A few years back, I had lunch with Madame Sylvia Wu, the restaurateur who for 37 years has held fast to her vision of Chinese food filtered through the lens of Continental cuisine, and got a glimpse of the respect she commands in her exclusive, celebrity-conscious world.
It must have been a Monday, a slow Monday, the only day of the week when Wu could easily break away from the restaurant she transformed from the crumbling hulk that was once the Swiss Chalet into the pagoda-like Madame Wu’s Garden, now a veritable Los Angeles institution.
She arrived at the Regent Beverly Wilshire in her Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce and, as she walked into the restaurant, maitre d’ George Pagani clicked his heels, reached for both her hands, cooed his greeting and led Wu into the dining room, where several gentlemen, including the celebrated Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar, rose as if the Grand Dowager herself had entered the room.
“Everybody knows and respects Madame Wu,” says Celestino Drago, whose restaurant Drago is at the site of Wu’s first restaurant, Wu’s Garden.
Her very demeanor sends the message that no one had better mess with this woman. The moral authority Wu projects comes from her deep commanding voice, her carriage, her impeccable grooming, the upswept hairdo tucked in, no doubt, with a million tiny bobby pins you’ll never see, the strand of pearls that spell status, the trademark oversized tinted eyeglasses and the elegant smile. Always the smile.
“Swifty is my customer,” she whispered to me as we were seated. Madame Wu’s clientele has always included the rich, famous and infamous, including nobility, presidents, governors and dignitaries from around the world. Their names--often just their first names--dropped freely from Wu’s full lips that afternoon.
“Cary [Grant] used to take me to the Magic Castle with Barbara [his then-wife] and make me laugh when he sat on a chair that went down as mine went up. He was so funny.” . . . “I told President Reagan we live two blocks away.” . . . “Did I tell you Anthony Hopkins came to my restaurant last night?”
That day, Wu and her restaurant seemed to be a part of the Los Angeles landscape that always was and always would be. But no era lasts forever. Swifty Lazar has died, and this Sunday, Wu is closing the crimson doors of the restaurant where the late actress Anne Baxter once lost and then found an earring in the tongue of the dragon Wu brought out each year to celebrate Chinese New Year; where Frank Sinatra used to bring his young bride, Mia Farrow, for Wu’s beef; and where Cary Grant ate Chinese chicken salad.
Despite the restaurant’s ups and downs and the loss of her only daughter to cancer, Wu managed to keep her place open longer than several average restaurant lifetimes--not easy for a Chinese woman with a limited understanding of American culture and without the support of the Chinese community, which in the years coinciding with the restaurant’s early years, looked down on women who made independent lives for themselves away from their husbands.
“You know, it is not easy for a Chinese woman to be liberated,” she says when I go to see her at the restaurant soon after the announcement of her impending retirement as a restaurateur.
“I am happy that I won freedom for myself since opening the restaurant. I didn’t have to ask my husband for anything. That’s my No. 1 reward for working.”
Her upbringing in China prepared her well for controlling and even creating her own destiny. She was born Sylvia Cheng in Jiugiang, a city on the Yangtze River, the only child of wealthy parents whom she lost at an early age.
She was raised by an attentive but strict grandfather, a banker and merchant who taught her, as Wu puts it, “self-control, self-discipline and self-denial.” He also taught her the value of possessions and the art of turning a penny into a profit with fairness. “Everything I am today I owe to my grandfather,” she says.
Wu was educated in a convent school. At the outbreak of World War II, she moved to Shanghai and eventually to Hong Kong, where, circulating within her own upper-class circles, she was introduced to her future husband, King Yan Wu, who was then serving in the government of Chinese President Sun Yat-sen.
King Wu was the son of a long line of aristocrats and diplomats: His Western-educated father, C.C. Wu, was ambassador to the United States during the early Depression years and his grandfather, Wu Tin-Fang, who contributed to the modernization of China at the turn of the century, was minister to North and South America and served as China’s first ambassador to the United States.
