Food // Restaurants

Three generations at work in Henry’s Hunan restaurants in San Francisco

In 1976, the New Yorker called my grandparents’ 2-year-old restaurant, Henry’s Hunan, “the best Chinese restaurant in the world.”

A humble spot in Chinatown, Henry’s Hunan seated 36 people and employed my grandmother’s mahjong friends as cooks. It specialized in the chile-laden rustic cuisine of my family’s home province, introducing a new Chinese regional cuisine to Americans familiar mostly with fried rice and lo mein.

A few years later, my grandparents, Henry and Diana Chung, expanded, opening a massive location on Sansome Street with banquet facilities and room for 200. With a thriving business and jobs to fill, my grandfather could then bring over family from China, starting with his three children from his first marriage.

Over time, these aunts and uncles opened up their own branches of Henry’s Hunan. Today there are five restaurants, all run by members of my extended family.

Lunch orders are filled in the kitchen of Henry’s Hunan.
Lunch orders are filled in the kitchen of Henry’s Hunan.
Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

There is hardly a person in the Chung family who hasn’t worked in one of the restaurants. As a child, I helped out as a tiny hostess or practiced my math by making change for waiters. For me, working at Henry’s Hunan was a rite of passage and not a career, but for many family members, it is the only job they’ve ever held in the United States.

Most of my aunts and uncles have now retired, and many of their grandchildren are in school, pursuing studies that will lead them away from the restaurant industry. In many ways, we are a typical immigrant family, with each generation sacrificing and working hard so that their children may live a better, easier life — one that doesn’t involve night shifts, six-day work weeks and cleaning grease traps.

What that means for the future of the family business is far from clear. But my aunt Meng Tao Zhong, her son Eddy Zhu and her grandson Jin Zhu all still work at Henry’s Hunan. These three generations of the family continue to find restaurant work to be more than just a job, taking pride in tweaking the seasoning of a dish until it’s just right, in greeting customers they’ve known for decades, in innovating so a legacy restaurant remains relevant.

Meng Tao Zhong started working at Henry’s Hunan in 1983, making onion cakes.
Meng Tao Zhong started working at Henry’s Hunan in 1983, making onion cakes.
Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

Meng Tao Zhong

My mother’s half-sister Meng Tao grew up never knowing her father, a member of the Chinese Nationalist Party (and my grandfather). As Mao Zedong ascended to power, Henry had fled to America with his second wife and their two children, — the younger of whom was my mother — leaving his first family behind in Hunan. At 16, Meng Tao married and moved to her husband’s village of Hongyuan, a farming village a six-hour walk from her hometown. Her first son, Eddy, was born a year later in 1964. At the time, there were few children; the Great Chinese Famine had claimed the lives of millions, and pregnancies were rare between 1959 and 1962.

There was never enough food, and Meng Tao — who loved to eat — learned to do a lot with a little. She relied on chiles, garlic, ginger and salt to add flavor to meals of dried vegetables. She would supplement her family’s dinner with a “soup” course, adding water, salt and green onion to the wok she had used to stir-fry the vegetables. Did people back home regard her as an especially good cook? “Everybody was good,” she demurs. “You had to be.”

When Meng Tao arrived in San Francisco in 1983, she went straight to work at the Sansome Street Henry’s Hunan making onion cakes — the lowest station in the kitchen. She spent a year learning from the line cooks, observing and apprenticing. They told her that her seasoning was too aggressive for American palates — too spicy, too garlicky, too salty — and taught her to use a more restrained hand. But once she was promoted to a wok station, Meng Tao went back to her old ways, and soon customers started asking for her by name.

Meng Tao is now 71, and although she’s been threatening to retire for the last few years, she still works at Henry’s Hunan’s Church Street location. She lends a hand wherever she is needed, whether it’s manning a wok on weekends, smoking the pork that studs the chicken-pepper-and-onion stir-fry known as Marty’s Special, and even washing dishes when an employee is on vacation.

She still chases perfection. If a table doesn’t clean their plates, she’ll taste the food they’ve left to make sure it’s up to her standards. (“It’s a strange concept for her,” her grandson Jin notes, “leaving food behind.”) When she eats out and tastes a new dish that she likes, she’ll deconstruct it, trying to figure out how it was made.

