KITCHEN MATRIARCHS : The Unsinkable Madame Wu

A Rolls Royce Silver Cloud rolls silently to the curb at Drago Restaurant. Madame Wu, looking regal in an upswept hairdo and Emanuelle Kahn glasses, opens the door and steps out, ignoring the proffered hand of the valet. This is one woman who needs no help from anyone.

For a woman who owns a city block of prime Santa Monica property and is a legend among restaurateurs in a town where restaurants die faster than the latest diet fad, Sylvia Wu amazes even herself. “I don’t know where I got my ambition,” she says. “As a Chinese woman I wasn’t supposed to know anything about business. My husband didn’t think I could run a restaurant by myself. He still doesn’t, but I knew I could and did.”

Wu, like her husband King Yan Wu, was born into a wealthy, political family in the early part of the century. When the Japanese invaded China, Wu’s family fled to Hong Kong, where she befriended the first lady of China, Mme. Sun Yat-Sen, whose style and presence has been an inspiration to Wu throughout her life. King Yan Wu’s father was ambassador to the United States in the 1920s.


“During my 12 years as a housewife in New York, I didn’t know how to cook,” Wu says. “I am thankful that my husband’s mother sent us a cook. That’s how I was able to show my restaurant cook how to prepare certain dishes.”

The restaurant started out with so-called Chinese dishes, some she had never heard of in China. “I never heard of egg foo yung and pressed duck, but that’s what was being served in Chinese restaurants in those days,” she says. “Now we don’t serve any of those dishes.”


Wu’s ability to adapt quickly to change was probably what saved her restaurant from extinction. When the Pritikin Diet made a big splash, Wu came up with a “Long-Life Diet” (a name suggested by former Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Lois Dwan) imitating Pritikin’s low-fat, low-salt, low-cholesterol restrictions. The Peking duck served at Madame Wu’s Garden has no fat on the crisp skin. “In China, people like the fatty skin, but not here. We fan the duck dry and let the fat completely drain off.”


She acted on her customers’ needs and dietary requirements with dispatch. “Lawrence Welk wanted whole steamed duck and vegetables, so that’s what we served him,” she says. Cary Grant came into the restaurant one day raving about a chicken salad he had at a restaurant on La Cienega and asked why Wu didn’t try something like it herself. Wu, remembering a Chinese banquet dish made with chicken, won tons and puffy noodles, came up with a Chinese chicken salad that has been copied by restaurants from here to New York City.

Wu has operated her restaurant since 1959--in two successive locations. She started out where Drago is now, but moved a few years later to the grand, 12,000-square-foot exemplar of stylized Asian postmodern architecture, designed by architect Guy Moore, on 22nd Street in Santa Monica. She thinks she may be ready to let go, but not just yet. Who can give up a celebrity hangout where Cary Grant, Jimmy Doolittle, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda were at home? The memories!

And the dishes: Terrific Peking duck that is still served to visiting dignitaries; wonderful crab puffs that melt in your mouth; shrimp toast and Wu’s beef (a version of orange beef without the orange).

Besides, Wu refuses to stop working. She is a powerful presence at her restaurant, flitting from table to table, making small talk, checking the kitchen (although she throws up her hands at times), listening to requests and making suggestions with patience. Her energy, enthusiasm and positive outlook haven’t waned an iota.


She loves being with her children and grandchildren and insists on regular Tuesday family dinners at her restaurant. On Sundays, her second son, George, a judge, does the cooking.

“I love young people,” she says and wishes she would see more of them at her restaurant. (Friday’s “crime night,” in which diners solve a mystery during dinner, is an effort to attract a young crowd that she keeps going no matter what.) But she’s happy. “I’m at peace. I love my life and I think I have accomplished something. My name is known wherever I go.”

Wu is also well known for her philanthropy, having endowed a scholarship foundation at Marymount High School in her late daughter’s name, as a Music Center patron for years and having given numerous dinners at her restaurant for charities.

“You know something,” she says. “Years ago, I sold this restaurant (now the Drago location) to a French couple for $15,000" . . . “ $15,000 ,” she repeats, as if she herself can’t fathom it. “You know how much they sold it for? $300,000.”


“Oh, no, not really. Everything is meant to be,” she says.


1/2 gallon oil

1/3 (6-ounce) package fine rice noodles

8 squares won ton, cut into 1/8-inch strips

2 chicken breasts or 2 drumsticks or thighs

1 teaspoon prepared mustard

1/4 teaspoon 5-spice powder, optional

1/4 teaspoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

3 tablespoons toasted almonds, minced

1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions, white parts only

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 head iceberg lettuce, shredded

In skillet heat oil to 360 degrees. Test oil for readiness by dropping few noodle strands into oil. Oil is ready to use when noodles pop to surface immediately on contact with oil.

