As Chef Chu's turns 50, Larry Chu looks to the future | News | Palo Alto Online |


As Chef Chu's turns 50, Larry Chu looks to the future

'The hardest thing in the restaurant world is longevity.'

Chef Lawrence Chu stands in the kitchen of his eponymous restaurant, a local institution celebrating its 50th year in business. Photo by Sammy Dallal.

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.'"

Local Journalism.
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21 people like this
Posted by Shari Emling
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 30, 2020 at 5:03 pm

If you haven't been to Chef Chu's restaurant, you've missed a true star of the Bay Area. The menu choices are tremendously varied, the quality of the food is amazing, and the service is great. Where else does your lunch include a fresh pot of tea and their marvelous soup along with your entree - always finished with a fortune cookie - for such a truly reasonable price? Both Larrys are so friendly and cheerful and always make you feel your attendance has made their day complete!
Advice: make a reservation... this place is VERY popular!

17 people like this
Posted by Ron
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 30, 2020 at 5:18 pm

I am 54 and grew up here since I was 5 (born in SF). So I guess I could say I grew up with Chef Chu's and have memories here from countless visits (it was one of my parents favorite places. I probably identify with it more than just about anything else in the area as classic Los Altos.

I wish them the best for another 50 years!

7 people like this
Posted by Meh
a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2020 at 7:23 pm

Not authentic. It’s basically Chinese food for white people. Not bad—definitely better than Panda Express!

2 people like this
Posted by Marilyn Wong
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 30, 2020 at 8:25 pm

Worley Wong was the architect for the Empress of China. Look it up! It is no longer there but it was an amazing place!

7 people like this
Posted by Herta
a resident of Los Altos
on Jan 30, 2020 at 8:50 pm

We are big fans. The food is delicious. Try the miso-glaced sea bass and Sichuan style clay pot. We’ve ‘discovered’ the place a year ago. Multiple times we’ve sat next to local couples who shared a bit of history and anecdotes about the place. Priceless! Most importantly though, you are seen and greatly appreciated as a guest, something that’s hard to find in Silicon Valley these days. Chef Chu and Larry Chu jr. made us feel as if we were regulars from day one. I am not surprised that this place has been around for so long. It is a true gem!

16 people like this
Posted by Barry Wong
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 31, 2020 at 9:07 am

> Not authentic. It’s basically Chinese food for white people.

^^^ Very true but the same can be said of Mexican food & Japanese food as well.

Most white diners are very limited in their perception of foreign cuisine let alone what they will actually eat.

If ethnic restaurants in America served authentic food they would go out of can only get 'authentic' at a family gathering or meal.

6 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 31, 2020 at 10:17 am

You are under-playing the gallery of photos in the lobby of Chef Chu’s: when George Schultz was a Hoover fellow he liked Chef Chu’s. This led to LC getting invited to the Reagan White House and Chu meeting or feeding world leaders like Thatcher, Gorbachev and Schultz. If an Army marches on its stomach, world peace and the free world get takeout from Lawrence and now Larry Chu Of Los Altos.

27 people like this
Posted by I knew the snobs would come out
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 31, 2020 at 11:21 am

Poo poo...not authentic. HA! Is it,uhhh....Tasty?!?!
Those white people...always eating delicious food that's not authentic.
50 years people, 'nuf said.

2 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 31, 2020 at 11:29 am

Ok, ok, but this applies to other cultures/countries, too, for example, the ridiculous idea that England is portrayed by that hideous tv show Downton Abbey (make me laugh) - or that English sit around at High Tea with “English Muffins!” Haha.
Yes, they drink a lot of tea - that part is true.

Meanwhile, congratulations to Chef Chu’s for a successful, admired restaurant. Happy you are a part of this crossroads community of PA, LA and MV!

