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Eddy Cheung, whose Chinese restaurants won acclaim, has died of a heart attack at 69

He ran the Phoenix in Chinatown until 2015 and, since 2016, Jade Court on South Racine Avenue, which is closed ‘till further notice’ while his family figures out its future.

Chicago chef and restaurant owner Eddy Cheung in 2003 at the Phoenix in Chinatown. “He was one of the first to offer a Hong Kong- or even Toronto-style dim sum,” according to Steve Dolinsky, ABC7’s “Hungry Hound.”
Chicago chef and restaurant owner Eddy Cheung in 2003 at the Phoenix in Chinatown. “He was one of the first to offer a Hong Kong- or even Toronto-style dim sum,” according to Steve Dolinsky, ABC7’s “Hungry Hound.”
Jim Frost / Sun-Times

Restaurateur Eddy Cheung had a rule. “If you wouldn’t eat it,” he’d say, “don’t serve it.”

Fresh and delicious was how things had to be at his Jade Court restaurant at 626 S. Racine Ave., the last in a string of restaurants he founded after immigrating from Hong Kong, first in Toronto and later to Chicago.

Before opening Jade Court in 2016, he operated the Phoenix at 2131 S. Archer Ave., acclaimed for dim sum served from carts that were bustled through the restaurant trailing fragrant steam.

Mr. Cheung, who was 69 and lived in Chinatown, died of a heart attack June 27, according to his daughter Carol. She said Jade Court is closed “till further notice” while the family figures out its future.

Mr. Cheung was an innovator, offering authentic Chinese dishes, according to Steve Dolinsky, who reports on food for ABC7 Chicago as the “Hungry Hound.”

“He was one of the first to offer a Hong Kong- or even Toronto-style dim sum,” Dolinsky said. “The carts are moving around the room, there’s a lot of options, and there’s just a lot of turnover,” so the selections are fresh.

Dolinsky said he’d urge diners to try new things, offering samples and saying, “ ‘We just got a [cook] who moved here from Hong Kong, he’s making this special steamed dumpling, and I want you to try them.’ ”

“It made him happy to see people enjoy good food,” said his daughter, who works the front of the house.

Chicago chef and restaurant owner Eddy Cheung. Provided photo

He kept a close eye on the tables as well as the kitchen. “He would just do a quick scan around a room, and he’d know what they needed — they need water, they need tea, they need sauces,” his daughter said.

Mr. Cheung didn’t mask good ingredients with a lot of spices or use ready-made Asian condiments like XO sauce. “He always made sure we had the dried shrimp and dried scallops” to make his own, his daughter said.

WLS-AM radio host Mancow Muller said he found Mr. Cheung “inspirational.” “His best advice was: ‘There’s good days; there’s bad days. You just don’t stop.’ ”

“Eddy Cheung was a true father figure,” said John Bruce Yeh, a clarinetist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “His menu recommendations were always spot-on, featuring the freshest ingredients, prepared perfectly.”

“He was a symbol of the American dream,” said former Ald. Bob Fioretti. “A hardworking entrepreneur, so talented. His food was a gift to all of us.”

Born Chi Ping Cheung in China, young Eddy was the oldest of nine children in his Cantonese family. He was raised in Hong Kong. His father Chung Sang Cheung was a chef, and the Cheungs owned a soybean farm where relatives made tofu. One time, a monkey wandered into their home. They kept it as a pet, and sometimes, Carol Cheung said, “There’d be monkey prints on the tubs of tofu.”

Mr. Cheung came to the United States at 19 to study at North Carolina State University. He named Carol, his oldest child, for that state. In exchange for a place to stay, he worked for a North Carolina family, who his daughter said told him, “You’re horrible at cleaning the house, but you’re a very good cook.”

Eddy Cheung holding his daughter Carol at his graduation from North Carolina State University.
Eddy Cheung holding his daughter Carol at his graduation from North Carolina State University.
Provided photo

When he immigrated, his daughter said, “He was so skinny” — 5-feet-10 and 110 pounds. Then, she said, “He discovered fried chicken and Krispy Kreme.”

In college, he married Denny, his childhood sweetheart from Hong Kong. She later was a hostess at his restaurants.

After college, he moved to New York, working in Chinatown, where he washed dishes, bused tables and learned the restaurant business.

He moved to Toronto in the 1970s, opening a takeout place where the big seller was fried chicken wings, then his first sit-down restaurant, named, like his last one in Chicago, Jade Court, with his mother Kitty Cheung cooking tofu dishes from the family farm. He soon opened the three-story Mandarin Palace, specializing in Hong Kong dim sum and barbecue. Mr. Cheung also started Cantonese eateries, a chain of noodle shops and Harvey’s burger franchises in Toronto.

Eddy Cheung with his daughter Carol and his late wife Denny at his first takeout restaurant in Toronto.
Eddy Cheung with his daughter Carol and his late wife Denny at his first takeout restaurant in Toronto.
Provided photo

Visiting Chicago, he spotted the place on Archer Avenue where he would open the Phoenix, which he ran from about 1996 to 2015, his daughter said.

In 2000, when he helped introduce bubble tea to Chicago, he explained it this way: “It’s like the Starbucks of Asia.”

In 2009, boasting of his bird’s nest soup, he told the Sun-Times: “When you are sick, this is what you eat to help you recover.”

Mr. Cheung, whose first wife died in 1997, is also survived by his wife Helen Lee, another daughter, Tiffany, sons Derek and Kelvin, a chef in Mumbai, and four grandchildren.

His family placed a golf putter, golf glove and golf balls in his casket, plus a model horse. He’d been part-owner of racehorses in Toronto, where his jockey had a Mandarin Palace logo on his racing silks.

Eddie Cheung in the kitchen of his original Jade Court restaurant, in Toronto.
Eddie Cheung in the kitchen of his original Jade Court restaurant, in Toronto.
Provided photo