Silicon Valley is known for a multitude of landmarks, including the garages Apple and Google were started in, the Facebook campus, and the IBM Almaden Research Lab.
The one landmark, however, that perhaps garners the most universal praise from the best and the brightest of the area is Chinese restaurant Chef Chu’s.
Started by Lawrence Chu in 1970, Chef Chu’s has been the go-to place for the Bay Area’s tech elite, celebrities and politicians. Tennis superstar Serena Williams, platinum-selling artist Justin Bieber and former Intel CEO Craig Barrett have all frequented Chu’s establishment. The late Apple founder Steve Jobs also used to be a regular before he became a recognizable tech titan.
“He’d come in here as a nobody,” Chu told Mercury News in a 2012 interview. “He’d wait 45 minutes to get a table and all of a sudden he’s on the cover of Time Magazine. I was busy making a living. I didn’t know who he was.”
In the mid-1980s, when then Secretary of State George Shultz needed to hold an emergency meeting with other high-ranking officials in the Reagan administration, he held it at Chef Chu’s.
Even though he’s been in business for 45 years, the 72-year-old Chu still goes to work with seemingly the same passion and drive he started with. He’s frequently in the kitchen helping the staff and tries greeting every single customer that walks through the door.
Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo once said: “No restaurant has had the longevity of Chef Chu’s for either quality of the food or popularity with the valley’s movers and shakers. It’s as vibrant and lively as it’s ever been.”
Most recently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has become a regular at Chef Chu’s.
“Mark Zuckerberg comes in here all the time. Him and his wife Priscilla came here last Sunday. Their parents too, they moved from the East Coast.”
Even with all the celebrity attention, Chef Chu believes in one core philosophy when treating customers: “Whoever comes in here, we should treat them the same. For a simple reason: they all pay the same price. Whether they’re an engineer, doctor, governor.”
Aside from his restaurant, Chu has published three cookbooks, started a catering business, and created his own cooking classes.
Chu, born in China and raised in Taiwan and Hong Kong, stayed behind when his family moved in the early 1960s to California where his father went from being an architect to a restaurateur in Silicon Valley. A couple of years later, at the age of 20, Chu moved as well.
His first job was as a busboy at Trader Vic’s, a Polynesian restaurant in San Francisco. He recounts: “In the restaurant, we worked so hard and I found out that I loved restaurants. It’s very famous as well. I was there; I met all celebrities there. I was a busboy, waiter, bartender. Then I told myself, one day I want to do something like this. Maybe not a busboy, but I want to do something of my own.”
At the time, he was trying to woo his future wife, Ruth Ho, who was then a PhD student at Stanford University. He’d often joke to her that he was also a PhD: poor, hungry and determined. Chu successfully wooed not only his future wife, but also his future father-in-law, who was a successful entrepreneur.
“I told the father that I had a dream. I said I want to open fast food Chinese restaurants in America. The father liked me. They all liked me in a sense, but they never asked my education. They only said, ‘This guy is 25 years old and has a dream.’ ”
It was in 1970 that Chu decided to follow through on his dream of starting his own restaurant, opening his first fast-food Chinese restaurant in a space that used to be a small laundromat between a beauty salon and appliance repair shop.
Six months later, he took over the beauty salon’s space in order to expand his venture into a sit-down restaurant. Three years after that, with money he saved over the years and from an investment from his father-in-law, Chu purchased the entire complex and completely renovated his restaurant, including the installation of a state-of-the-art kitchen.
Although by then a successful restaurateur, Chu wanted to be a chef and worked tirelessly to learn from the chefs he hired at his restaurant, perfecting his culinary skill through practice and trial and error.
“I worked my butt off. I collapsed in my bed every day. I cooked for 20 years in the kitchen.”
After his father’s restaurant was closed down by the health department, Chu went to college for two semesters to learn how to properly run a restaurant in order to make sure the same fate wouldn’t befall his own restaurant. To this day, Chu takes cleanliness and hygiene at his restaurant as one of his top priorities.
“Personal hygiene is very important. That’s 24 hours every second, every minute of the job. When you decorate the plate, everything on the plate should be edible. You cannot just put a flower there because it looks good. Everything on the plate should be edible.”
Initially, Chu wanted to open a chain of Chinese restaurants all over the country but he eventually decided to just focus on one. At 72, he’s still learning and regularly travels to Asia to discover new culinary secrets.
“People always ask me why I have only one restaurant. ‘Why do you work at 72? Why don’t you hire people and open two or three restaurants?’ The type of restaurant that I run is totally different than the type of restaurant that you run. It takes a lot of hard work but ultimately you must be a leader.”
“You have to have a great team behind you. For them, it is just another job. For me, it is my life. Most people work for me 20 to 30 years and retire. Why? They knew that they could trust me and that I would not let them down and that I was passionate. You have to demonstrate that you are a true leader.”
Chu is not the only successful person in his family. His middle son, Jon M. Chu, is a successful director who has helmed films like “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” and “Step Up 2: The Street.” His other son, Larry Chu Jr., has joined his father in the kitchen and plans to take over the restaurant someday.
“Since Larry joined me [it has] allowed me to cut about 50% of the worry.”
Even with all his knowledge and success, Chu admits that he will forever be a student that doesn’t stop learning, to which he credits as a major reason for his success.
“Most people [say], ‘Chef Chu, you should retire. You have all the money in the world.’ I’m coming here [because] I’m proud of what I do. I’m making history. I believe my philosophy, my method. I trust my instinct. I trust my burning desire that we put 100 percent in the business and don’t stop improving. I don’t say change for the sake of change. Don’t stop advancing. Don’t stop because the world is running, the world is changing.”
Photography by Melly Lee