Last December, a Houston Press reviewer stopped by a new Chinese restaurant called Hunan Paradise (2649 Richmond, 526-1688). Kathy Biehl was taken with the fusion-style food, but noticed an uncanny resemblance to the cuisine served at the Empress of China (5419-A FM 1960West,  583-8021). Her review has triggered a food fight of epic proportions.
Scott Chen, the voluble owner and head chef of the Empress, read Biehl's article with a mixture of horror and outrage. He says he was stunned to learn that former Empress employee Jiwah Vong was serving Chen's signature dishes at Hunan Paradise, some barely disguised under slightly different names. "Filet mignon à la Empress" appeared as "filet mignon à la Paradise"; his "beef à la Scott," he scoffs, morphed into "beef à l'orange."
Mind you, these disputed recipes are not just sweet-and-sour pork or the ubiquitous Kung Pao chicken. The Empress of China is lauded as one of the most imaginative East-meets-West restaurants in Houston; Chen's "Lobster with Avocado & Tangy Honey Radish Sauce" was deemed unique enough to appear on the Discovery Channel's Great Chefs, Great Cities.
So, in the American tradition of lightning litigation, Chen promptly sued Vong. While Chen's lawyer, James Horshok, describes the action as a slander suit, Vong's current attorney, Michael Pack, points out that it actually accuses Vong of violating the Langham Act, a federal statute that prohibits "false designations of origins or false descriptions," by claiming Chen's recipes as Vong's own.
On the phone, Chen casts Vong as a villain of Shakespearean proportion. Vong claims 20 years' experience in French cooking; Chen says Vong started in the Empress kitchen as an entry-level helper in 1985, and has neither the background nor the skills to develop the sophisticated recipes he's now serving. According to Chen, when Vong left Empress in 1997, he had risen only to kitchen supervisor, not, as has been represented, head chef.
Chen accuses Vong not only of stealing his recipes and using them to gain co-ownership of Hunan Paradise, but also of timing his departure to foil Chen's plans to open a second restaurant. (Chen's new place is slated to open this summer at Post Oak and San Felipe.) He reports that Vong has alienated former owners of Hunan Paradise, who will testify on Chen's behalf.
Soon after Chen filed his suit, Vong filed a countersuit. He claims that Chen's allegations have wrongfully caused him extreme mental anguish. Vong did not return phone calls, but his attorney offered his own spin on Chen's claim. "It's a ridiculous lawsuit," says Pack. "Surely this city is big enough for two Pacific Rim restaurants."
-- Margaret Briggs
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