Johnny Chu of Sens & Tien Wong (Coming Soon)
Hannah E Williams
In his down time, Chu, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, travels throughout Asia looking for specific ingredients and researching new concepts, and he eats some pretty interesting things along the way. Back in Phoenix, if you weren't lucky enough to catch one of his former cooking classes, you might recognize him from the Asian market circuit, where he spends most mornings harvesting ingredients for the day. Otherwise, you can find him in the open kitchen at Sens or slaving away to ready Tien Wong for its projected opening this month.
We catch Chu between gigs to talk travel, sake, and Asian markets. He lets us in on what a deep-fried fish with scales tastes like, the sake for beginners and the reason he'd never write a cookbook.
Where do you draw your inspiration? When you travel a lot, it's inspiring. If you're an artist, I'm an artist myself, you always want to create, not do the same thing you do. I think that's what drives me to be both a chef and a business owner: To create something you believe in. I travel around and I see concepts out there, and I think "Why does our state not have that?" The food scene here is kind of boring, especially the Asian: It's always the same stuff over and over again, nothing's out there. Asian cuisine has so many regional foods that have never been brought to America. It's a shame.
Best place to travel? Every city and every country has its own uniqueness. My favorite place I have been is Viet Nam. Maybe the ingredients there are poorer than other countries - they don't have a lot of money and the ingredients are what they farm and grow in the backyards - but it's cool, it's different. If you give me a really nice piece of meat, I don't really see the chef skill in that, because it's so good, you don't have to do much to it. If you pick up something that's really inexpensive, you have to add the flavor and make it taste better, and that's a lot of technical work.
Most interesting or unusual food you've eaten? There's a lot of wild stuff out there. I was served a kind of fish with the scales and everything on it. They fried it, but you can really taste the scale: It's really crunchy. Most people would take the scales off, but this dish, they just fried the whole thing. I never tasted anything like it before. It's really good. What do the scales taste like? It's really crunchy, more like a fish chips on the lighter side. When you peel it off, it comes off with the skin. It has a different texture to it.
You have a giant sake collection; can tell us about it? We have like 80 to 100 different kinds. I always want to be creative. Everybody does a wine bar, but nobody ever does sake bars. We wanted to be the first one to do a sake bar in Phoenix. People are slowly enjoying it because it's different than wine. You need to really savor it, and not hot, that steams the alcohol out of it. We don't serve hot sake here: It's all chilled. What do you recommend people try first? The unfiltered ones are a little more sweet, so it's easier to drink. If you've never had sake, you should taste that first. We have a lot of different kinds though, and all our servers can recommend what to taste before you get into it.
Why is it so important for you to make the rounds to the Asian markets everyday? Our cuisine is all Asian cuisine, so our ingredients all have to come from the Asian markets. It's better, and I can get what I need. And the price is lower, because you don't have to special order it.
Any tips for people shopping at the markets and cooking at home? You can basically cook anything. Just be open-minded to try to do the food you like. When you're cooking, try to choose all ingredients that are similar personality-wise. You don't want to cook a carrot with spinach, because spinach is really easy to cook and the carrot takes a while. Preparing to cook is important because cooking is the most time-sensitive process. You don't want to start cooking if you're missing something. It's hard to tell by speaking, you need to show. Cookbooks are great to get inspired. But sometimes when you use a cookbook, the flavors don't always come out the same, because that cookbook is created by somebody else. Everybody can use it to get inspired or for cooking tips, but use your own flavors like the way you like the salt or sweet. You have to control it.
Would you ever write a cookbook? No. I don't think so. It's not easy for me. But I would love to teach and show people the real way to cook. I'd love to maybe go to their kitchen and show them how to put something together: Make a soup, prepare a salad, or steam a fish. I would love to do that.
Will you be reprising your cooking classes? I'd like to do it again, if I can find the time and the space.
Favorite kitchen tool? My knife.
Any unique cooking techniques? We are using all old-school stuff. In Asia, they call it clay pot cooking. We do that. And almost every single wok item we use is cast-iron, so we don't use the modern technology. Everything we do is all grandma-style: Cast iron, clay pot, steamer.
What's the next dish out of the kitchen? I never know. Every day, when I go to the market, it's the ingredients that I see that I create that day. So I really don't know what's next.
Check back tomorrow when we pry Chu for information on Sens and his eating habits and on Thursday for a recipe from the man who won't write a cookbook (better keep it!).
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