Chef Lawrence Chu had big expansion plans in mind when he turned a former Los Altos laundromat into a Chinese takeout counter in 1970.
He envisioned opening a Chef Chu’s fast-food joint on every corner.
“Lucky I didn’t,” he says now.
If he’d achieved that goal, sure, he could have built a very nice business. But he probably wouldn’t have introduced thousands of children to Chinese cuisine via a school lunch program. Written three cookbooks. Fed luminaries from Mikhail Gorbachev to Serena Williams. Been invited to the White House, fed Silicon Valley’s most famous names or become the toast of this Peninsula community for his volunteerism.
And he may not have reached this milestone: Chef Chu’s restaurant is celebrating 50 years in business, a rare achievement in today’s rapidly changing culinary world.
“I so admire him,” says Jesse Ziff Cool, a fellow Peninsula chef whose Flea Street Cafe has just marked 40 years and who knows first-hand the challenges of running both the kitchen and the business. “He is one of the rare, truly dedicated restaurateurs who has made it.”
Chu himself is a little stunned at his restaurant’s longevity.
“I can’t believe this!” the effervescent chef says. “The first 10 years, that was, wow, we made it! And 20 years, that was amazing. And 30, oh, incredible. And 40, unbelievable. And 50, I realize how lucky I was. Right now it’s time to sit down, be humble, look back and see how lucky we are.”
Chu and his wife, Ruth, and their family created much of that luck. Born in China’s Szechuan province and raised in Taiwan, he worked at Trader Vic’s when he came to this country. He learned the fundamentals of Chinese cooking from the chef at his father’s Mandarin House restaurant in Menlo Park, before setting out on his own.
And just as he’s been more than willing to divulge his secrets for making Beijing duck with perfectly crisped skin, he’s happy to share his entrepreneurial tips for success.
Treat your employees well, he says. Treasure your customers. Give back to your community. Love your family. (And, of course, he says, “Consistency of food, that’s a given.”)
“The more I think about it,” he says, “it’s the community.”
Soon after opening the restaurant, he joined the Los Altos Rotary and Chamber of Commerce. He’s served on foundation boards for the local community colleges, hospital and YMCA. And he is donating the proceeds from a lavish, sold-out 50th-anniversary banquet in his honor to the Los Altos History Museum.
And then there’s the legendary work ethic of the Chu family, a trait passed down to Larry Jr., who became the general manager 18 years ago, and daughters Jennifer and Christina, who also work at the restaurant.
“There’s always a Chu in this building,” community leader Ginny Lear says after finishing her lunch. “And that’s what makes their success.”
At age 76, Chu arrives long before the lunch rush starts and surveys the schedule. It’s old school, a binder overstuffed with requests.
He checks to make sure everything is in order for the 300 meals that must be delivered to Google. Catering’s a big part of Chef Chu’s business — they pioneered meal delivery to Silicon Valley firms, often delivering up to 2,000 lunches a day — and he’ll join the line cooks whenever needed.
A smaller request comes in: Can the restaurant squeeze in St. Nicholas School for their Grandparents Day luncheon? Of course. As one longtime Los Altan confides, “People in the community know that chef Chu doesn’t say no.”
On any given day at Chef Chu’s, you’ll find decades-long fans like Dell Bleiler, a local who retired to the Grass Valley area but still drives down for his favorite shrimp chow fun. And millennial newcomers like Chiseng Hong and Weiyi Liu, two engineers at a nearby startup who come in four times a week for the chow ma noodle soup and other bowls.
So the menu that numbered just 12 items in 1970 now resembles a “dictionary,” with more than 100 dishes, Chu says, laughing. Joining the still-popular standards like almond chicken have been Hunan and Szechuan classics and a huge array of signature Chu dishes, such as the lemongrass-scented rack of lamb, the glazed sea bass and his cold appetizer plate with pickled sugar-plum tomatoes brined overnight in red wine.
No matter the dish, Chu’s cooks hew to his high expectations. Meaty, 7-pound ducks. The right noodles for each dish. Paper-thin pancakes for the mu shu (“Too thick and people think it’s a tortilla,” he says.) Rich, freshly made chicken stock for the hot and sour soup.
Those standards extend to the dining room, where Chu insists the tea be served in porcelain pots, never stainless steel.
“You can’t teach passion,” he says. “You have to demonstrate.”
When the opportunity came for Larry Jr. to decide whether or not to join the family restaurant, he says he simply had to look back on how he’d seen his father do business and connect with customers in his “every day is grand opening day” fashion.
“He was the best role model,” Larry Jr. says, tearing up a bit. “I’m happy to take on that mantle.”
But customers won’t see chef Chu leaving this corner of North San Antonio Road and El Camino Real anytime soon. He simply enjoys the restaurant life too much.
“Why would I retire? I love to talk. I love to serve people,” he says. “And I definitely like to cook a little bit!”
Chef Chu reflects on his Los Altos restaurant’s 50 incredible years