We had the good fortune of connecting with Shirley Chung and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Shirley, is there something that you feel is most responsible for your success?
I’ve built my career on a series of taking risks and capturing opportunities. I believe in never be comfortable at where am I, always challenging myself to be better and that includes choosing to take risks instead of playing it safe in many situations. I wouldn’t be who am I today if I didn’t take the risk 17 years ago, left my career in the Silicon Valley and went to culinary school to pursue my dream of becoming a chef. Years later, I was established in Las Vegas as a corporate executive chef when Top Chef approached me to compete, and I took the leap, did well in the competition, then opened my first namesake restaurant Twenty Eight as chef partner. Finally, 2 years ago, I left the partnership, sold my home in Las Vegas and used the money to open Ms Chi in Culver City with my husband, so I don’t have to answer to any investors. As you can see, playing safe is not in my book.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I was born and raised in Beijing and came to America at age 17 for school. After I graduated with a bachelor degree in business, I went on to work in Silicon Valley for 5 years in high tech sales. Even though I was making great money at a young age, worked in a few large corporations and 2 startups, I never felt fulfilled at my desk job. When the dotcom boom busted, I decided to go to culinary school, give my dream of becoming a chef a try. The first day of culinary school, when I heard the sound of chopping and smelled the aroma of baking bread in the air, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, I knew this was my calling. Working in a male dominated field, often times, I was the only woman on the savory hotline, and there were multiple times when I start at a new restaurant, the chef would immediately show me the pastry station when I arrive and never even thought that I was cooking on the hotline. I realized I need to be better than every boy in the kitchen in order for me to move up, so I did. I built a reputation in Las Vegas fine dining world as the “Opener”, “Shadow chef”. When world renowned chefs came to open their Vegas restaurants, I was head hunted and opened 6 restaurants for Thomas Keller, Guy Savoy, Jose Andres and the disgraced Mario Batali and as head chefs, before I went on to Top Chef and opened my own places. Our industry has a double standard, wait…. I should say, the world has a double standard. When a male boss/chef is strict and holds everything in the highest standards, this male boss is praised for it. When a female boss does the same thing, she is called aggressive, bossy and bitchy. I was fired by the Mario Batali Group for being “bitchy,” but truthfully, it was retaliation against my complaint to HR. And this was a blessing in disguise, I was getting too comfortable at that chef position, I would have just been happy to stay working for someone forever. But I knew I was more than that, I knew one day, I am going to open my own place and being a corporate chef was no longer my career plan. After my first time on Top Chef, I opened my first restaurant with an investor from OC, and after 2 years of struggling with my partners, I left OC, sold my houses and brought a restaurant with my husband, so I no longer need to answer to any investors bizarre requests. Now Ms Chi Culver City is about to turn 2 this year, and year 2020 is the craziest year ever, as a Chinese restaurant, we experienced discrimination against Chinese in the beginning of year when Covid was still in China, business slowed down dramatically, and we closed our door on March 15th when the California stay home order started. We were be able to reopen in mid-July after receiving a PPP loan, business is slow, we are only doing 35% of our old sales from the year before, but we are still here, we still have our restaurant. Compared to many of my friends’ restaurants that were permanently shutdown, we are counting our blessings every day. But I know the reason I am still standing, is because we don’t have to answer to any investors, we are doing everything we can to generate income, from selling frozen dumplings and meal kits on Goldbelly, to create my own “ghost kitchen” and started different concepts to go only. Both my husband and I didn’t collect a single pay check since we opened, Ms Chi is our baby and we are doing everything to keep her alive. Let’s just say I was never afraid to make mistakes, I know I will learn from it and come out better. Living my life fearlessly, fire phoenix is my spirit animal, I will rise from ash every time. Being a chef is tough, being a successful chef is even harder, I am crazy, that’s why I love this career.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
If my bestie is visiting, I will mix our adventure with outdoor activities and nonstop eating around. We will start the day paddle boarding in the ocean, then drive around hit all the taco spots and trucks: Leo’s Taco, Flaming Taco in K Town, Marisco Jalisco, Kogi Truck, Tacos 1986 , Mexicali, and La Palmas Burrito are my must list. Next day we will go to Sequoia Park to hike and see giant red woods (hope they will survive the fires…), when we are back to LA, we will go to SGV with my “Dumpling Mafia” (my dining group with couple of my industry friends) for dumpling crawl at Mama Lu’s, Hui Tong Xiang, QingDao Bread Company, and Shanghai Palace for Jiaozi, XLB, and pan fried pork buns are what we stuff our faces with. We would then come back to the west side and finished the dumpling crawl at Ms Chi for my ultimate Chinese American mash up, Jumbo Cheeseburger Pot Stickers with bacon tomato jam. Finally, we will Uber 10 minutes to K town for late night Korean gastro pubs, spicy rice cake, cold noodles, bubbling Galbi jin (beef short rib) with melted cheese and drink soju to finish the night. To cure he hang over, we will go to Republique in the late morning feast on their bread and pastries, fill our bellies with their pork belly breakfast sandwich and cast iron pancake. Walk off our food at the Broad Museum, on the way leaving LA, stop at Glendale Sasoun bakery and pick up a stack of lahmajoun Armenian meat pie for road snacks.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My husband Jimmy Lee is my biggest supporter and motivator, he pushed me to pursue my dream of becoming a chef and supported me financially when I was in culinary school. He also dared me to be on Top Chef and left his career in high tech and joined me in the crazy restaurant world, running my front of house as my GM at Ms Chi. Also I wouldn’t be able to control my craziness and keep calm and push forward in this industry without my industry girlfriends. They are chefs, front of house managers, food PR and writers, I talk and text with at least couple of them every day about business ideas, PPP loans, how are we feeling, how can we do more and be better….. They made me a better chef, a better person, I will never be lonely, because I know that I have all of these like-minded sisters behind me. I also like to shout out to Michelle Obama and Brene Brown, when I feel lost or angry and need to calm down, I listen to their books and podcast searching for answers, and I always did.
Albert Law, Porkbelly Studio Ms Chi Cafe