Johnny Chu Dishes on Hong Kong Street Food and the Questionable Authenticity of Local Chinese Restaurants

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See also: Johnny Chu Opens SoChu House with a Hip Ambiance and Plenty of Cocktails

Johnny Chu SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar 2801 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix 602-340-9777

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. Did you cook as a child/teen? If so, what did you like to make?: As a child, I loved to go out to eat. In Hong Kong, there are so many street food vendors and epic dim sum places. My grandpa took me out almost every day for a snack or meal. These memories gave me the passion to create my own food, based on these childhood influences.

What do you call your style of cooking?: Global Asian.

What does "Neo-Asian" mean in terms of your menu/cooking?: Familiar yet unique. I have my own take on Asian, and I include global flavors and techniques.

Do you consider yourself a Chinese cook with an American sensibility or an American cook with an Asian sensibility?: I am a Hong Kong-born chef, and Asian cuisine is my background and base. This is what I am good at -- creating global Asian flavors. My restaurants are not just about food but also about ambience, music, art, lounge, social . . . When this all comes together, it's like a symphony. Magic happens.

Do we get authentic Chinese food here in metro Phoenix?: There are authentic Chinese and Asian restaurants here, but compared to other large cities, Phoenix has a lack. Lots of places in Arizona are stuck in 1975-1985. Back in the '70s, you put up a sign that said, "Chinese Restaurant," and people would go. Caucasians think Chinese food is kung pao chicken and sweet-and-sour pork. It's okay, but nowadays, we also talk about healthiness, cleanliness, and entertainment. It's different now. People travel. They know food.

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles

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