Ying Chen likes to see himself as a trailblazer for east Asian cuisine. In 1980, before he opened his first place, he and a business partner drove around Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio looking for a city without a Mandarin restaurant. In Fort Wayne they found three Chinese eateries, all Cantonese; that's where Chen staked his claim. Now, after two decades of building an empire based largely on Chinese fast food, he's testing a new concept: an 80-seat establishment in the South Loop called Oysy. "Think Japanese tapas," he says.
Chen's route to the corner of Michigan and Ninth--the new space was designed by architect Doug Garofalo to resemble an upscale diner--has been circuitous. Born in South Korea, where his family moved from the Chinese province of Shandong during World War II, he grew up speaking both Korean and Mandarin, and the family's meals encompassed both traditions. His upbringing included reading Chinese literary texts in preparation for the family's eventual return to the mainland--a dream that was dashed when the communists settled in for the long haul.
At age 18, unlike many Korean-Chinese of similar age who emigrated to Japan and the U.S., Chen enrolled at National Taiwan University to study political science. After graduation he came to Chicago for a master's in urban studies at Roosevelt University. To make ends meet he waited tables at various Chinese restaurants. A fan of architecture, he soon switched majors and schools. Still undecided, he told his faculty adviser at the School of the Art Institute that he was thinking about entering the restaurant trade. To his surprise, he recalls, "She said, 'Go, go, make money.' I thought she felt I had a talent for design." It was a wake-up call.
Great Wall, as Chen called his Fort Wayne venture, got terrific press--"12 stars altogether, and finally that city had a taste of authentic Mandarin," he boasts--and even better business. But he squabbled with his partner and ended up ceding control. He cashed out and plowed the money into Chinese fast-food joints with names like Chen's Place.
"That was the early 80s, during the boom in malls," he says. "I just worked out deals with developers." At one point he juggled projects in five states and as far south as Tennessee.
After returning to Chicago for good in 1984, Chen sold most of his out-of-state holdings and began opening new restaurants, both fast-food and full-service, at the rate of about one a year. By 2000 the count was up to 21, including Chen's Chinese Express, Lai Lai Oriental Express, and Cafe Typhoon, all names that should be familiar to downtown lunchers. Chen takes pride in what he calls his fancy places. "I opened Baisi Thai in Oakbrook Center in '93, long before upscale Thai was fashionable," he says. Two years later Pacific Rim Kitchen in the Village Square mall in Northbrook combined Japanese, Chinese, and Thai on the same menu. And four years ago Chen opened Bistro Pacific in the 680 N. Lake Shore Drive building. "That was a collaboration with Jimmy Ma, who's an in-law to the Bees, the family whose members own Sai Cafe, Bob San, Dee's, and Lan's. They're all Korean-Chinese like me, except they came to this country earlier. We're sort of a little mafia."
Chen came up with the idea for Oysy after frequent business trips to Japan, where sampling new dishes was a priority. He often ate at izagayas, which he loosely defines as bistros that serve a variety of small dishes in a casual atmosphere. "When President Bush was in Tokyo recently, the Japanese took him to an izagaya to show him their version of the steak house," he says. The menu typically includes grilled fish, meatballs, dumplings, and noodles--items "that appeal to the average taste, but also delicious," says Chen. A few izagayas exist in Japanese enclaves in Schaumburg and Arlington Heights, but until now there have been none in the city.
Once he found the location--in a renovated condo building whose owner gave him a break on rent--Chen lined up investors Eric Chang (part owner of Phoenix Restaurant) and banker Julia Zhu. Zhu says she's known Chen for over 12 years and was glad for the chance. "Ying may talk big--he comes up with ambitious ideas all the time--but he puts in a lot of careful research," she says.
To head up the kitchen at Oysy he hired chef Takeshi Iida, who had come to Chicago years ago to open Hatsuhana. Chen settled on a name: oysy (pronounced oh-EE-she) means "delicious." Then he went to Tokyo and Osaka to pick out dishes that might go over well here. After experimenting, he and his chef finalized a menu. It includes sushi, which isn't a typical izagaya offering, and "the dishes are fancier-looking than in Japan," Chen says. "Iida likes garnish and the ornamental look."
Indeed, Oysy's dishes--from maki to dumplings--are a feast for the eyes. Worth checking out are orange shrimp tempura ($6), pickled Japanese eggplant ($4), scallop emerald maki ($9), grilled toro steak ($10), and, for the more adventuresome, a sampler of tofu salads ($6) or sea-urchin-and-fish tempura ($8).
Always the pioneer, Chen opened a restaurant called Boston Seafood in Beijing in '83. He sank $500,000 from his growing fortune into the venture, shipping American furniture over in three freight containers.
He was ahead of his time: now similar Westernized seafood eateries dot that city. Chen's next project there will be a fancy steak house. Conversely, he's planning a Peking-style restaurant--three floors, lots of luxury party rooms--for Chicago. "The Chinese consul general has complained to me that he has no place to take honored guests for great Chinese food," Chen says. "That's what Chicago needs next, and I'll provide it."
Oysy is at 888 S. Michigan, 312-922-1127.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.