During a trip to Bombay with friends, she was given the opportunity thru a diplomatic friend to get a visa to the U.S. She acepted the offer. It was a decision that changed her life.
It was wartime, when cruise ships traveled under blackout conditions with motors silenced to evade submarines. “I don’t know how I had the courage to take that trip,” she says, “but I did. My step-grandmother was furious.”
Once in New York, she enrolled at Columbia Teachers College, hoping one day to open a girls’ school in China. King Wu, who had graduated from MIT, was working in New York at the time, and the two renewed their friendship. The couple soon married, and Madame Wu gained a reputation as a savvy hostess, dazzling her circle of Chinese friends with her beautiful family china and her well-honed entertaining skills.
After 12 years in New York, the Wus and their three children, Loretta, Patrick and George, moved to Los Angeles when King Wu took a job at Hughes Aircraft Corp.
With the children now in their teens and away at boarding schools, Madame Wu began dreaming of a career.
“I looked around and realized that there was no Chinese restaurant on the Westside, only chop suey places,” she recalls. “With my background in entertaining, I knew I could create a Chinese restaurant of a quality that Los Angeles had not yet experienced.”
But her husband did not support the idea. “He worried that I did not have the skills to operate a costly business,” says Wu. Nor was it easy to bring her business plans to her husband’s family, who expected her to be an obedient and submissive Chinese daughter-in-law, not a business tycoon. “I wasn’t interested in playing mah-jongg and gossiping,” Wu says.
Still, in 1961, with a bank loan of just $2,000 in hand, Wu located a rundown storefront on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, where the renovated Drago Ristorante now stands. Wu’s restaurant quickly struck a chord with Westsiders.
By 1963, Los Angeles Times society columnist Joan Winchell wrote, “We have always felt that the Westsiders were fortunate to have this charming, tasteful place in their midst, where services, smiles and heavenly food at moderate prices are the rule.”
The neophyte proprietor--who had never seen egg foo yung or almond chicken (and would never serve such immigrant dishes), who knew next to nothing about cooking, who relied entirely on cooks, waiters and dishwashers borrowed from Chinatown restaurants for the practical details of running a restaurant--was doing what no other Chinese restaurateur in town had ever done.
“She was the first to serve quality Chinese food in Los Angeles,” says Paul Marsh, a friend and one-time publicist. Of course, with her Westside location, Wu was catering to American taste: “I had to teach my traditional Chinatown chefs to change their ways,” she says.
With Wu’s guidance and her kitchen’s meticulous testing and retesting of recipes, the resulting dishes, if not exactly authentic Chinese cooking, were tasty and beautifully presented.
Wu’s business acumen and adaptability attuned her to her clients’ needs and wants. When customers objected to MSG, she had it removed from all recipes. When they objected to the excessive fat in the Peking Duck, she fought with the Chinese chef and finally persuaded him to serve a lower-fat duck--one no Chinese would touch.
“Chinese friends would criticize the food, saying it wasn’t authentic,” she says. “But I told them, ‘Look around. Do you see any Chinese dining here?’ ”
One day Grant bounded into Wu’s Garden, raving about a chicken salad he had eaten somewhere on La Cienega Boulevard; he asked Madame Wu to duplicate it. She came up with something better, using a recipe she vaguely remembered having encountered in Shanghai. It was a blend of shredded chicken, fried vermicelli, green onions and toasted almonds. Madame Wu’s soon became known for her Chinese chicken salad, now an American luncheon classic.
When Sinatra asked for chow mein, a dish Madame Wu would never serve at her restaurant, Wu ordered her waiter to forget the chow mein and send him one of her kitchen’s own creations, Wu’s Beef, a dish of flank steak with onions and oyster sauce.
“I knew he would like Wu’s Beef. The thing was to get him to taste it,” she says. She was right. Sinatra and his then wife, Farrow, ordered Wu’s Beef from that point on.
