When most chefs talk about who initially inspired them to learn to cook, it’s their mother. Not so for Chef Shirley Chung, whose mother “is a horrible cook.” Her words (and her mother has since come to terms with that truth). Chung’s culinary path began in Beijing, China, where her grandmother—who ran the Red Cross in China for a time—would travel the country, eating at various banquets and expanding her palette. In 2nd grade, Chung was making her own pasta and fried rice at home.
Moving to the United States when she was 17, Chung got her business degree from California State University and then worked in Silicon Valley for four years. After the dot.com bubble popped, Chung cashed out of the business and put herself through culinary school (her parents opposed the idea and refused to pay for her continuing education, and, indeed, didn’t talk to her for two years after). “Cooking was never an option in a Chinese family,” says Chung, whose grandmother’s work for the Red Cross and her grandfather’s work with the World Health Organization likely was a model for the greatness Chung’s parents expected of her. But Chung wanted greatness not in the boardroom or the emergency room, but in the kitchen. She staged at The French Laundry and then took a job at Bouchon. From there she followed her sous chef there to Las Vegas, where she helped open the Bouchon outpost there. She then began a mini-journey of some of the city’s best chefs, with stints at Guy Savoy, Mario Batali’s B&B Ristorante, and finally José Andrés’ China Poblano, where her menu is split evenly between Mexican and Chinese dishes.
Today, Chung is back on speaking terms with her parents, and has even enlisted her mother’s aid in learning how to properly fold dumplings (“she does that really well,” Chung says). Her parents came out to visit her in Vegas, seeing for themselves the clean, well-organized kitchens (no dirty-towel-slinging wok cooks, there) and Chung’s amazing dishes.