She’s indelibly left her own mark on Henry’s Hunan; because she has personally trained the cooks at the three restaurants run by her sons and daughters-in-law, her flavor-packed style of cuisine is the new standard: Henry’s Hunan 2.0.

“I don’t care about my clothes. I don’t care about mahjong,” she says. “I just like to eat.”

Eddy Zhu makes a Marty’s Special, a chicken-pepper-and-onion stir-fry, at Henry’s Hunan.
Eddy Zhu makes a Marty’s Special, a chicken-pepper-and-onion stir-fry, at Henry’s Hunan.
Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

Eddy Zhu

Eddy grew up during the Cultural Revolution, a time of incredible scarcity and strife. He recalls that his family would cut their rice with dried Chinese yams, a bland and starchy tuber that went down like sawdust. He and his siblings eagerly awaited their birthdays, when they would receive a gift of a single egg to eat all by themselves.

When he came to the United States as a teenager, he was amazed at America’s plenty. “There was even enough food in the garbage cans,” he remembers.

His first job at the Sansome Street Hunan was washing dishes. He felt on top of the world; there was no running water in Hongyuan, and now here he was, washing dishes — indoors, with clean clothes and a full stomach. He kept his dishwashing machine gleaming. Soon he was promoted to bus boy, and six years later, after learning English on the job, he was the first family member to make waiter. Customers loved him.

“He’s a real bulls—,” says my mom, Sophia Chung Fegan, who worked with him on weekends, “quick to joke and quick to laugh.”

More than 30 years later, Eddy, 55, still has loyal customers who have followed him to the Mission Street and Sacramento Street locations, which he runs with his wife, Lorna Zhu.

“The restaurant is everything to me,” he says. “Each morning I go in early to open, and I think that every day in America feels like New Year. Every day.”

Grandson Jin Zhu works the front desk at Henry’s Hunan.
Grandson Jin Zhu works the front desk at Henry’s Hunan.
Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

Jin Zhu

Jin and his brother, Rusty, grew up in the family restaurants — riding their scooters in the basement of the Natoma Street location, running orders from the office to the kitchen and making deliveries once they were old enough to drive. Today, Jin works at the Sacramento and Mission Street locations with his dad while also finding time to finish school. He’ll graduate from San Francisco State University next year with a degree in environmental studies.

Jin is a natural caretaker and worries about the toll restaurant work takes on his parents and his grandmother. “It makes me cry sometimes when I see how hard they work,” he says. “There’s no one to cover for them, so they never get a break.”

Now facing graduation, Jin, 27, is at a crossroads. Will he start looking for a job in his field of study, or will he continue working in the family business and, one day, take over? Many of Eddy’s siblings and cousins purposefully kept their kids away from the restaurants, willing them to find other, less punishing careers.

Jin is one of two of Henry Chung’s great-grandchildren who are still working in the restaurants. If Jin doesn’t take on the family business, he fears it will be the end of Henry’s Hunan.

Jin’s parents would prefer that he find an office job — something cushy, with benefits and vacation days — but Jin dreams of updating the restaurant with some ideas of his own. He wants to add authentic dishes like xiao chao rou, a garlicky stir-fry with pork belly and peppers, that reflect the way his family eats at home. Even if Jin doesn’t end up taking over from his dad, he’s toying with staying in the restaurant industry — as a health inspector.

“Family-run restaurants need an advocate, not an adversary,” he explains. “I want to help immigrant restaurateurs who maybe don’t speak perfect English figure out simple, inexpensive ways to comply. I want to help families like my own.”

Henry’s Hunan is seen on Sacramento Street. There are now five locations of Henry’s Hunan, all ran by members of the same family.
Henry’s Hunan is seen on Sacramento Street. There are now five locations of Henry’s Hunan, all ran by members of the same family.
Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

It was never my grandfather’s dream to open a restaurant. A college-educated diplomat, he found work wherever he could in America, trying his hand at a string of failed businesses before finding success with Henry’s Hunan. The restaurants were a means to an end, a way to provide for his family so that his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren could go to college and become professionals.

Were all the restaurants to close, I believe my grandfather would view it as a success; it would mean his family didn’t need the work anymore. But for those of us who have found fulfillment in hospitality and food — and I count myself among them — it will be a sad day when the last Henry’s Hunan shuts its doors.

MacKenzie Fegan is a freelance writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @mackenzief