2 people like this
Posted by Filippo
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 31, 2020 at 12:23 pm

A go to place for us. My children are now adults and living overseas, but whenever they are in town a take-out from Chef Chu is mandatory (or more than one)

4 people like this
Posted by Nana Di
a resident of Monroe Park
on Jan 31, 2020 at 1:25 pm

I used to live in Monroe Park, and later in Midtown, and now I live in Santa Barbara. I miss Chef Chu's down here, and dine there whenever I visit family in Palo Alto. I have always loved the restaurant, the site of many Birthday celebrations in my Family, and I am so happy to see it getting the recognition it deserves. Bravo to Lawrence Chu; he is an inspiration. Best of luck to Lawrence Jr. for carrying on the tradition of quality and ambience.

8 people like this
Posted by Barry Wong
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 31, 2020 at 4:16 pm

> ...the ridiculous idea that England is portrayed by that hideous tv show Downton Abbey

British cuisine is an oxymoron as there is no such thing (unless you consider bangers, kidney pie or fish & chips to be their trademark contribution to fine dining).

The English specialize in 'pub grub'.

The British epicureans that I have encountered tend to embrace French cooking and French wines since they have no high-end native cooking of their own outside of some tasty provincial cuisine which is hard to find unless you are acquainted with someone who lives out in the country.

5 people like this
Posted by Julia
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 31, 2020 at 9:09 pm

Glad to see this gem of a restaurant celebrated! Both the food and the people are truly top-notch. In an area that has seen so much change and the recent folding of local institutions, Chef Chu's stands out. Here's hoping we get another 50 years!

4 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 31, 2020 at 9:35 pm

Barry, British cuisine has really improved. If you haven’t been to London recently, I highly recommend a visit.
(I’m married into an English family, btw.)

5 people like this
Posted by Richard
a resident of Meadow Park
on Feb 1, 2020 at 12:54 am

We have friends (Chinese and non-) that are fan of Chef Chu. It's definitely pretty good American-Chinese food. Heck, I even made Peking Duck using Mr. Chu's recipe.

Nevertheless, and this has nothing to do with snobbery, there are plenty of ethnic food that are closer to homes, including Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican. Just because you don't know where to find them, it doesn't mean they do not exist.

5 people like this
Posted by Just because
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 1, 2020 at 6:48 am

No, it's really about snobbery. It's thinly veiled, but its there nonetheless.
Some people hate it when other's enjoy things so they have to downplay or minimize it..."I guess it's OK..." LOL!
There are no secrets.

9 people like this
Posted by Barry Wong
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 1, 2020 at 3:34 pm

> there are plenty of ethnic food that are closer to homes, including Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican. Just because you don't know where to find them, it doesn't mean they do not exist.

^^^ Some people don't want to go there even if it is 'authentic' (i.e the barrio or Chinatown). Why risk a car theft or break-in?

As for Japanese restaurants, most are run by Koreans as sushi-making is not really an art form as once believed + teriyaki can be easily prepared by any non-Asian armed with a bottle of Kikkoman sauce & a Weber grill. way to tell a lousy Chinese restaurant is if you see a bunch of redneck types in cowboy hats dining there & using forks.

Another observation among some white folks...many are seen gorging themselves on sushi & sashimi while the Japanese often eat these menu items as appetizers.

5 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 1, 2020 at 7:57 pm

> Some people hate it when other's enjoy things

Really, I've never met anyone that hates when other enjoy themselves, unless it is at someone else's expense. Funny how dependent clauses like this are used to support the most ridiculous claims.

Chef Chu's is a good place. I have not gone there a lot, but have sampled it often over the decades. While I have noticed a lot of restaurants that claim to be authentic, and some of them even have lots of Asian people dining there, they are not necessarily the best places.

It could be my American taste buds, but what I mostly look for is quality ingredients cooked together in an appetizing way and presented professionally. Chef Chu's has held up their quality for a long time, but what has happened to so many Chinese restaurants?