Drop won ton strips into hot oil. Fry until light-tan in color. Remove and drain on paper towels. Set aside.

Divide noodles into 3 parts and deep-fry separately. Remove with slotted spoon from hot oil as soon as noodles pop to surface. Drain on paper towels. Set aside.

Deep-fry chicken meat 5 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. Cool, then bone and cut into strips with or without skin. Set aside.

Place cooked chicken meat in large salad bowl. Add mustard, 5-spice powder, sesame oil, soy sauce, almonds, green onions and salt. Mix well.

Add crisp-fried won ton strips and noodles. Mix thoroughly. Noodles will break into small bits when mixed. Pile salad over bed of lettuce. Do not toss or salad will become soggy. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

249 calories; 686 mg sodium; 44 mg cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 20 grams carbohydrates; 17 grams protein; 0.56 gram fiber.


1/2 pound uncooked shrimp

1/4 teaspoon sesame oil, optional

1/4 teaspoon light Chinese soy sauce

Dash white pepper

Dash salt

8 slices 2-day-old white bread, thinly sliced

1 quart vegetable oil

Peel and devein shrimp and put through meat grinder. Add sesame oil, soy sauce, white pepper and salt. Mix well.

Use round cutter 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter to cut 32 rounds from bread slices, about 4 pieces per slice.

Spread shrimp paste evenly on 16 rounds of bread, keeping filling within outer edges of circle. Top filled circle with another bread circle and press edges together gently to keep filling from slipping out during cooking.

Bread rounds can be stored in freezer until ready to deep-fry.

Heat vegetable oil in deep-fryer to 375 degrees. Drop bread rounds into hot oil and fry 1 to 2 minutes, turning to brown each side. Do not keep in oil too long, or toast will absorb excess oil and become greasy. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve hot. Makes 16 shrimp toasts.

Each shrimp toast contains about:

53 calories; 99 mg sodium; 22 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 6 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.03 gram fiber.

WU’S BEEF (Ng See Ngau Yoke)

1/2 gallon oil

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 1/2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

2 1/2 teaspoons light soy sauce

1 teaspoon hoisin sauce

1/2 teaspoon red wine

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Dash salt

Dash black pepper

1/2 pound sliced filet mignon or flank steak

1/3 (6-ounce) package fine rice noodles

1/2 cup coarsely chopped onion

3 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon oyster sauce

In bowl combine 1 tablespoon each oil, cornstarch and dark soy sauce, 2 teaspoons light soy sauce, hoisin sauce, wine, sugar, salt and pepper. Add beef and toss to coat well. Set aside.

In deep-fryer, bring remaining vegetable oil to 400 degrees over high heat. Test readiness by dropping few strands of rice noodles into hot oil. Oil is ready to use if noodles puff up immediately. Add rice noodles all at once and remove with slotted spoon as soon as puffed noodles pop to surface. Drain on paper towels. Set aside.

Coat bottom and sides of wok or skillet with 2 tablespoons vegetable oil over high heat. Add onion and stir-fry 1 minute. Add marinated beef and stir-fry 2 minutes longer. Stir gently or meat will become watery.

In small bowl, combine water, oyster sauce, 1 teaspoon cornstarch, 1/4 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon light soy sauce and 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce. When smooth, add to beef and onion mixture, stirring 1 minute. Remove from heat.

To serve, place noodles on platter and spoon beef mixture over. Do not mix. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

197 calories; 861 mg sodium; 25 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 19 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams protein; 0.16 gram fiber.

CRAB PUFFS (Jar Hai Hop)

1 cup cooked crab meat

1/4 teaspoon salt

Dash white pepper

1/3 cup cream cheese

20 squares won ton wrappers

1 egg white

1 quart vegetable oil

In bowl sprinkle crab meat with salt and white pepper. Mix well. Add cream cheese and mix thoroughly until smooth.

With pastry brush wet 4 edges of won ton wrapper with egg white. Place about 1/2 tablespoon crab mixture in center of each square and bring edges together to form triangle, carefully sealing edges. Brushing edges with egg white, bring up 2 points of triangle to meet 3rd point. Uncooked appetizers may be stored in freezer until ready to fry.

Heat oil in deep-fryer to 375 degrees. Drop puffs into hot oil and cook 2 minutes, turning to brown evenly. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve hot. Makes 20 puffs.

Each crab puff contains about:

33 calories; 134 mg sodium; 5 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.01 gram fiber.