What he does
Ron Chen is quick to note something right up front: "I am not a chef. I'm like a coach. As in, I don't play basketball but I coach the game, you know?" The owner of Rattan Pan-Asian Bistro, Chen has already put in a lifetime in the restaurant business and has no plans on stopping now. Before Rattan, he ran the popular Asian restaurant Sinh Sinh, where he says the business was growing right up until the very end.
"I was already developing the concept for [Rattan] but it wasn't urgent or anything. Then someone came along with an offer we couldn't refuse, and we sold," he says.
With Rattan he turned from catering to a traditional Asian crowd -- a crowd looking for highly exotic dishes with plenty of live fish to choose from ("Eighteen to twenty live items every night on the menu") -- to fare that would appeal to a more "crossover" audience. Rattan specializes in Asian fusion; dishes are inspired by street foods that Ron encounters when traveling to Southeast Asia. His exploration sometimes comes with a price -- he and his wife fell ill on a trip to Malaysia after a day spent walking the streets, "eating at absolutely every stop."
Why he likes it
Working in the restaurant business wasn't always in the plan -- in fact, Chen says there was once a time when he wanted to do anything but work in the restaurant business: "When I got out of seafood importing/exporting, I was looking for things to do, and I was fixing small restaurants--changing things here and there," he says.
The success at Sinh Sinh kept Chen engaged, and he eventually bought the restaurant he helped to grow. He had already bought the land for Rattan when the opportunity to sell Sinh Sinh presented itself. The timing worked itself out, and allowed Chen to focus on the new Rattan concept which was to take traditional Asian foods and make them accessible to American palates.
What inspires him
"The real deal authentic stuff, plated a little differently," is how Ron Chen sees himself bringing a more traditional, authentic culinary aesthetic to the crowd at Rattan. After six years, he sees his menu and concept as more refined than ever. As an example, he talks about a short rib dish which looks completely different than it does where he found it -- "the streets of Hong Kong, as a bowl of beef noodle soup" -- but with a few tweaks in presentation (bone-in, plated) it becomes the perfect marriage of inspiration and reality.
"The inspiration comes from [going from] wanting to get out of the restaurant business, but it's stuck to me now. If I wasn't doing this? The answer is nothing! I have a one hundred percent impact on the food we create." Chen describes his typical day as "non-stop": training managers, expediting food, scoping out what customers are eating, and how they respond to his food. He also says he pours a lot of wine, and that when he's purchasing wine for Rattan he has about 80 percent of it paired--in his mind--when he places an order.
Drawing inspiration from food, Chen sticks mainly to eating out when he travels. "I don't eat out much in Houston, because I don't want to copy. I never look at the competition--what they sell, or what they do. I believe in doing our thing, right. I believe in letting your competition follow you."
If not here, where?
"Here, Houston -- I'm very comfortable here. I think I know the market, I grew up here."
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"Opening another restaurant inside the loop. We're not on a mission; there is a real estate side to this and I have to find the right property. It took us five years to really tune [Rattan], and the new concept will be a little more toward authentic. And the wine? It's going to get exciting!"