Wu even got Westsiders to try tofu before it was well-known when she introduced her “long-life” diet, a set of dishes meant to appeal to her customers’ concerns about health. “People never knew about tofu at the time,” she says. “Now it’s a household word.”
When customers clamored for a bar, she took over a vacated adjacent store and added one. It was at the bar that plans were laid for her next venture, a bigger restaurant with banquet rooms and a huge lounge where clients could nurse their drinks in leisurely fashion, talk business and wait for a table.
She had set her sights on the spot where the famous Romanoff’s restaurant once stood, but the cost was prohibitive. She sulked. A Realtor who frequented her bar suggested the old Swiss Chalet building a few blocks from her original restaurant. The space was huge and the price was right. She borrowed $9,000 from the bank for a down payment and hired Guy Moore, the architect who had designed the Egg and the Eye complex and several hotels, to start the plans.
The estimated $100,000 construction cost escalated to a whopping $400,000. Once again Wu called upon the good counsel of one of her customers, who privately loaned her enough to see the project through. “It was a loan based on a handshake,” she says.
But the project dragged on and on. “After a year, we were nowhere near opening, so I took the advice of [the then-Los Angeles Chinese consul], who said I should time the opening to Chinese New Year. I sent out invitations [announcing the restaurant’s opening], ready or not,” she says. “Guy almost dropped dead. I wrote him a nice letter telling him that I appreciated his working body and soul to complete my restaurant, but I had to open. I was losing money.”
Finally, in January 1968, at the start of Chinese New Year, the new restaurant was open. The sweeping 11,000-square-foot stylized pagoda was something to behold: four dining rooms and a serene VIP room, seating capacity for 300, with dozens of niches decorated with Chinese artifacts and a hanging sculpture of metal strips that undulated with every breath of air. Nothing plastic. Nothing cheap.
Madame Wu would greet customers in the crimson rotunda where Moore had designed a central garden opening to allow a towering Canary pine to jut through the roof. Soon the walls of the red rotunda, where birds chirped and tropical foliage flourished, were plastered wall-to-wall with photographs of Hollywood royalty, with Madame Wu smiling, hugging, feeding and posing in every shot. There were Vincent Price, Jack Benny, Ann Miller, Kirk Douglas, Cesar Romero, George Hamilton, Peggy Lee, Princess Grace, Mae West, Karl Malden, Anthony Quinn, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda--and, most recently added, Anthony Hopkins (“He loves my chicken salad”), who stands with one hand in his pocket and the other around Madame Wu’s shoulders.
“All this celebrity stuff did not go to her head,” says Marsh. “If there was an ordinary customer standing waiting to be seated while she was talking to a celebrity, she would excuse herself and take care of the person at the door. She treated everyone equally.”
Madame Wu’s Garden flourished for almost 20 years, often being described in magazines, newspapers and guide books as “epicurean,” even though not a single formal critique of her food had appeared in any major magazine or newspaper. Most publications opted for descriptions of the “elegant surroundings,” Madame Wu’s colorful life story or her illustrious clientele. In 1977, the London-based publication Prima described a typical scene: “Paul Newman appears, knowing he will be protected from voracious autograph-hunters, and Mae West . . . well, the indestructible Miss West comes for regular top-ups of bird’s nest soup [reputed to be an aphrodisiac].”
Wu took great pride in the 200 dishes offered on her menu, each one meticulously perfected to her personal standards. “If a dish was not to her liking, she had the waiter take it back to the kitchen,” says Marsh.
For years there were lines out front every evening. Madame Wu’s was a hub for socialite gatherings as well as for Hollywood stars, who found safety, privacy and pampering from a hostess who all but spoon-fed them.
“Her Chinese know-how benefited everyone,” says her son Patrick. “She would seat celebrities in a back-room booth where fans would not ogle. They appreciated that.”
