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PROFILE : The Hungry Chef : Tony Chen is celebrating 10 years of Chen's Szechwan Restaurant, where he practices the art his father taught him.

March 26, 1992|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although he spends up to 14 hours a day in the kitchen of his restaurant, Tony Chen remains hungry. Not with the gnawing ache he felt 17 years ago when he was homeless and living in a Los Angeles park, but hungry just the same.

Unwilling to compromise standards learned from his father and grandfather, legendary Chinese master chefs, he is a willing prisoner of his passion, Chen's Szechwan Restaurant.

The restaurant, in a nondescript Thousand Oaks mall surrounded by tract homes, celebrated its 10th anniversary Jan. 1. Chen spent the decade standing before a scalding wok, barking orders in Chinese, Spanish and English to his staff of 24, taking time out only to slide into a booth and chat with a regular customer.

Despite being an ethnic eatery in an upper-middle-class, predominantly white area, Chen's has developed an unlikely cafe-style ambience; it is a place where the owner knows your name and his wife, Lin, who supervises the service, knows the names of your children.

"They are two of the warmest, nicest people," says Dennis Gillette, vice president of institutional advancement at Cal Lutheran University and a frequent diner at Chen's. "They make their customers feel special. I've watched Lin move from table to table talking to customers, and I've marveled at the genuine concern she has for everybody who comes into the restaurant."

Chen says the atmosphere that the restaurant seeks is for customers to feel like "our kitchen is their kitchen at home."

The comforts of home are something Chen, 42, does not take for granted. He has lived in the streets of Los Angeles. And before that--in 1965, when his father died--he had to support his mother, brother and sister by cooking.

"My father worked until he died, but we were penniless because he had always lent money to people," Chen says. "The only way our family made it was that people would come back and pay us money, saying, 'I owed this to your father.'

"I was ashamed to ask people to help me. I stand up for myself."

Chen says that, along with the proper method for preparing smoked tea duck, he learned self-reliance from his father. De-Chung Chen was a master chef in a renowned restaurant in Chungking, the capital of the Sichuan province.

"My father was an artist with food, an inventor," Chen says. "He found new ways to prepare a dish. He cooked for famous people. They would travel for many days looking for him."

Along with thousands of other prominent Chinese nationalists, De-Chung Chen, 60, and his wife Ching-Wu, 20, fled to Taiwan in 1947 to escape Mao Tse-tung's Chinese Communist army. Tony was born two years later.

He was jarred at age 15 by his father's death. Although his father had stressed education, Chen was forced to work full time.

"My father had told me, 'Learn something you can do excellent.' I listened to him and learned how to cook," Chen says.

After spending three years in the Taiwanese air force, Tony married Lin in 1973. Like his father, however, he pulled up his roots to search for a better life.

He left his wife and infant daughter, Jennifer, in Taiwan to come to Los Angeles as a favor to a close family friend, who owned a restaurant in Chinatown and needed a cook. Chen soon became disillusioned.

"They told me that in America, you don't get any days off," Chen says. "So I worked seven days.

"They also had no respect for cooking properly. I would tell them they are cutting corners, but they wouldn't listen."

Chen abruptly quit, but he quickly discovered that finding work was difficult. He was an outsider, speaking Mandarin, not the Cantonese prevalent in Chinatown. And he would cook only one way--as he had learned from his father. Such fierce independence was not always seen as an asset.

Chen lived in a downtown park for three months until he found a job and saved money for an apartment.

"I was ashamed to ask for money from the government," he says.

Once he was employed, his reputation as a chef spread. In 1977, an investor persuaded him to become a partner in a Monterey Park restaurant.

Soon he was able to bring his family to the United States, but the business partnership was dissolved after only a year. Chen became the chef at a Santa Monica restaurant while he saved money to fulfill his lifelong dream: to open a Western version of the restaurant in which his father had been chef.

On a trip to San Francisco in 1976, Tony and Lin stopped in Thousand Oaks and liked its rolling hills and relaxed atmosphere.

"The people were friendly," Lin says. "These were people we could be comfortable serving."

The Chen family, which by then also included a son, Eric, moved to Thousand Oaks and lived there for three years before opening the restaurant.

Chen's steady, loyal clientele includes faculty and staff from Cal Lutheran and the brass from the East Valley sheriff's station. Tennis star Michael Chang frequently pops in for dinner with his grandparents, who live nearby.

Chen pays living expenses and provides meals for most of his employees in addition to their salaries. He has helped several obtain legal residency.

"I treat my employees like family," he says. And in fact, many employees are family: Four of Lin's sisters and three of her brothers have worked at the restaurant.

In-laws also join the Chen work force. Helen Shih came from Taiwan with her husband, Victor, a brother of Lin's, in 1986 to work at the restaurant.

"In China, we call those who are kind to you big brothers and sisters," she says. "Tony and Lin are better than my own brothers and sisters. It's hard to describe. They take care of everything. Even your heart."

From patrons to employees, everyone at Chen's seems content--except Tony. He frequently goes months without a backup cook because finding one who measures up to his standards is difficult.

So he works those 14-hour days, carrying on a legacy begun half a world away.

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