Chef Chat, Part 2: Hoi Fung of Fung's Kitchen, on the Evolution of Chop Suey, Where He Takes Visiting Chefs for a Good Steak and Serving Fresh Peking Duck at Banquets

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This is part two of a three-part Chef Chat series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this same space Friday.

EOW: You came to Houston in 1982, but you didn't open your first restaurant until 1990. How come?

HF: Because I worked in the Golden China restaurant in the Sharpstown area.

EOW: Tell me about that era -- 1982. Did Houston have good Chinese food then?

HF: Nineteen eighty-two, when I arrived in Houston, there was no Cantonese-style food. They only had chop suey.

EOW: What is chop suey?

HF: Chop suey -- this was a long time ago, when the Chinese came to the United States. They were looking for income and a job. They opened a restaurant, but they didn't have experience with restaurant-style cooking. So they only did family-style food. They used mixed vegetable with chicken, egg rolls, sweet and sour pork, moo goo gai pan. This is not the real Cantonese-style food. Even in Hong Kong and mainland China, chop suey is home-style. Then, in 1983, we started to have Hunan-style restaurants. Restaurants like Uncle Tai, they sold very good Hunan-style food. They would make food with brown gravy, more garlic, more spicy and more meat. Like General Tso's chicken -- all meat, no vegetable.

EOW: So you said you opened 3,000 square feet. Did people like it? Was it Asian customers?

HF: Asian customers. Because I worked in Golden China for eight and a half years in the Southwest area, when I opened Fung's Kitchen, the old customers, they knew to come here. Even waiting outside for half hour. After that, we expanded. The restaurant kept on expanding bigger and bigger. I think Houston Press and Houston Chronicle wrote about us. And then we had more American customers. So in 2004, we opened the dim sum.

EOW: To open dim sum -- that's very specialized. Did you learn it and teach it to the cooks here, or did you bring the cooks here?

HF: I bring in the cooks. Also every year, I will invite the famous chefs from mainland China or Hong Kong, or even from San Francisco. I invite them, and they come to help us upgrade our product.

EOW: This year, you have Martin Yan from Yan Can Cook coming to help cook for your Chinese New Year's Celebration on February 19. Tell me about some of the other people. How do you choose who comes?

HF: Every year, we have a big meeting of the Chinese Chef's Association, so we share our experiences with each other. All the famous chefs in mainland China or Hong Kong come together. Usually, when I go to China, I like to go eating. I go everywhere. So when I see, "Wow! This looks like the new stuff," I introduce myself, tell them I have a restaurant and ask them if they can share the experience with us; usually they are very kind.

EOW: If you invite them, do you pay for them to come here?

HF: Of course. They will come from mainland China, and they will go for a couple of stops. They will stay here for about ten days, and they may also go to San Francisco or Los Angeles. When they come here, I also bring them on a city tour. I want to learn something, and I don't want to invite them to just work for me.

EOW: If you take them for a tour, where do you take them?

HF: Here in Texas, the beef is very famous, so I usually take them to a steakhouse. I like to take them to Houston's. When we go to San Francisco, we go to the pier, and then we eat fresh crab. If they have king crab, we eat a king crab. And then local lobster.

EOW: Okay, how many cooks do you have in the kitchen at any one time?

HF: We have eight.

EOW: When you're running a banquet, how many cooks do you have?

HF: Still only eight.

EOW: How do they do so much quantity? It's mind-boggling. How do you do that?

HF: Even my friends who come from California, they say, "Wow, how?" Well, we use the big wok. But one thing is very important: Even if we have a full house, the Peking Duck is fresh sliced. Other places, for the banquet, they slice the Peking Duck and put it in the oven. But in my kitchen, never.

EOW: So how do you do it?

HF: Every chef in my kitchen can cut the Peking Duck. Same with the lobster. We do it fresh -- we do the lobster for each table, not by big wok. For me, running the restaurant for 23 years, and kitchen experience for 40 years, I talk to my chefs and tell them it's important to do these things fresh. People say it takes too long, but when you cook everything in a big wok and separate it, it still takes 20 minutes -- better to make it fresh. I tell my chefs all the time, quality, quality, quality.

EOW: How many items do you have on your menu?

HF: Four hundred.

EOW: Four hundred! (Laughs incredulously.) How?

HF: For example, beef -- we can have beef with vegetables, beef with broccoli, beef with tomatoes. With one main protein, we can make at least ten dishes. We have a base sauce, and adding a little this sauce or that sauce will change the dish. Some dishes, like the sesame chicken, are not spicy, but the similar sauce to General Tso's chicken.

EOW: What kind of fresh seafood do you have at a given time?

HF: We have live shrimp, we have live king crab, we have Pacific lobster, Boston lobster, clams, special fish like turbot...

EOW: How much is king crab?

HF: We sell it according to market. Right now it's $48 per pound. One king crab is about eight pounds at least. It can feed ten people. It's about $400 but people know we have it, so they come here and order it.

EOW: So one last question: You still cook in the kitchen. Why do you think that's important?

HF: The quality. When we hire the people, everyone works hard, because I can control them. When I have a requirement, it's reasonable, because I have experience in the kitchen. So when I require the style, the flavor, the color, the taste -- I can show the cooks the right way. Some of the restaurant owners don't know how to cook; it's very difficult. In here, when I mention something -- quality, quality, quality -- they follow me, because they know I'm a chef. I make all my sauces. Right now, all the recipes are in here (points to his head). I have more than ten sauces. The sauce is important for the life of the restaurant.

Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Hoi Fung's Cantonese cuisine.

Hoi Fung Fung's Kitchen 7320 SW Freeway Tel: 713-779-2288 www.eatatfungs.com

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