Shirley Chung

Twenty Eight
Orange County, CA
Spice oil poached Newport black cod w/ crustacean broth, shiitake, braised daikon + holy trinity

I think we need a bigger boat! Heading to the ocean always brings back memories of the great one. But now it’s 6am at the Newport Beach Dory Fleet Market. Fish and crabs daily. Buoys hang by their necks, seagulls buzz above, and the waves make that beautiful sound by crashing on the shore.

We’re meeting Shirley at the West Caught Co. stall along with owner Scott Breneman to shop the catch of the day. Looking for a sablefish (a.k.a black cod). Ever get the feeling your being stared at? “Pick me!” Or maybe “don’t pick me!” like back in grade school. The sun greets the horizon.

Shirley’s choice is cleaned + bagged. A thank you to Scott and his team and we head off to the restaurant…


Describe yourself

A little crazy. Very outgoing. Goofy, but very passionate about life in general. Is that too short?

That’s fine. Where do you call home?

Right now it’s Orange County. Newport Coast. That’s home. Where my husband and my dogs are at.

Your dogs?

My dog.

Is it “dog” or “dogs?”

I had two but one passed…

Aww. Why’d you have to bring that up?

I’m sorry.

It’s OK. He’s in a better place.

Yes. Next question!


Would you do Top Chef or something similar again?

Totally, if it was a shorter filming time. It was almost three months of shooting and now with the restaurant running, there’s no way I could leave for that long. But I love the competition. I had so much fun on Top Chef, I would totally do it again. I still have really good relationships with the producers and directors and I was invited back for Top Chef Duels. We’re all friends and if an opportunity comes up I know they’d invite me again.

Wow, three full months?

Yeah, we were on lock down in New Orleans for almost three months. It was fun. They cut off all contact. No cell phone, no laptop, no TV. We listened to radio in the car on the way to the studio and it was such a great treat [laughing]. “Can we play house music? Please please please? And rock music today?” We weren’t able to talk to anybody. They took away our driver’s license so we couldn’t escape, I guess [laughing].

So you could only talk to the other contestants?

Yeah, contestants only. If regular people on the street talked to us our handler had to talk to them for us.

*You* had a handler?

Yes, it was very weird [laughing].

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Is “28” still significant?

Definitely. First of all, I’m always 28 and so is everybody that comes to this restaurant [laughing]. But 28 is also the age I started cooking and the number itself in Chinese and Asian culture has a really good meaning.

You *started* cooking at 28? Really? I don’t believe that.

What? After shooting together all morning you don’t trust me now?

Well now I’m not sure!

I should say I collected my first paycheck at age 28, as a cook. Before that I worked in Silicon Valley for a few years but it wasn’t my passion. It was a job. Look at me? Can you imagine me sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day?

No way.

So after the dot-com boom and the market crashed—I was with a semiconductor startup company and it was going down—I sort of laid myself off and gave myself a severance package and went to culinary school. It was actually my husband who pushed me to pursue my passion and I never looked back.


How good of a cook is your mother?

My mom is a really, really good cook… [smiling large, she breaks into laughter].

Be honest!

Well, she doesn’t know she’s not that great of a cook. Or maybe she knows but doesn’t admit it. It took her a long time to get steamed rice correct. Sometimes too soft, sometimes too much water, or not enough. She couldn’t figure out the consistency. And she likes to boil everything, a lot of one-pot cooking. She doesn’t know the concept of high heat searing or sauté or stir fry. But she has an excuse! She doesn’t have a sense of smell because when she was younger she lost it from a high fever. And when you lose that sense, your taste isn’t that great so when it comes to seasoning she always guesses. But she was an awesome career woman, cooking just wasn’t her talent.

So what made you start cooking?

I always loved food. My way to explore the world is by taste and eating everything. When I was a kid I would just put things in my mouth to see what happens. Growing up my mom was so busy being a doctor, I was brought up with a lot of nannies. They were very young and from a different region of China so they cooked different things that I didn’t really like to eat.