The yellowed pages of Wu’s many scrapbooks are filled with gossipy social items in which the names include Mark Taper, Jimmy Doolittle, Timothy Dalton, MGM Grand’s Bernie Rothkoff, Burgess Meredith, Lloyd Nolan, Toni Grant, John Ferraro, Pat Hilton and George Nicholaw.
Many of the notices were generated by Madame Wu herself, a tireless self-promoter who would leap on any opportunity to keep her restaurant’s name in the paper. One time, she came up with the idea of stringing tiny, blinking Christmas lights around a whole sweet-and-sour fish. The “electrified fish” that glowed in the dark became the talk of her parties--and the subject of a newspaper article or two.
Her name reached to places far from home; she often was invited to London, Paris and other cities halfway around the world to judge contests and give awards. And when she began writing books--"Madame Wu’s Art of Chinese Cooking” (Bantam) and “Cooking With Madame Wu” (McGraw-Hill) grew out of classes at the restaurant; “Memories of Madame Sun, First Lady of China” (Dennis-Landman Publishers), is a tribute to Madame Sun Yat-sen, a life-long friend, mentor and role model of Wu’s--she traveled widely to promote them.
In the ‘80s, however, in response to changes in the global economy, culture and shifting demographics, Los Angeles became known for its slick cafes, miniskirted waitresses and a new, far more informal generation of restaurant diners. The coat-and-tie dress code flew out the window, along with tuxedoed waiters, wine stewards and table manners.
It became a city where the celebrities no longer looked or acted like the celebrities Madame Wu had known and loved. Customers lounged in straight chairs, brought baby strollers to the tables and let toddlers run around. And the tables at posh places often were bare, without the white tablecloths that up to then had been a mark of a quality restaurant.
But the most damaging thing, as she so often complained, was “the competition"--not just the new restaurants popping up in the Santa Monica area but Southern California’s new Chinese restaurants. A burgeoning Asian population and a significant influx of professional chefs and branches of restaurants from around the Pacific Rim lifted Pan Asian cuisine to new heights. Madame Wu’s Garden became a mere blip on the screen.
“I should have quit after 10 years,” Madame Wu now admits.
But the tide of inevitable cultural change did not stop Madame Wu. She pushed on, giving parties, holding classes, promoting, promoting, promoting. “I admire the way she got around, doing television shows and cooking classes every opportunity she could,” says freelance food writer Vern Lanegrasse.
The tablecloths remained--at a cost of $2,000 a month--along with the tuxedoed waiters, mai^tre d’ and Madame Wu’s omnipotent presence.
Recently, I dined with Wu on one of her Mondays off at Mandarette, the Chinese cafe on Beverly Boulevard that attracts a young, fashionable crowd. “You see,” Wu says, gesturing around the room. “No tablecloths.”
As it turned out, the owner of this next-generation cafe has tremendous respect for Wu. Owner Linda Yang approached Wu during the meal, saying she had heard about the good works Wu has done in China. “I hope I will be like you one day,” she told Wu.
Wu accepted the tribute from her competitor with a smile, because when all is told, Wu’s restaurant is only a part of her life. Her life, in fact, seems to be the divided into equal parts business, family and philanthropy.
“My grandmother always put the family first; that’s the heart of it,” says Wu’s 21-year-old grandson, Jonathan Wu, who will soon enter medical school. George, the younger of her sons, is a judge in the California Superior Court and Patrick is a civil attorney for Los Angeles County.
When Wu’s daughter, Loretta, contracted cancer, Madame Wu would leave work every afternoon to pick up her grandsons Jonathan and Alex and drop them off at her house, where they would be looked after by her housekeeper until the children’s father returned from work.
And Wu was committed to instilling character in the younger members of her family by putting all her children to work in the restaurant, working as cashiers, waiting tables or seating customers. “You must keep children busy and make them take on responsibility,” she would say.
“On my 14th birthday, my grandmother looked at me and said, ‘You’re ready to go to work,’ ” says Jonathan. “She may look fragile, but she is very strong.”
