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LA’s Chifa: An Intercontinental Launch By Humberto Leon And Family

Humberto Leon is cofounder of fashion brand and retailer Opening Ceremony. In late 2020, Leon and family—including his mother Wendy Leon, sister Rica Leon, and brother-in-law John Liu—launched Chifa restaurant in Los Angeles, celebrating his family’s culinary roots in Hong Kong, Peru, and Taiwan.

We got our space about two years ago, and it’s taken us some time to build this restaurant from scratch. In February, we heard the news about the pandemic the way everybody else heard the news. We were in the middle of building the restaurant. We knew we had to make sure we were prepared.

At that time, I don’t think we knew too much about what outdoor seating or indoor seating meant. But quickly—I think in March or April—we started considering what outdoor dining would look like for us. We were very fortunate in that we have a private parking lot, so we were able to adapt and make sure that could serve as seating, with ample space and with more than six feet of distance between people.

We designed the entire interior of the restaurant to have a certain look and feel. I’m the chief marketing officer, and I designed the indoor space. I wanted the restaurant to have its own distinctive outdoor experience too. At that point I lived in New York, I had gone to quite a bit of outdoor dining there, and I felt we could provide an experience that was a little bit better. We came up with an idea and a budget to really put towards outdoor seating that felt meaningful. When people came for the first time, it didn’t feel like an afterthought—it actually felt like we considered it.

We had always thought about to-go, but really thinking about to-go in this moment of COVID is different. The menu is all about bringing our home cooking to a larger audience. Everyone wants this feeling of comfort. And eating Peruvian food alongside Cantonese and Taiwanese—all these different flavors together is very us, and very much what we’ve done at home for the last 20 or 30 years. It’s exciting to share this experience with people because it’s part of our culture.

From left: Humberto Leon, Wendy Leon. Rica Leon, and John Liu. Photo: Courtesy Chifa.

Certain things like seafood don’t necessarily travel that well. We’ve omitted things from the menu that we don’t think are perfect for takeout. Once we’re able to do outdoor dining, you’ll start to see a couple more things pop up on the menu. And once we do indoor dining, that’ll be a whole different experience. We have big aspirations to do a supper club once a month that will showcase different types of cuisines and different collaborations. We’ve done some desserts with Nünchi, and I work with the Butcher Girls—they make our lap cheong, the Chinese sausage. We’re going to do more collaborations throughout.

We haven’t hosted anybody inside the space, but we’ve made it a point to set up as if it’s ready for full-service indoor dining. Even if you’re coming for pickup or if you’re coming to just check out the restaurant, you get to see it. My mom’s always instilled in us that you really eat with your eyes. I think being able to envision what the space could look like while eating the food is really important, so we buy fresh flowers and everything to ensure that the diner gets the experience of what it will feel like to eat inside the space.

We have family around us, and we’re all conscious about COVID and what’s happening in the pandemic. Our entire family works—ages ranging from 16 to 75, and that doesn’t even include my mom. So we’re trying to make sure we have precautions in place, and that we take care of our workers. We’ve built the business so it’s quite flexible. We want to make sure safety is first.

As a family, we feel fortunate that we’re able to do this together. Even with the pandemic, we didn’t get to see each other that much because we were all very aware of being with my mom and elderly people. Myself and my partner, we’re the ones waiting tables or taking the calls. It’s been really nice, because during these crazy times it’s our way of hanging out, spending a Friday or Saturday with each other, side by side taking phone calls and orders. We’re making the most of it and having fun our own way.

I’m a big fan of being there in front of the customers, seeing their reactions, and getting first-hand responses. Even when I opened up my fashion business 20 years ago, I worked the floor for almost eight years. In opening this business, my sister and I, and my mom, and everybody had the intention of making sure we were there to greet people. If there were any issues, positive and negative, we were able to deal with it.

One of the things we realized when we opened is that a lot of our drinks were caffeinated, and we’re only open for dinner. People might not want a caffeinated drink at dinner. I have a house recipe for this drink called the chicha morada, which is made of purple corn from the Andes and pineapples and cinnamon and cloves and a bunch of other secret ingredients that I can’t disclose right now. So we created a super-drink from the Andes, from Peru, that is non-caffeinated. It’s been one of our best sellers ever since. My caffeinated hand-pulled teas will have to wait until some other time.

The craziest thing is that on our second day of service, the entire menu sold out. We had to make an Instagram announcement that said, “Thank you for supporting us. We are 100 percent sold out.” My partner and I kept laughing because we were like, “Oh my God, what restaurant writes this? You’re 100 percent sold out of every dish? That sounds insane!” We bought enough for the weekend, but we sold out in one day.

It’s been exciting seeing how people are ordering. Everyone is very interested in a little bit of the Peruvian, a little bit of the Chinese. I’ve really never seen that at other restaurants before. I’ve gone to Peruvian restaurants, I’ve gone to Chinese restaurants, but this duality is something that’s so particular to our family because of where my dad’s from and where my mom’s from. It’s super-cool to see that being accepted and brought into other people’s homes.