So starting in second grade I started to cook for myself, noodles or fried rice during lunchtime. My mom is an amazing gardener and she had rose gardens and vegetable gardens so at an early age I knew where my food came from and knew I had to make something balanced, so I’d go pick some fresh vegetables for my soup or cut up some ham or use an egg for protein.

Eventually that evolved into cooking for friends and hosting house parties. I thought I was a pretty good home cook but like I said, later it was my husband who pushed me into pursuing this for a career instead of just a hobby.


We’ve seen “cuisine without borders” related to you a few times. What’s that mean to you?

It’s based on my life experience and also my cooking experience. Growing up in Beijing and then going to Northern California for college, I have this melting pot of influences, plus I love to travel. And when it comes to my culinary career, I didn’t plan it out this way, but I started externing at the French Laundry, then went into Bouchon, my first paying culinary job. Then Guy Savoy, very traditional French. From there I moved on to the Mario Batali Group. I was with him for four and half years and opened three restaurants for him, traveling through Italy doing research and development and really falling in love with that culture.

After that was (José Andrés’) China Poblano, and actually the first time I cooked Chinese food professionally. I had to learn things like how to use a commercial grade wok from one of my sous chefs who had 17 years of traditional Chinese cooking experience. But the other side of that restaurant identity is traditional Mexican cuisine. I read and watched a lot of YouTube videos to learn more because, like Chinese cuisine, there’s not a lot of great recipe books. A lot of it is by feel and “grandma’s recipes” in the family.

Being on Top Chef helped me figure out my cuisine and find my voice, to use all those years of work experience and travel and the food I ate growing up. I have to be true to myself. I will always have a Chinese soul in my cuisine but nothing will ever hold me back.


What is a typical family meal here?

We like to change it up a bit, we do theme nights like Saturday Mexican or Wednesday Italian days. We actually cook Mexican food a lot because we all like to eat spice. My chef de cuisine opened Chino Poblano with me so we have very strong Mexican roots together. And plenty of different Chinese food. Not what we cook here but more homey style. None of my cooks are Chinese so it’s a great way for them to learn where I come from and the food I grew up with instead of only what we serve here.


OK, now I want to hear about monkey brains

Where did you get this? Where did I mention monkey brains?

We called your mother. She said when you were little…

You stop it, that was my grandmother.

Your *grandmother* took you to eat that?

I was telling this once and the lady at the next table told us to shut up, because she was getting grossed out. Do you know how many we’re going to offend? [Laughing]

So my grandmother was director of Red Cross of China and she always believed that kids should eat well-rounded, so everywhere she traveled around the world she’d bring back food souvenirs for me like cheese that the typical Chinese family wouldn’t be exposed to. She would also take me to national banquets and cool events. One was in Sichuan province where they used to have a delicacy cuisine of hot oil monkey brain. So, I had that at a very young age, almost five. It’s a very bloody and… I don’t want to talk about it because it’s really scary! A lot of people don’t understand how anybody could eat like that. I don’t remember much, I kind of remember the texture was like tofu.

I remember seeing a video a long time ago about a restaurant that had a live monkey in a table and they do it all right there.

At least they get the monkey drunk first, so that’s kind of nice.

Did she say what it was?

Yes but she did cover my eyes and ears kind of like this [covering her head with her arms and hands]. That was the finale of the national banquet [laughing].


What’s your favorite ingredient?

Well *one* of my favorites that I’ll use for the rest of my life is black vinegar. Chinese black vinegar. It’s made of glutinous rice and for people who don’t know it, I describe it as kind of like Chinese balsamic vinegar. It’s rounded, deep, earthly, and a little bit sweet. I love that flavor. I also love anything fat. When it comes to pork fat, butter, olive oil, duck fat, you name it. I love them all.


You mentioned “the simplest dish shows the most skill,” can you explain that?

A dish that has many components can distract you from appreciating each one. Let’s say there’s seven or eight components, if one or two aren’t executed perfectly you’ll tend to miss it. But if you have less than five ingredients on the plate you really need to make sure they balance texture, acidity, flavor, and all those things that work with each other. If one has a flaw, it might not ruin the plate, but it stands out more.


