Chef Tony Hu pretty much runs Chinatown, but he's so modest you wouldn't know it upon meeting him. His authentic Chinese restaurants have changed the way Chicagoans eat Chinese food. Starting with his highly acclaimed Lao Sze Chuan, Tony has added four additional restaurants to the mix; Lao Beijing, Lao Shanghai, Lao You Ju, and most recently Lao Hunan. Eater sat down with Hu to learn more about his thoughts on Chinatown, what he does in his free time, and what's next for his empire.
Why do you think you've been so successful in Chinatown?
[Laughs] Success ... not yet. Still working hard on these parts, but I like to do things. I am a chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of Szechuan, China and I like to promote Chinese culture and Chinatown. That’s my passion. In 1993 when I started there were only Americanized Chinese restaurants, serving chop suey, that’s why I wanted to open an Authentic Chinese restaurant. I was homesick. I want to eat my country’s food.
How has Chinatown changed? What about the future?
Chinatown has a very bright future. Ten years ago Chinatown was empty. Now it’s packed, every weekend all restaurants are packed. People who come to Chinatown do a good job promoting. We should also thank the media people who keep talking about Chinatown so more and more people know about Chinatown. Political as well, China and America working together. Mayor Daley did a good job promoting Chicago to China. This place needs to reflect more history. Needs to be more clean, more safe.
Which is your favorite of the restaurants you currently have?
It depends on my mood. I am from Szechuan so I love Lao Sze Chuan very much. I just opened Lao Hunan, first restaurant in Greater Chicago that serves authentic Hunan cuisine.
Love dried chili chicken, beef Szechuan style, crispy shrimp, smoked tea duck, etc. I love them all. My menu is kind of special. Three parts to my menu, first part very authentic Chinese, second part, my team’s creations, Tony’s creations. Fresh ideas from my trips to China. Third part is food made for American people, what I think American people will like, but with Tony’s twist.
Where do you eat when you aren’t eating Chinese food?
I eat out a lot. American food is pretty simple to Chinese people. Steaks. I go to steakhouses, Chop House, Gibsons, Harry Carry’s, Chicago Cut. For Japanese food I go to Japonais, SushiSamba for sushi. I go to friends' restaurants, Frontera Grill, Heaven on Seven, Purple Pig, Stephanie [Izard]’s restaurant, Girl & The Goat. I don’t eat at home; I eat out all the time. I’m open to any kind of food.
What do you do in your free time?
I spend 80 percent of my free time in community service. Every week. I am president of the Chinese American Association of Greater Chicago. Promote Chinese community, build a bridge between Americans and Chinese. I make a lot of friends and we spend time hanging out as well.
What do you have planned next?
Open an upscale Chinese restaurant downtown and in New York City. Want to expand in Chinatown and do Taiwan food. Maybe Dim Sum in Chinatown, people are asking me for it. I will do a cookbook next year. A cooking show if my English gets better. I like to do work; I enjoy it.
Will you expand beyond Chicago aside from New York and Connecticut?
Maybe eventually California.
Just don’t leave us here in Chicago?
I love Chicago the most. I even like the winters. The season change. I can wear more, different clothes. Beautiful skyline. So clean.