When Lawrence Chu opened his first restaurant in what used to be a coin-operated laundromat in Los Altos in 1970, he had a grand vision. He dreamed of replicating his 12-item Chinese takeout menu in cities across America -- a Panda Express before there was a Panda Express.
That dream fizzled over the years as Chu, a Chinese immigrant who arrived in San Francisco in 1963, put down deep roots in Los Altos. He slowly took over the entire San Antonio Road building, the restaurant steadily supplanting a dry cleaners, a vacuum repair shop, an insurance office. He married Ruth Ho and they had five children. He joined the Los Altos Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce and was later named "Los Altan of the Year." Chef Chu's became a beloved dining destination for generations of local families as well as celebrities, politicians and dignitaries.
Chef Chu's passed a major milestone in the restaurant industry this month: a half-century in business. If you ask Chu how his two-story, 250-seat restaurant has persisted for 50 years, you'll hear a series of personal proverbs repeated over and over. There's his signature, "treat every day like it's grand opening day," as well as some variation of "focus on one thing and you'll be successful" and "love your family."
But perhaps the answer is that the 76-year-old lives and breathes his restaurant -- so much so that the two are inseparable, that his name and the restaurant's name are interchangeable, that he describes the restaurant as a member of his family. (Embroidered on the pocket of his chef whites is "Chef Chu's" and in much smaller text, "Lawrence.")
"When you're with Chef Chu, you can't get away from Chef Chu. He wakes up in the morning, talks about Chef Chu, works all day, and then he can go to bed and talk about Chef Chu," said Larry Jr., Chu's oldest son, who now manages the restaurant. "Although sometimes it feels like it's a curse that you can't get away from, also it's a huge blessing because now we're here 50 years later."
To say that Chu is energetic is an understatement. He's still at the restaurant every day, working the dining room, talking to the more than 500 customers who dine there daily and reminding his 70 employees that even if he turns his back for a moment, "God is watching you." He has no intention of retiring any time soon. He's a prolific storyteller: A straightforward question about the restaurant's history quickly turns into a lengthy, passionate tangent about Chinese cooking.
Chu, who was born in Chongqing and raised in Taiwan, is not a professionally trained cook. He "learned how to eat before I learned how to cook," he said. He loved going to the market in China with his stepmother and watching her scrupulously select chickens for family dinners. He went on to study photography and design in Hong Kong, where he ate out often.
"I never thought I would become a chef but I'm ... a guy (who) loves good food," he said. "Who doesn't like food? Tell me."
His family eventually left China for the United States, and Chu followed several years later. His father was an architect -- he designed the iconic San Francisco restaurant Empress of China, among others, Chu said -- and a restaurant owner, running Mandarin House in Menlo Park. By day, Chu studied architecture and design; by night, he worked as a busboy at Trader Vic's in San Francisco, where he fell in love with the restaurant world. On his days off, he'd learn in the Mandarin House kitchen.
When Chef Chu's first opened in Los Altos, the small takeout restaurant served dishes like pork buns, mushu pork, kung pao chicken, chop suey and sweet and sour pork. (Today, the most popular dishes include Beijing duck cooked in a cast-iron oven, chow mein, broccoli beef and potstickers, of which the kitchen churns out up to 1,000 each day.) Chu put an emphasis on customer engagement, designing an open kitchen that would allow him to interact with diners.
He grew a loyal, local customer base. A Feb. 9 anniversary banquet the restaurant is hosting, which includes a champagne reception with Chu and special menu, has sold out. The $300-$500 tickets benefit the Los Altos History Museum.
There were two turning points in the restaurant's early history, Chu said. First, when they were able to expand the restaurant's footprint, and second, when San Francisco critic Jack Shelton featured Chef Chu's in his direct-mail restaurant reviews. Chu remembers Benny Goodman and Herb Caen coming in soon after -- celebrities of the moment who would give way to the likes of Justin Bieber, Barry Bonds and Steve Jobs.
Another turning point came in the early 2000s, when Chu called on his oldest son to work in the family business. Chu and his wife had banned the children from working at Chef Chu's when they were young, insisting that their long days and hard work would give their children the freedom to choose any career they wanted. They pushed them into speech and debate, theater and sports instead of the restaurant.
"My mom was definitely adamant about us having all the choices -- which is why they moved to the United States, for the choice, the opportunity to live the American dream," Larry Jr. said. "My dad worked hard. Restaurant hours are super hard."
On a fateful visit home from Larry Jr.'s sports marketing job in Hong Kong, he said his father sat him down and said, "I need to know what your intentions are." He ultimately decided to return because "I could never imagine Los Altos, this community, without Chef Chu."
Larry Jr., just as energetic and effusive as his father, is now the general manager, handling the front of house duties while his father is in the kitchen. As a kid, he noticed his father's absence -- at family vacations, basketball games, school events -- but now he said he understands the value of such a singular work ethic. He credits his father with serving accessible Chinese food that opened the door for the success of more regional Chinese cuisines in America, like hot pot and international chains like Din Tai Fung. He describes Chef Chu's as an "American-Chinese" restaurant, but not an Americanized one. All of the restaurant's chefs are from China, he noted.
Larry Jr. bristled at a recent New York Times story that attributed a decline of Chinese restaurants in New York City to the owners' American-born and educated children choosing less grueling, higher-paid jobs. The other Chu siblings found careers in film (Jon M. Chu famously directed "Crazy Rich Asians"), real estate and parenting.
He felt "insulted" by the article, he said.
"It sets the table that running a Chinese restaurant, what my dad has done for 50 years, is somehow less important than being a lawyer or being a police officer or being a VC at a hedge fund," he said. "It's hard work but it's honest work. It plays a big role in people's lives. There are so many people that come here and say, 'I had my baptism here and now I'm bringing my kids,' or, 'I had my rehearsal dinner here and now my daughter is having hers.'
"Those are the things we work for and make us feel valued," he said.
Larry Jr. is now the father of a 9-year-old, the third and youngest Larry Chu, whose basketball team he can't coach because he has to be at the restaurant. I asked Larry Jr., what if his son decides he wants to work in the restaurant?
"I'd say, 'Let's set you up for success. Let's teach you all the things my dad taught me to do: Treat every day like grand opening day. Focus on one thing and you'll be successful.'"