On the Line: Shirley Chung of TWENTY EIGHT, Part One

Opening next month!
Opening next month!
Photo courtesy of TWENTY EIGHT

Shirley Chung is one busy chef. You may recognize Chung from her stint on Top Chef: New Orleans. Yesterday she wrapped up a cooking demo at the inaugural Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival. Now her focus is on the final touches to get TWENTY EIGHT ready for opening in October. This week, she makes time to respond to our questions.

Tell us the back story behind TWENTY EIGHT's name, as well as the concept. Number 28 always has been an indicator of positive changes in the life of my business partner Stacie Tran and also in my own life. We are both 28 this year-- and if you ask me next year, I'll still give you the same answer!

TWENTY EIGHT is a modern Chinese restaurant and lounge. It is a shared concept, and my inspiration for the menu is reflective of my childhood years in Beijing, my past experiences and my travels-- all of which have inspired me to push the envelope. The restaurant will offer craft cocktails, a California-driven wine list and an indoor-outdoor setting, allowing our guests to take full advantage of the beautiful OC weather in an elegant and relaxed atmosphere.

You're making breakfast; what are you having? Always something with eggs. I only cook breakfast on Sundays and bacon, eggs and toast are my family's usual meal.

One food you can't live without. Noodles are one food I can't live without. I love all kinds of noodles, or pasta dishes. Growing up in Beijing (in the northern part of China), our main starch was always noodles and buns instead of rice. Noodles are my ultimate comfort food.

Your earliest food memory: My earliest food memory is my grandmother's hand-cut noodles with Zhajiang, a pork ragu made with fermented soybean sauce. For a kid from Beijing, Zhajiang mian is just like spaghetti with red sauce for the kids in the US. I still have a photograph of all of us eating the noodles with our hands, and the pork sauce all over our faces.

Where was your most recent meal? I just had lunch at Furiwa, a traditional Chinese restaurant in Garden Grove. I love their Singapore curry rice noodle. It is a simple dish, but from the seasoning and the flavor from the wok, to the texture of the rice noodle, it is executed perfectly. A lot of the time, it's the simplest dish that shows the most skill.

Best culinary tip for the home cook: Always buy the ingredients in season; they taste the best in season and cost a little less. When you use the freshest, most flavorful ingredients, they shine on their own and you don't have to spend time doing much to them.

What ingredients are in season on your menu? We have summer corn, summer squash, fresh shelling beans and heirloom melons on our opening menu.

Can we talk about your time at China Poblano? Was it a fusion establishment, or did it corral two different cuisines under one roof? I was the Executive Chef for China Poblano by Jose Andres. Shortly after I opened China Poblano in 2011, it was nominated for the Best New Restaurant award by the James Beard Foundation. While working at China Poblano, I fell in love with Mexican cuisine, and learned more about my own heritage. My experience working there helped perfect my skills with respect to Chinese cuisine.

China Poblano is not a fusion restaurant. It is 40% authentic Chinese cuisine, 40% authentic Mexican cuisine, with 20% of the menu featuring innovative dishes that are the marriage of these two cuisines.

Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?): I worked in Vegas for the past 10 years. We saw so many strange requests that nothing is weird to me anymore! When it comes to special requests on our food, as long as I can execute on the same level and standard as our regular menu items, and the modifications don't affect the integrity of the dish, I will try my best to fulfill my guests' requests.

What is your beverage of choice? My choice of beverage is aged Pu'R tea. I brought my current batch from the last time I traveled to China's Yunnan province.

Your best recent food find: Provenance in Newport has a beautiful garden vegetable plate on their menu right now. Baby summer squash, sweet corn and baby artichokes cooked to perfection, served with a fried egg and crispy bacon. It's presented on a wood board. It is simple and good [Editor's Note: Shirley went to Provenance for lunch twice in two weeks, but she's finding new places all the time since moving from Las Vegas.]

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Monkey brain poached in chili oil from Sichuan (when I was young).

What did you learn from your experience on Top Chef that you wouldn't otherwise know? I found my culinary voice on Top Chef. I have opened many award-wining restaurants for some of the best chefs in the world, and created concepts based on their visions.

When I reached the stage of my career when I was ready to open my own place, I was not completely sure of what my own style of cooking would be. On Top Chef, I was able to cook with my heart as I created many winning dishes on the spot. I love to create new dishes that are inspired by my travels, with the techniques that I have perfected over the years. As I create dishes to impress those I am cooking for, I always remember to focus on those that could be understood and enjoyed by my grandmother at the same time.

Favorite meal growing up: Once a year, in the beginning of the Spring, I would go to my best friend's house, and her mom would make "Spring Pancakes" for us. These are paper-thin homemade flour pancakes, served with plates of sliced, braised pork shank, smoked duck, watermelon radish salad, garlic cucumber, scrambled eggs, bean sprouts and spring onions. We wrapped our own combinations of meats and vegetables in the pancakes, and all the kids there had a competition to see who could eat the most. To this day, my best friend's mom makes these for me every time I go back to Beijing.

Where did you attend culinary school; and what did it teach you that you might not have learned through hands-on experience? I went to California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. I learned ice carving, which is not common to learn through regular hands-on experience!

Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best: Fresh fish caught by local fisherman. I love working with a fisherman from Newport to get black cod and rock cod.

What do you recommend for first-timers? For a first-time guest at TWENTY EIGHT, I would recommend starting with a craft cocktail, house-made headcheese, and lobster dumpling soup with consomme. Then, I would recommend sharing the oxtail with maltose glaze, steamed local sablefish in banana leaf, summer corn with puffed rice, and hand-rolled and hand-cut noodle dishes. And then finish with light and refreshing heirloom melon tapioca.

Most undervalued ingredient: This is a hard one. I would say rice. There are so many kinds of rice found all over the world, and different types of rice have different characteristics. Some are creamy and rich, some are nutty and sweet. Still, rice is the perfect canvas to showcase any flavor or ingredient.

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