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Shirley Chung On The Journey From Fine Dining To Dumplings And Donuts

The 'Top Chef' veteran his shifted priorities from white tablecloths to fast-casual, and she's continuing to adapt with more new ideas.

Shirley Chung is chef/owner at Ms. Chi Cafe in Los Angeles. The two-time Top Chef finalist will be a judge on the new Top Chef Amateurs series in 2021.

I came from a very fine-dining background. My first job was with Thomas Keller as an extern at the French Laundry. Then I went to Vegas to open Bouchon and spent 13 years of my career in Las Vegas. I opened Guy Savoy, which was two-Michelin-starred fine-dining French cuisine. Even when I worked for José Andrés as executive chef of China Poblano, which was a more fun and casual style of restaurant in Las Vegas, there were still a lot of fine-dining touches, components, and ingredients.

Less than two years ago, I was looking at downtown LA locations to open my original idea, which was Madame Chi. Ms. Chi was the casual idea that spun out of Madame Chi. My ultimate goal then was to do a fine-dining restaurant that had tableside duck service. Madame Chi was going to be a really elevated modern Chinese restaurant, fancy banquet-style. But now that idea is going to put on the backburner for a while. One day, I’ll try to get my own Michelin star.

In a way, I’ve always sort of been living in the fine-dining world. Ms. Chi is the most casual thing I ever did. I don’t think I ever worked in any restaurant that didn’t have tablecloths before.

But even before the shutdown in Los Angeles County, Ms. Chi was already struggling, because we are a Chinese restaurant and there was discrimination after people heard that COVID had come from China. It was already affecting our business before Chinese New Year in 2020.

When the March 15th shutdown happened, we closed and laid off everybody so they could get unemployment. Then after staying at home for two months, it was May, and my husband Jimmy Lee and I just had this sinking feeling where we didn’t know how to come back at all.

There was very minimal money sitting in the bank. I was really thinking that maybe Ms. Chi was a lost cause. Everybody was hurting. We’re all freaking out. And at that moment, there were a few TV opportunities and appearance requests still coming my way.

So I was actually thinking that I needed to change the direction of my career and let go of the idea of running my own restaurant with my own money. I was thinking that maybe I needed to do more TV, and then just do management deals in the future where I don’t have to put so much heart and soul and our money into owning our own place.

But we tried our luck with a PPP loan. We applied with so many different banks and were very fortunate to be able to get our loan. That was about the same time that Los Angeles County announced we could be open for outdoor dining. So we decided to give it a try.

Our opening was considered very successful. We were busy. I was on the line every single day in the beginning when we reopened. But we were only doing about 25 percent of what we did before.

We didn’t pay rent for a while, and then we ended up renegotiating a five-year extension with our landlord because I’m hopeful about the future. We’re very lucky that our landlord was willing to work with us. We played hardball with the lease. And after months and months of renegotiation, we came to an agreement that we all feel kind of comfortable with. It’s a much lower rent—one that we’ll be able to afford, which is amazing.

During all this craziness, I had still committed to a few appearances and TV shoots. I actually left the restaurant to shoot Top Chef Amateurs for about a month. And two weeks of that was in Portland, so I was calling in to the restaurant and doing some operations. My amazing sous chef David Lam and my awesome husband Jimmy held it down. So the two boys in the restaurant were able to do a really great service.

The chicken dumplings at Ms. Chi Cafe. Photo: Courtesy Shirley Chung.

Sometimes when we were slow, I used to look at them and be like, “Why are you making all these mistakes?” But both of them are working so much better under stress. It’s literally like the more things I throw at them, the better they are. I felt so good about my team and everything when I was away filming.

After I came back home from a month of shooting, the business was thriving and I’m so happy. And soon as I came back, our Goldbelly holiday season shipping started. I’m one of the few dumpling shops on Goldbelly, and so many people are ordering food during the pandemic. My growth on Goldbelly is 1,000 percent. No joke.

So we’ve been in just nonstop Goldbelly production mode. I started selling tea-smoked duck on Goldbelly, and I’ve been cooking duck at 7:30 in the morning because I have to cook about 30 ducks every day. Every single person on our staff, including the runners and our barista, is working on Goldbelly. There’s like an assembly line in the front of the house. Jimmy is our number-one box builder. He can build 50 boxes every 20 minutes. We’ve been shipping about 200 to 300 boxes a week.

The staff is folding dumplings and packing all the condiments nonstop. My team is constantly cooking and flipping scallion pancakes because we sell 200 to 300 pieces of handmade scallion pancakes a week. Every single piece takes eight minutes in a pan to get the perfect fluffy layer. So sometimes, every single burner has a scallion pancake.

We’ve been so busy that we’ve been able to keep our staff even though outdoor dining was shut down again. We’ve even been able to give people overtime.

We didn’t have the capacity—either the human power or walk-in room—to create New Year’s Eve specials for the restaurant. So we just did regular à la carte service, and it was still so slammed. During the holiday season, I was able to give my employees extra days because we were so busy.

We’ve still been slammed in January. Chinese New Year is coming up. So there’s more holidays when we’ll be busy. I’m also working with Goldbelly to do a live online cooking demo with a meal kit.

I’ve never stopped looking for other ways to grow my business. You see ghost kitchens popping up, and I’ve added concepts onto Ms. Chi like fried chicken and mochi donuts. I’m also talking to companies and looking into other locations for ghost kitchens around Los Angeles.

I’ve also told some of my chef friends who don’t have restaurants anymore that they can use the Ms. Chi kitchen if they want to try something out. I have a lot of pastry chef friends as well. They can use Ms. Chi as an outlet to try out their new concepts. And this could also add revenue to Ms. Chi. I’m just doing anything I can to stay afloat and am hoping to grow, actually.

I think now I’m more of a businesswoman. I’m still equally passionate about food, but I want people to taste my food in a different way. I want everybody to taste my food. Before, I was only sort of thinking about the elite. I have a very different mentality now.

Because of the pandemic, we are operating our business in uncharted waters. My mentality of what kind of restaurants I want to open has changed. I want more people to have my food every day. I want to help simplify their lives. I will still do my fine-dining restaurant one day, but now I just want to feed people wholesome Chinese comfort food, one dumpling and donut at a time.