At 96, a legendary chef can still inspire 'the best' Chinese food

Updated: 2014-04-25 11:51

By Chen Jia in San Francisco (China Daily USA)

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In 1979, Time magazine wrote articles about two legendary Chinese figures: one was politician and reform leaderDeng Xiaoping; the other was a chef who moved from the Chinese mainland to the United States - Henry Chung.

Today, Henry's Hunan Restaurant is still a must-stop for Western tourists in San Francisco Chinatown and a popular choice for diners who work near the financial district.

Faced with competition from the hearty Cantonese fare of other restaurants in Chinatown, Henry's Hunan keeps attracting Americans through the special tastes of his dishes.

Chung, now 96, told China Daily he has never felt ashamed to admit that he used to be a diplomat.

"The turning point of my life happened after the then President Nixon's China visit," Chung recalled.

"Thanks to warming diplomatic relations between two countries, Americans became more familiar and curious about Chinese culture and food," he said.

Born in 1918, Chung grew up in a Chinese family with a literary reputation. His grandfather was a pioneering educator in Hunan province.

In 1938, Chung enrolled in National Central University and studied English for two years before transferring to the history department.

After graduation, he became a diplomat and in 1945 traveled to Japan as a member of a military delegation.

Chung and his wife Diana came to the US in 1948 when he was posted as counsel in Houston.

However, his diplomatic career lasted only a few months, as political troubles in China cut off his income. His wife persuaded him to quit the job and start their own business in the US.

At 96, a legendary chef can still inspire 'the best' Chinese food

From Houston to San Francisco, the couple struggled running an ice cream booth, hamburger joint, shoe repair shop, toy store, laundry and a cafe.

"When I was busy with our business on the island of Guam in 1976, newspapers brought the great news that Nixon visited China and diplomatic relations between two countries would start a new chapter," Chung said.

"My wife's first reaction was that we should open a Chinese restaurant to promote our hometown-style cuisine in the US," he said.

In 1974, the couple opened their first Hunan Restaurant on San Francisco's Kearny Street. Today, diners have three more locations to choose from in San Francisco, on Sansome Street, Natoma Street and Sacramento Street.

Prized for its simple yet flavorful dishes, Hunan Restaurant has garnered praise from critics at distinguished publications such asThe New Yorker,which said simply: "Hunan Restaurant is the best Chinese restaurant in the world."

In 1980s, Chung was named one of the Four Famous Chefs in the world by the World Association of Chefs Society, joining one French chef, one Italian and the chef at the White House. His chain of restaurants quickly grew to seven.

After retiring, Chung donated two primary schools and one middle school to his hometown in Hunan province.

"I haven't been back to China since 2009 because of health issues," he said, "but I always walk on San Francisco's China Beach and look in the direction of my hometown."

 At 96, a legendary chef can still inspire 'the best' Chinese food

Henry Chung made a keynote address as the honorary chairman of the Hunan Association of America at a symposium on April 1 held at the Consulate General of China in San Francisco on Ho Feng-shan, a diplomat who helped Jews escape the Holocaust. Chen Jia / China Daily

(China Daily USA 04/25/2014 page2)