How was it growing up in Beijing?

I loved it. I had a really great childhood growing up, literally next to the Forbidden City in the middle of Beijing. I went to the same school from elementary all the way to high school, so I’ve known my Beijing friends since I was six years old. My parents were loving and we had a very good life, and because my grandmother was director of the Red Cross we had a driver and those sorts of things. It was a slightly privileged childhood.

My parents took me traveling all across China very young so I was exposed to a lot of different things, but the Beijing people love food and socializing and making friends. We talk about politics a lot because it’s the capitol and we’re very involved and passionate about everything. Beijing people are known as having big hearts.

What kind of kid things did you do?

I was extremely active. My mom sent me to study piano at age three, but I got into a fight with my teacher’s daughter and kicked out of class and was never able to go back. Later I found out she was the number one pianist in the country and my mom asked favors to get me into that class… and I got kicked out [laughing]! I was like a little puppy that you had to whack to tire them out in order to behave.

I was a crazy child. I’d jump off the roof in front of my mom because I thought it was cool, and I loved fire. Cooking makes sense now because I was never afraid of it. I almost burned my house down because I was locked out in the winter. I remembered thinking of a fireplace, something romantic from a movie or something, so I started one.

Growing up in Beijing was very fun. We were outdoors all the time, running around. Back then it was really safe and there was always lots of us walking to school together and coming back to play. I was a single child and hated being at home by myself so I’d constantly sneak out and try to hang out with my friends.


How important is service in a new restaurant?

Extremely important. It’s hard for new restaurants to get into their groove, to get the steps down because every restaurant is unique. And you have to get the group excited. I find OC quite different from what I’m used to. In Las Vegas you have a lot of so-called “lifers” because hospitality is their career, they’ve been doing it for 20 years. But when it comes to OC you have a lot of students and part-timers so we have to be more patient when it comes to training and things. Constantly training in service is important.

People ask what percentage of a good restaurant is good food versus service and I think minimum 50/50. If you have a great product but a bad salesman that can’t explain well or misdirects people to ordering something away from their palate, you lose. Coming to a restaurant isn’t just about the food but giving a great overall experience.


Why Orange County for your first restaurant?

Ask my pepper [laughing]! It’s because I met her! You should meet my pepper.

I’m not showing you my pecker!

No! I’m salt [pointing to her white chef’s coat] and meet my business partner Stacie Tran, she’s my pepper.

[Stacy walks over:] And I’m always in black.

[Shirley:] We’re the opposite, but really similar. She’s has a calm front and I’m all [she makes a twisted face, laughing].

So why OC?

Living in California, working the past 10 years in Las Vegas, and traveling and cooking all over the country made me realize that California is really amazing, I mean we’re blessed with such beautiful produce and seafood. People in Miami actually ship California produce to them. I always knew I wanted to open my first restaurant on the west coast, either California or Vegas. Opening in Northern California is very difficult and I’d love to, but it’s one of the most difficult cities to get permits and get opened.

So when I first came off Top Chef, I was traveling around the world doing consulting for restaurants and Staci cyberstalked me. She messaged me on Facebook and I ignored her [laughing] and she messaged me again, saying I’d be the perfect executive chef for a project she was working on. But I said no way, I opened my own company and I didn’t want to work for anybody else. If I did it would be chef-owner or chef-partner only but she wasn’t looking to partner either. Eventually I called her on the phone and we clicked. I think we liked the way we talked to each other; no nonsense and very fast.

We talked about the project more and I came on just as a consultant for Twenty Eight to help her out, but two months in we realized how well we work together. She’s like family; the older sister I never had, and we became very close. I started living in her house instead of hotels and calling her mom “mom.” I became like best friends with her little sister and just melded in with her family.

It was my husband that pointed this out, again, he said “you’re so happy every time you work with Stacie but you go off with a frown to other consulting gigs that are stuffy and corporate and you have to wear a suit… you don’t enjoy that.” After a year and a half of traveling I starting craving my own kitchen team that I could see everyday, instead of going to train a team and then leaving after they’re done.

