20 March, 2017
MY OWN PERSONAL CHEF!
Alvin Yu, founder and owner of Fyusion Dining, is the quiet and humble sort—reserved, meticulous, maybe a tattooed Asian gangster in some alternate universe. Upon immediate impression, you wouldn’t think of him as a nonprofit junkie and an accomplished personal chef, but a little conversation reveals much about the man and his industry. I approached Alvin because I knew absolutely nothing about personal chefs, who I assumed were all bastard versions of real restaurant chefs. In my mind, they were Curtis Stone-like, wannabe cooks: handsome, glistening smile, fake tan, risotto extraordinaire. To enlighten my ignorant ways of thinking, Alvin invites me for dinner at his home near Edgewater.
But due to the minor inconvenience of losing my fucking phone, I’m late and it’s dark outside. By the glory of gods unknown, I somehow navigate to his apartment, where he is waiting for me outside. Drawing one last suck, he tosses out his cigarette and leads me upstairs to his darkly-lit apartment, where I presumably imagined a lucrative drug deal would take place. Instead, I enter the kitchen to find a whole meal already cooked and warm on the stove.
A native of San Francisco, Alvin grew up in a cooking household where literally everyone and everything revolved around food. His family followed a work-to-eat philosophy, where food was a luxury often prized above other material possessions. Meals meant bonding time, and dinners in particular were taken quite seriously. “If you were mad at someone during the day, you knew you had to sit across from them and look at them at the end of the day. How angry can you get?” But unlike most traditional Asian households, Alvin’s family often ventured beyond their ethnic comfort zone into other cultural cuisines. “By the time I was ten, I’d pretty much eaten every cuisine in the world,” he says. But Alvin didn’t always aspire to become a chef—in fact, he adamantly refused to perpetuate the family legacy. It wasn’t until a career move to Chicago that Alvin decided to seriously contemplate a future as a chef. With little social support in a new city but lots of free time, Alvin created Fyusion Dining, a personal chef service where meals served as “a catalyst for conversation, sharing and celebration.” Within two weeks, he already booked a gig.
Alvin plates the dishes while I ogle in a salivatory mess. He presents a flank steak topped with bok choy and miso buttercream, as well as a ribeye curry with lychee-infused rice. And my favorite dish of the evening—an eggplant, leek, and red cabbage stir fry with spicy black bean sauce and pistachios. The savory meatiness of the eggplant contrasts perfectly with the earthiness and saltiness of the vegetables, and the toasted nuts add just the right hint of smokiness.
I ask Alvin how he made the career jump from event production for non-profits to Fyusion Dining. He says there’s a common element of serving people, delivering “warm fuzzies,” and servicing a need. “If you watch chefs in the middle of the night, if you can be a fly on the wall, they’ll always peek out on the floor to see what the reaction is because they’re all about satisfying people.” And he takes his job seriously—his clients fill out food questionnaires on their favorite dishes, restaurants, hobbies, and family life so that he gets a good sense of their “eating personality.” Whereas most personal chefs simply cook and deliver a meal, Alvin also utilizes his event production background to help clients develop comprehensive event plans. “My job goes beyond just being the chef—I will give them advice on how to create the atmosphere.” And it’s not always about the event—Alvin often urges his clients to expand their culinary repertoire by presenting alternatives to classic or familiar dishes. He tells me that when he first started the business, his clients often requested the Midwestern classic of mashed potatoes and beef tenderloin.
“I’ve had clients from the last seven years who went from meat and potatoes to now eating raw fish.”
And after every event, Alvin’s first question to his client isn’t how the food tastes or whether the meal was satisfactory—it’s always “Are you happy?” I ask Alvin how he balances client demands with his personal creative drives. As an example, he tells me that for one client’s future bar mitzvah, the mother wants the menu to feature her son’s favorite dishes. “[The son] loves mac and cheese, and we’ll make mac and cheese. But I will make you a four-cheese mac n cheese with our patented crust.”
Although by professional nature, personal chefs strive to fulfill their clients’ needs, I can’t help but marvel Alvin’s level of dedication. After all, this guy is clearly talented—why not cook in a restaurant? “Personal chefs don’t get a lot of acclaim. If you’re cooking to get noticed or award, you don’t become personal chef. But it’s all about the food for me and my partner.” Alvin says that “it’s really just about delivering quality food that tastes great” and that food doesn’t have to be fine dining to be inventive, progressive, or delicious.
