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"Everybody in this town knows Madame Wu. One of the dearest, sweetest, most elegant women I've ever known." -- Merv Griffin (USA Today, Jan 29, 1998, Closing time at Madame Wu's)
Sylvia Cheng was born into a wealthy, cultured family in Jiujiang, China in 1915. Her parents separated early. Sylvia was raised by her grandfather, who owned a bank and a department store. "He was good to me," she said, "...showering me with gifts and special treats, but he was also wise and taught me discipline. I was brought up in the traditional fashion, learning respect and good manners." When not away at boarding school, mooning over photos of Cary Grant, she would spend many hours covertly watching her grandfather's servants preparing delicious delicacies in the off-limits kitchen. As she wrote in her book Cooking with Madame Wu, she learned that "eating well balanced meals containing selected herbs and spices would improve health, beauty, sexual vitality and longevity."
After her beloved grandfather's death and the outbreak of World War II, Sylvia and her extended family moved to Shanghai and then to Hong Kong. A free flight to Calcutta resulted in an offer that would change Sylvia's life. A friend in India was about to join his wife in the U.S. He said she could come along, as long as she agreed to go to college there. "I don't know how I had the courage," Sylvia recalled. "I had no family [in America]...The trip took 40 days from Bombay, and because of the war there was a blackout all the way". While perusing an education degree at Columbia University, she became reacquainted with King Yan Wu, a successful engineer from a distinguished Chinese family (both his father and grandfather served as China's ambassador to the U.S.). They were soon married and had three children, who she touchingly referred to as her "good friends."
Sylvia settled into the role of sophisticated housewife and hostess. A personal chef, provided by her mother-in-law, assisted her. Eventually, Sylvia began to cook more herself and claimed she could prepare a full Chinese dinner for her family in under an hour. This was preferable to the Chinese restaurants in New York, which often "left her disappointed." She was appalled by the manner of the waiters and the heavy faux-Cantonese dishes.
By 1959, the Wus were living in Los Angeles. "I liked the climate but was lonely here," she explained. "When the children were in their teens and didn't need me much, I began to think about getting a job, but it was impossible because my English was so poor. One day I told King I wanted to open a Chinese restaurant. He made no objections, thinking I wasn't serious, so I drove around and found a location in West Los Angeles." When King realized she meant business, he tried to talk her out of it. "My husband was worried," she said, "but I told him 'Look, most people who open a Chinese restaurant are waiters with no common sense. At least we have common sense, a cultured background and education. How can we lose?'"
In 1959, Wu's Garden opened at 2628 Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. The intimate space seated fewer than 50 people. "We had two cooks, two waiters and a dishwasher," Sylvia said. "In the beginning, the chef did all the buying because I didn't even know how." A friend, who was president of NBC, helped her write a letter promoting the opening, which she sent to the membership of her church and her daughter's exclusive school. King's worries were quickly assuaged. "That letter really brought the customers," Sylvia recalled. "We sold out the first night and people were lined up outside for six months."
The restaurant was a hit with the Hollywood in-crowd, charmed by Sylvia's impeccable manners and discreet, reverential treatment of them. By 1963, columnist Joan Winchell was sufficiently bewitched by Wu to write: "We have always felt that West-siders were fortunate to have this charming, tasteful place in their midst -- where service, smiles and heavenly food at moderate prices are the rule." The "dainty and feminine" Sylvia, who one reporter called "one of the most beautiful women I ever met" (Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1977) was a natural hostess -- and a natural boss. She quickly became adept at running every part of the restaurant -- from buying the food, to running the kitchen, to answering the phones. Sylvia was a genius at self-promotion. She greeted guests in a traditional mandarin silk gown, her hair swept in an elegant up-do. She was also not above a gimmick -- occasionally serving an edible "electrified" sweet and sour fish covered in tiny lights.
