September 1, 2015

2015 WG ANNUAL MEETING: Top Chef Shirley Finds Passion in Cooking

Chef Shirley Chung, who is the chef owner of Twenty Eight Modern Chinese Cuisine restaurant in Irvine, Calif., and will be a featured presenter at the Western Growers Annual Meeting in San Diego, did not discover her passion for the culinary arts until her late 20s.  In fact, her restaurant name pays homage to the age she was when she began to pursue her dream.

Born and raised in Beijing, China, Chef Shirley, as she is called, came to the United States at age 17, graduated from college with a business degree and began working in Silicon Valley in the business world.

“But in my late 20s, I decided I wanted to become a chef,” she said.

After being trained in both French and Italian cuisine, she started her cooking career in Napa Valley under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry.  She has since worked and opened restaurants for renowned chefs such as Keller, Guy Savoy, Jose Andres and Mario Batali.  In fact, she open Keller’s Boudin restaurant in Las Vegas about five years ago.  She was a finalist for season 11 Top Chef New Orleans and Top Chef Duel.  Before Top Chef, she was the executive chef for China Poblano.  Under her guidance, China Poblano was nominated for the Best New Restaurant Award by James Beard in 2011.

Initially, her goal in the culinary world was to be a corporate chef, running a restaurant group.  Last year she opened Twenty Eight Restaurant as the first operation she can call her own.  Right now she is focusing on Twenty Eight, but admits to building a plan that can be duplicated.  She calls her style “modern American cuisine with a Chinese soul” and said it is very heavily oriented toward vegetables.  “I love vegetables so much,” she told WG&S.  “They are sexier than protein.  There are so many textures and varieties and so versatile.”

She likes to use fresh produce concentrating on its seasonal aspect, noting that there is no seasonal component for protein.  Growing up in Beijing, Chef Shirley said vegetables were always a very important part of the meal, and she features several vegan dishes on her Twenty Eight menu.  She has not yet determined which vegetables she will play with at the WG Annual Meeting but said the timing offers many options.  “November is unique.  We have a whole lot of vegetables we can choose from, especially in California.  Summer vegetables will still be growing strong and the winter vegetables will have started.”

She is sure to dazzle the crowd with the skills she has developed over the last decade of rubbing shoulders with the best chefs in America.