So it all happened very organically and she said “yeah, you’re part of the family.” So instead of consulting, now I’m her first business partner and here’s Twenty Eight.

Here we are.

But most importantly she showed me the farmer’s market and introduced me to Scott (Breneman, owner of West Caught Fish) all before I signed my life away with her [laughing], and you saw how I love live fish. Ten minutes away from the restaurant, how amazing is that? I couldn’t turn that down.


the recipe:

Spice oil poached Newport black cod w/ crustacean broth, shiitake, braised daikon, and holy trinity

Crustacean broth

  • 1 ea. black cod head
  • 1 lb. shrimp head and shell
  • 1c. Shaoxing wine
  • 1 qt. chicken stock
  • 1 qt. water
  • 8 oz. ginger
  • 1 head garlic
  • 3 ea. shallot
  • 4 ea. green onion
  • 8 oz. celery trim (trim from celery garnish)
  • 8 oz. daikon trim (trim from daikon garnish)
  • 2 ea. star anise
  • 1 tbsp. Sichuan peppercorn
  • 1 oz. dry red arbol chili
  • 2 oz. rock sugar
  • 1 tbsp. oyster sauce
  • 3 tbsp. aged soy sauce
  • 6 tbsp. Zhenjiang black vinegar (Chinkiang Vinegar)
  • 1/2 lb. diced cold butter
  • ½ ea. lemon
  1. Clean and wash fish head, drain
  2. Slice ginger, garlic, shallot and green onion
  3. Toast all dry spices and chili
  4. In a stock pot, heat up cooking oil, brown the fish head and shrimp heads and shell
  5. Sweat the ginger, garlic shallot and green onion in the stock pot
  6. Deglaze the pot with Shaoxing wine
  7. Add water and chicken stock
  8. Add rest of the veg
  9. Let this seafood stock simmer for 40 minutes
  10. Add toasted spices and chili, simmer for 20 minutes
  11. Add rock sugar, when come back to simmer, strain the stock
  12. Add oyster sauce and aged soy sauce into the strained stock, simmer 5 more minutes
  13. Add black vinegar, emulsify butter, and fresh squeeze juice of ½ lemons, salt to taste

Vegetable prep

  • Celery
  • Daikon
  • Red bell pepper
  • Red onion
  • Dry shiitake mushroom
  • Leeks
  1. Drop the whole red bell pepper into fryer, blister the skin then put them into a bowl, cover with plastic. Peel the skin and de seed, slice them into julians
  2. Peel the rib of the celery and cut them into ¾ in. x 2½ in. rectangles, blanch them in salt water and shock in salted ice water
  3. Peel the skin of daikon radish, cut them into 2½ in. long about the same thickness as the celery, cook them in salted water, and bring up from cold. After it’s tender, portion them into the same size and thickness as the celery
  4. Rehydrate the dry shiitake mushrooms in cold water, overnight. Julian them after rehydrating
  5. Julian red onion
  6. Use leek white only, clean and slice into julians with the grain, quickly blanch in salt water.

For Pick up:

  • Heat up oil in cast iron sauté pan, equal part of roasted red bell, red onion, shiitake mushroom and leek white, sauté until tender, season with salt and pepper and 1 splash of black vinegar
  • Build a “raft” with 2 pcs. celery and 1 pc. daikon in the middle.

Herb Garnish

  1. Thinly slice the green onion top, then soak them in the ice water so they will curl up
  2. 1 spring of cilantro

Spice oil poach

  • 4 oz. portion of black cod filet
  • 2 tbsp. Sichuan pepper corn
  • 10 ea. arbol chili
  • 1 tsp. cayenne
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • 1 whole garlic
  • 3 qt. blended olive oil
  1. Combine all spices and the oil and bring the spiced oil to 180 degrees
  2. Season the fish with salt and gently put the fish into warm oil, keeping the oil temperature at 160 degrees
  3. Slow poach for 7 minutes
  4. Drain the oil and ready to plate
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