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Food and Restaurants

Two local eateries celebrate their modest beginnings with big James Beard wins

Ji Suk Yi (right) with Chef Abraham Conlon of Fat Rice and his partner, Adrienne Lo.

A small mom-and-pop restaurant can seem worlds away from the glitz and glamour of the Red Carpet at the James Beard Awards, so you might be surprised to learn the humble roots of two Chicago awardees at Monday night’s gala ceremony at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago.

One restaurant is a family-run, Uptown staple that has served roasted Beijing duck for 32 years. The other began as a humble neighborhood restaurant that originally served hamburgers and Italian beef sandwiches with an artful twist.

I’ve always been drawn to restaurants and bars in large part due to the stories behind the people who build and run them. It seems an arena of work and craftsmanship where the apprenticeship model of learning can still pay off and where the American dream still comes true.

No award tugs at the heartstring more than the America’s Classics honor. This year it was great to see Chicago’s Sun Wah among the recipients. Siblings Kelly, Michael and Laura Cheng own and manage the business started by their parents. While many family-run businesses can’t find “the next generation of proprietors” willing to undertake the laborious work of restaurant life, the Cheng sisters and brother rose to the challenge.

Michael (from left), Kelly and Laura Cheng of Sun Wah. | Ji Suk Yi Photo

“I think we are as mesmerized as people are when they watch us carve the duck [tableside at our restaurant],” said Laura Cheng, when I asked how her family has felt in the past few weeks leading up to the awards ceremony. Adding later, “We are very proud of dad and his partners. We’ve come a long way and [our family is] very happy to see us continue the tradition.”

What I love most is how candid the siblings are about being in business together. “I’m proud of [my brother and sister] because in the last ten years we went from killing and fighting each other every day, to every other day,” said oldest sister Kelly Cheng with a smirk.

It looks like Michael Cheng hasn’t always had it so easy with two opinionated, strong sisters. Outnumbered, he quickly interjects that they “couldn’t have done it without our customers!” He adds, “Even though we have our ups and downs, they’re still my sisters.”

Their parents, Eric and Lynda, still loom large, and it’s clear the Cheng kids want to make them proud.

“They would never say it to our faces, but we know they are actually proud of us. More because we actually listen to them … the way they brought us up, we are more traditional than we like to think.”

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Lots of famous celebrity chefs walked the Red Carpet Monday night, but to me, none were more exciting than the five Chicago nominees in the Best Chef Great Lakes category. Not only is the food they craft outstanding, but they are pretty wonderful people as well. And they are all friends.

Which brought me to my second-favorite moment of the evening: hearing the emotional acceptance speech from Abraham Conlon of Fat Rice, who was ultimately named Best Chef Great Lakes Region.

Backstage he said he felt, “Amazing, overwhelmed, grateful, humbled — all of that.”

I remember trying to get into this tiny little restaurant (apparently along with everyone else) in Logan Square back in November 2012. The wait would be hours-long for the first few months. When I finally tasted the food, I was hooked, and the wait was worth it!

Moreover, there’s no big restaurant group behind Fat Rice. It was just two incredibly smart, creative and hard-working people with a dream. “It’s just myself and my business partner Adrienne [Lo],” Conlon said. “And day in and day out, we do it. We have to deal with new things, make new systems. If something goes wrong, put it in the handbook, you know, and continue to evolve and grow.”

Conlon thanked Lo effusively and the chefs that had taught him: Ed Zaranski, Jon Mathieson and Franc Giovanni. But he also thanked all of the teachers without culinary rank and fame and the families that invited him and Lo into their homes to teach him Macanese cuisine.

It was impossible to not bask in the overwhelming joy emanating from Conlon: the type of happiness brought on by fulfillment of dreams he never thought of when he first began to cook. And the validation of all of those back-breaking, long, hot hours cooking and creating magic on a plate.