It used to be that almost every Chinese place was fun to go to and at least pretty good, but not there are a lot that skimp on ingredients or service to the point that it is not worth it, yet I still see them full of patrons. I think the authenticity claim is a red-herring and not that important.

I think it must be hell to be a restauranteur these days with the rents and costs of everything, and cost-mindedness of the public as well. i wish them well, but I am only interested in going to places that have delicious wholesome good quality ingredients cooked well, and am willing to pay more for that. I think too many places aim low. Thank goodness Chef Chu's is not one of them.

2 people like this
Posted by @Barry Wong
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 3, 2020 at 1:23 pm

OK Barry, now talk about the driving to the restaurant part or maybe some anatomy discussionsy.
Aren't blanket stereotypes fun?!

5 people like this
Posted by Barry Wong
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 4, 2020 at 4:23 pm

>>> Barry, British cuisine has really improved. If you haven’t been to London recently, I highly recommend a visit.

^^^I suspect this is primarily due to the massive wave of immigration that has permeated the London area & the different cultural influences of the food now being offered.

The British certainly could not have improved or created their own brand of culinary expertise within the last 25-30 was the newcomers who influenced it (if at all).

The Brits have had over 1500 years to create a national cuisine of their own & outside of beef-heavy dishes or fat-laden food, they did not progress very far.

1 person likes this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 4, 2020 at 5:37 pm

Barry, I simply don’t understood your condescension towards London.
“London ranks as top city globally for vegan-friendly restaurants, “Dec. 2, 2019, CNBC.COM - nothing about other countries or cultures swooping in to advise the poor Brits.
“How London became one of the best food cities in the world,” April 26, 2016, Conde Nast Traveler - doesn’t particularly attribute this to France or etc.

4 people like this
Posted by Barry Wong
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 5, 2020 at 10:38 am

> Barry, I simply don’t understood your condescension towards London.

^^^ Not being condescending...just stating a fact.

Now don't even get me started on another UK health & dentists.

For a modern country, the United Kingdom's dental services & overall oral health have been likened to that of a 3rd world country.

It's no wonder vegan dining is now a cash cow.

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 5, 2020 at 7:16 pm

Again, Barry, you’re outdated. Dentists there are not part of National Health, they make good $ in modern times.
I know a newly qualified one there, he’s gone though high quality and extensive education. I would trust him.
Please stop your tired, outdated stereotypes.

4 people like this
Posted by Chef Chu’s Fan
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 5, 2020 at 11:50 pm

I live in Palo Alto and am Chinese. Chef Chu is an excellent restaurant in so many respects. My family and I have been dining there and getting take out for over 20 years. Great food and service, and the Chu family are committed community members. Thank you for being a part of the community and we look forward to dining there for years to come. Happy 50th!

6 people like this
Posted by Diane W.
a resident of another community
on Feb 15, 2020 at 10:47 pm

I started going to Chef Chu's right after he opened. At that time, they only had one unit in the building. It was so small they would close after lunch to prepare for dinner. Sometimes, I would knock on the door and Larry would sell me some of his frozen pork buns to steam at home.

Larry was eventually able to expand into the other units and in time he bought the entire building. At one point, he began writing his first cookbook and taught cooking classes as a way of testing out his recipes. For $10, he would teach a class, give out copies of the recipes and serve us the food he cooked. He was also an occasional guest on the Yan Can Cook PBS show. For a number of years he even led food tours around China.

In 1980, he catered my wedding (that's how much I love Chinese food). He did a wonderful job and I was thrilled! I knew one of his sons became the General Manager so, I assumed Larry had retired. Recently though, I stopped by to get some of the frozen pork buns and the cashier told me he didn't retired, he was actually working in the kitchen. She went and got him for me and I mentioned that he catered my wedding, 39 years ago. He asked my name. I told him it was Diane. He looked at me and told me my last name. What a memory! He is a wonderful man who is a wonderful chef. I don't care if his food is authentic or Americanized Chinese,(though I think it is, more than not). It's delicious and that's all I care about.

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