Sylvia knew what her customers wanted. She served a brand of Cantonese (and later other regional) dishes suited to the less sophisticated American palate. "I had to teach my traditional Chinatown chefs to change their ways," she said. "Chinese friends would criticize the food, saying it wasn't authentic. But I told them, 'Look around. Do you see any Chinese dining here?'" Her spareribs, Peking duck (drained of all fat to suit American tastes), crab puffs, and shrimp toast were legendary. Her teen-age crush, Cary Grant, (who would become a close friend) told her about a shredded chicken salad he had enjoyed at another restaurant, so she developed her own Chinese Chicken Salad, which is now imitated at restaurants around the globe. However, she did occasionally challenged her guests. Once, Frank Sinatra had the audacity to order chow mein, which she considered lowbrow. She instead served him her famous Wu's Beef. When calorie counting and fad diets became all the rage, she developed her own "Long Life Diet," featuring tofu and low-calorie versions of her classic recipes.
In January 1968, Madame Wu's Garden moved to an 11,000 square foot, mod-pagoda style restaurant at 2201 Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. Designed by architect Guy Moore, it seated over 300 people and featured a huge stone waterfall, recessed lighting, Chinese themed murals, and rounded stucco walls. The menu at the new restaurant featured over 200 dishes, all served in heaping portions to suit American tastes.
The '70s were Madame Wu's glory days. She became something of a national celebrity by publishing two cookbooks and appearing on numerous cooking shows. A typical review summed up Madame Wu's appeal: "Madame Wu's tempered approach to Chinese cooking has long ago proved itself. The dishes are well prepared but not planned to challenge; palatable adventure without discomfort. There are the amenities of cocktails, western ideas of service and a calmly beautiful setting. Celebrities, who like to be comfortable, are apt to be seen." Indeed, Princess Grace of Monaco, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Ronald Reagan, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, and Mae West (who loved the bird's nest soup -- supposedly an aphrodisiac) were all fans. Sylvia often traveled with Cary Grant and his family, and drove around in a Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce, with a license plate that read "MME WU."
The Wus remained a tight-knit family, eating a family dinner at the restaurant every Tuesday night. Her two sons became successful lawyers. After her only daughter's death from breast cancer, Sylvia helped raise her grandsons, and devoted herself to many charitable causes (including a stint on the board of directors at KCET). She also put her grandsons to work at the restaurant. "On my 14th birthday, my grandmother looked at me and said, 'You're ready to go to work,'" her grandson Jonathan remembered. But by the mid-'80s, business had slowed considerably. Hipper and more authentic Chinese restaurants opened around Los Angeles. Madame Wu's brand of bow-tied, formal elegance became old fashioned and stuffy. But Sylvia hung on for another decade, not closing until 1998.
When King died in 2011, he and Sylvia had been married for 67 years. Sylvia is now 99, and still full of energy and ideas. "She's fit," one niece says, "she's dressed, she's bejeweled and ready to go to lunch every day at 1 p.m."
"I shouldn't have closed," Sylvia told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times recently. "I want to open another restaurant. I really want to open one."
If anyone can pull off a late in life comeback, it is the indomitable Madame Sylvia Wu.
Madame Wu's Shredded Chicken Salad
2 chicken breasts or 2 drumsticks
2 quarts vegetable oil
1/3 package rice noodles
6 won ton wrappers, cut in 1/8 inch strips
2 tbs finely chopped toasted almonds
2 scallions, white parts only, sliced thin
1 tbs. light soy sauce
1 tsp. sesame oil
1 tsp. mustard paste
¼ tsp. five spice powder (optional)
½ head lettuce, shredded
Put chicken in a pot, cover with water, and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels.
Preheat a wok, add oil, and heat to 350 degrees F (Test for readiness by dropping one strand of rice noodle in oil. If it sinks to bottom, oil is not hot enough. If it pops up immediately, oil is ready.)
Divide noodles into 3 parts and deep fry separately. Noodles will "explode" in contact with oil. Remove at once before oil is absorbed by noodles. Drain on paper towels.
Deep-fry won ton strips until crispy brown. Drain on paper towels.
Deep fry chicken for 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Bone and cut chicken into strips, skin and all. (You should have about 2 cups.)
Toss chicken meat in a large bowl with almonds, scallions, soy sauce, sesame oil, mustard paste and five-spice powder.
Add won ton strips and noodles. Mix thoroughly. (Do not toss or salad will become soggy.)
Place lettuce on a platter and top with chicken. Serve.