnamese-style papaya-and-shredded-chicken salad drizzled with an umami-rich fish sauce dressing. There are crystal-prawn lettuce cups and a big platter of fried rice, fetched from Chu’s nearby restaurant. And when the ducks that he labored over all morning have been plated, Duong reveals that the dish is a new recipe he just came up with last week—and would Martin and Lawrence mind letting him know what they think of it? The birds’ lacquered skin has been brushed with lemongrass and red fermented bean curd as it grilled. Cut up into pieces now, the duck is served with steamed rice, scallion oil, and a salty, pungent sauce made from more of that fermented bean curd. Naturally, it’s delicious.


Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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