Tuesday night dinners at the restaurant have always been faithfully attended by members of Wu’s family. The family not only dines together but travels in a group. “We have been everywhere--in Europe, Asia, Alaska,” says Wu. Her many visits to China after President Nixon’s visit opened doors to American visitors have always been in the company of her children and grandchildren. Family birthdays have always been celebrated at Wu’s restaurant.
Indeed, the final day of Madame Wu’s Garden will itself be a family occasion. The restaurant’s closing festivities, which began with a weeklong Year of the Tiger celebration and continue with a closing party tonight, will come to an end on Sunday, her granddaughter Kelly’s Wu 10th birthday.
“She always told us,” says Patrick, “that if you become successful, you must give something back.”
Giving something back was what drove Wu into charity work even before she opened her second restaurant. “Lots of churches, schools and organizations will definitely miss Madame Wu,” says Marsh. “She has given hundreds of complimentary dinners to charities and scholarships to countless organizations.”
The list of philanthropies in which she is involved is daunting. As early as 1968, Wu, with the help of socialites Georgia Bullock and Marie Hupp, gave a hard-hat party to raise funds for orphaned children in Taipei using the torn-down site of Swiss Chalet.
Wu is a founding member of the Music Center Blue Ribbon 400 and on the board of directors of KCET. She is involved in Child Help U.S.A. and is an active supporter of Loyola-Marymount University. A memorial scholarship fund was established in the name of her daughter at Marymount.
Wu has been named Woman of the Year by both the City of Hope and the League of Crippled Children. She has been voted Mother of the Year by the Chinese American Assn. and honored, along with Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, by the National Conferenece of Christians and Jews.
Tonight, a lot of the old magic will return to Madame Wu’s when a celebrity-filled crowd comes to see off an old friend. Among the expected guests: Gov. Pete Wilson and his wife, Gayle, former Los Angeles Dist. Atty. John Van de Kamp, former ambassador to Mexico John Gavin, architect Frank Gehry, actresses Jennifer Jones, Dina Merrill Hartley, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller and June Haver MacMurray and entertainers Eddie Albert and Monty Hall.
“I can’t believe how busy we’ve been now that I am closing,” Wu says.
Would she do anything differently?
“A long time ago,” she says, “a customer looked at my place and said, ‘You’re not using the space wisely. Too much parking lot, too much lobby instead of tables that bring income.’ I told him I didn’t care, I could afford it, but now I think he was right and I was stupid. I could have built an 11-story office building and put my restaurant on top. I wasn’t too smart.”
As a lawyer, her son Patrick too sometimes thought she could have expanded the property. “But her personality type is better suited to the restaurant she created,” he says. “If it had been an impersonal venture, I doubt that she would have enjoyed it as much as she has the Garden.”
“I would never open a restaurant today,” Madame Wu says emphatically. “There is the no-smoking issue and all those health department restrictions. Every day I go in the kitchen and check things out to be sure everything is OK. If my name ever appeared in the paper for a health violation, like those restaurants were recently, I would kill myself.”
Today, she thinks running a restaurant is “nothing but a headache”: “The food has to be good, service has to be good and you have to pay attention to everyone. It’s a lot of work. When I opened my restaurant I didn’t know I would stay in business 37 years.”
Now she is ready for a new chapter in her life: retirement, which means more work for Wu, who describes herself as “somewhere between 70 and 100.”
“I might try fashion designing,” she says. Wu’s basic costume and personal “look” is the Mandarin-collared dress with a slightly loose fit that she calls “appropriate”: “Tight doesn’t look nice on people my age.”
Then there is publishing. She’d like that. She envisions a bilingual magazine. “Young people don’t know Chinese, but they know English,” she says. “Old people know Chinese but not English. My magazine would cover both.”