“When you take that approach, we’re a little bit more humble in that respect. It’s not all about us, and it’s not all about our food. We’re not here for the awards, we’re not here for the acclaim—we’re here to give people that experience.”
And it’s all not all glitz and glamour in the restaurant industry, Alvin says. Working 60+ hours a week, dealing with “constant bullshit,” and having mediocre benefits (Schwa prep chefs apparently get paid $10 bucks an hour!) contribute to high burnout rates. Alvin says, “You’re not doing it for the money; you’re doing it for the love, and people take advantage of that.”
In fact, Alvin says there are two types of personal chefs: the older burnouts and young chefs who want to cook on their own terms. “I don’t have to serve 100 covers, and I don’t have to cook the same thing 30 times in a night. I know that I have 10 clients that evening, and I make this much proportion, and I can spend time talking with them and explaining the food and creating the experience for them.” I ask Alvin why not participate in underground dining or start a pop-up restaurant. His reply? “Cause that’s illegal.” Apparently it’s against the law in Chicago to charge people for food and operate as a business in your home because of certain health and safety issues. Although people find clever ways to meander around the law, getting caught can result in a $5,000-10,000 fine—no chump change, especially for cheflings of modest means. But Alvin does intend to open a restaurant eventually—as long as there aren’t any investors and third parties to dictate concept and design.
I ask Alvin about his cooking philosophy. He says that food is “functional art” meant to 1) satiate hunger and 2) to recreate a memory or experience. He says that most chefs focus too much on the presentation, ingredients, and flavor, ignoring the fundamental concept that great food should always facilitate great conversation.
“People won’t remember what they ate, they won’t remember the exact décor, they won’t remember the conversations that they had. But they’ll remember the experience and what you’re left with three days later is a feeling. And if they feel good about you’ve done, then they will come back.”
Furthermore, Alvin believes that food should inspire community and camaraderie but that American culture is plagued by a “quick n’ go” culture. “It’s all about sustenance. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as there is a lot of it. Rarely do I see families anymore sit down at a dinner table and share a meal if it’s not a special occasion.
His description of experiencing food is equally insightful:
“When something comes out of the kitchen, you first eat with your eyes. Then it’s your smell. Then it’s taste. And then touch and feel. And then sound. Can you capture those elements in an everyday regular part of the meal?”
I slow my scoffing down to a methodical chew and close my eyes. I notice the crunch of spiced pistachios, the warmth of soft rice on my tongue, the delicate aroma of cooked cabbage. It’s strange to think of food as a multisensory experience, but it’s a subtle concept that genuinely alters the consumption experience. It’s like that scene from Ratatouille, where Remy sees colors burst into texture and light as he eats cheese and grapes. I didn’t have a culinary acid trip, but I did pick up the delicate nuances of the food.
Finally, I ask Alvin why he cooks fusion cuisine, as opposed to classic Asian or American. He says, “If you think about it far back enough, all food is fusion at some point in time. If you go to parts of Russia where there are people that look totally Chinese but they’re eating some form of pierogi dumpling. But what’s the next evolution is the question—so there’s room for thought.” Even his business partner, who specializes in French and Italian cuisine, is “the only white guy I know that can do the proper fan folds on dumplings.” He says that fusion cuisine isn’t about throwing flavors together, a concept I can certainly respect (I personally hate when people toss scallions or soy sauce onto something and BAM, it’s Asian.) It’s about preserving traditional flavors and preparation with a slight modern twist.
At this point, two of Alvin’s friends come over to help finish the meal—a bartender named Austin and his girlfriend. They’re a boisterous and fun couple, not as reserved and subdued as their friend. Austin tells me that Alvin is one of the cleanest, organized, and most meticulous chefs he’s ever worked for, that everything is carefully visualized before preparation. In the meantime, Alvin begins rinsing pots and placing silverware into the dishwasher. He’s barely eaten the dinner he’s prepared for us, though he occasionally munches on a spare carrot lying on the counter. I find Alvin’s humble personality a complicated enigma—he loves serving people and providing community, yet he possesses an unabashedly rebellious character. His techniques rival that of a professional chef, yet he never went to culinary school (“Culinary school can’t teach you creativity,” he says). He speaks with passionate bravado at moments , yet remains remarkably subdued during others.
But hell, I like Alvin. He exudes a deep, murky sort of passion that becomes crystal clear when talking about food. In that respect, he reminds me of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego—quiet in his own right and possibly misunderstood, but with a social conscience and fervor that puts most people to shame. In fact, he’s more than a personal chef—he’s a crafter of foods, a creator of memories, a builder of community.