Wu will continue her affiliation with public access television show on Century Cable, where her cooking show has been taped for several years. She also plans to write a memoir and, and of course, enjoy her grandchildren.
“I hate to see her close,” says food writer Lanegrasse. “She was the perfect hostess, making people feel as if they were dining in her home, not a restaurant.”
“On the one hand she deserves a break,” says grandson Jonathan. “She’s been on her feet working 365 days a week for 37 years. But I worry that she will miss the social activity. After all, the restaurant has been a big part of her life and ours.”
Wu’s husband, who was against her entering a difficult, risky career, is happy about Wu’s retirement.
“He can’t complain now,” she says.
Is Madame Wu truly ready to quit?
“I feel quiet and peaceful. No bad feelings. I just feel that everything is God’s work,” she says.
MADAME WU’S CHINESE CHICKEN SALAD
Oil for deep frying
1/3 (6-ounce) package fine rice noodles
8 won ton wrappers, cut in 1/8-inch strips
2 chicken breasts, 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
Heat oil for deep frying to 360 degrees in wok. Oil is ready when few noodle strands dropped into oil rise to surface immediately on contact.
Drop won ton strips into hot oil and fry until light tan, about 1 minute. Remove and drain on paper towels. Set aside.
Divide noodles into three parts and deep-fry separately. Remove from hot oil with slotted spoon as soon as noodles pop to surface. Drain on paper towels. Set aside.
Deep-fry chicken pieces 5 minutes. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels. Cool. Remove meat from bones 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.
Variation: Substitute any leftover turkey or store-bought barbecued chicken for cooked chicken. Instead of won ton strips and rice noodles use 3 cups canned shoestring potatoes.
4 to 6 servings. Each of 6 servings:
229 calories; 277 mg sodium; 30 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 31 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams protein; 0.39 gram fiber.
This recipe makes a lovely presentation, but there will be more noodles than you probably want to eat.
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
2 1/2 teaspoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon hoisin sauce
1/2 teaspoon red wine
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 pound sliced flank steak or filet mignon
1/3 (6-ounce) package fine rice noodles
1/2 cup coarsely chopped onions
3 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
Combine 1 tablespoon oil, 1 tablespoon cornstarch, 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce, 2 teaspoons light soy sauce, hoisin sauce, wine, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, dash salt and dash pepper. Add beef and toss to coat well. Set aside.
Bring oil for deep frying to 400 degrees in wok over high heat. Oil is ready to use when few noodle strands dropped into oil rise to surface immediately on contact. 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 oil and heat over high heat. Add onions and stir-fry 1 minute. Add marinated beef and stir-fry, stirring gently to prevent meat from becoming watery, 2 minutes.
Combine water, oyster sauce, remaining 1 teaspoon cornstarch, remaining 1/4 teaspoon sugar, remaining 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce and remaining 1/2 teaspoon light soy sauce and stir until 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.
4 servings. Each serving:
335 calories; 819 mg sodium; 21 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 43 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 0.18 grams fiber;
MADAME WU’S CRAB PUFFS (LOW-FAT COOKING)
1 cup cooked crab meat
1/4 teaspoon salt
Dash white pepper
1/3 cup cream c heese
20 won ton wrappers
1 egg white, lightly beaten
4 cups oil
Sprinkle crab meat with salt and white pepper in bowl and mix well. Add cream cheese and mix until smooth.
Brush edges of each won ton wrapper with pastry brush dipped in egg white. Place about 1/2 tablespoon crab mixture in center of each square and bring edges together to form triangle, carefully sealing edges.
Brush each corner of triangle with egg white. Bring 2 points along longest side together and bring up 3rd point to meet other 2, pinching to seal. (Uncooked appetizers may be stored in freezer until ready to fry.)
Heat oil in wok to 375 degrees. Drop puffs into hot oil and cook 2 minutes, turning to brown evenly. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve hot.
20 puffs. Each puff:
44 calories; 78 mg sodium; 11 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0 fiber.