Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Da Sichuan Bistro, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “The taste of veggie foods can be very exciting.”
When speaking of Sichuan cuisine, it’s spicy foods with strong flavors that most often leaps to mind — delicious dishes that make one’s eyes water and their nose run. Having entered the catering industry at just thirteen years of age, the distinguished chef from Taiwan, Chen Long, ultimately chose to open Da Sichuan Bistro in Palo Alto, California.
While cooking authentic Sichuan dishes, the restaurant additionally offers a vegetarian menu with plentiful possibilities. Chef Chen Long uses his superb cooking skills to bring a delightfully spicy kick to his vegan and vegetarian foods, satisfying customers while also supporting the environment. “There are many professional elites in the Bay Area who come to my restaurant to eat a spicy vegetarian meal and sweat to relieve stress.” Chen Long, who was already familiar with Tzu Chi, was pleased to join Tzu Chi’s Very Veggie Movement, and welcomes veggie lovers to try his authentic Sichuan flavors.
“I became an apprentice at the age of thirteen. In our days, apprentices had to kneel and kowtow to the master.” Chen Long, the now 62-year-old owner of Da Sichuan Bistro, recalled when he set foot on the road toward entering the catering industry, saying, “I didn’t go to school, but I can say that I learned the most authentic skills for cooking Chinese cuisine. From the age of thirteen, I followed my master, one of the four most famous chefs brought to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek, studying the culinary arts of Sichuan and Yangzhou cuisines.”
Cooking With Dignity
Chen Long, who is both talkative and wonderfully hospitable, has deeply embraced the values of honor for one’s mentor and respect for their teachings. Indeed, Chen Long respects his teacher from the bottom of his heart. Working as a chef and catering practitioner, Chen Long frequently calls upon the lessons his master taught him. “Taking good care of my guests and always preparing high-quality and tasty foods, that’s my responsibility. And it’s also about my dignity.”
In pursuing his dream of becoming a master chef, Chen Long studied hard and polished his culinary skills when he was young. After he came to the United States in 1985, he was hired by a renowned Cantonese restaurant, and later worked as a chef in various big restaurants. In 1992, he opened his own restaurant, Da Sichuan, which steadily became quite well-known in the Bay Area. “I worked three times harder than other people to catch up with them and to make myself at ease.” About ten years ago, Chen Long moved Da Sichuan Bistro to Palo Alto. He woke up at 7 AM each day and worked until midnight. “My staff asked me, ‘Boss, why do you work so hard, aren’t you feeling tired?’ I told them, ‘we are all taking one boat and I am the one who sails. What if it sinks? Preparing tasty dishes, taking good care of the guests, and operating the restaurant well, this is my responsibility as a captain,’” Chen Long told us.
A Healthful Spice
Chen Long has a time-honored commitment to his responsibilities, but he is also very open-minded when cooking. “We have the most delicious vegetarian dishes in Da Sichuan Bistro!” he said cheerfully. “Many dishes are developed by myself. Most of Sichuan’s dishes are hot and spicy. Some people say Sichuan cuisine is too irritating, like a nuclear kick, far from the milder healthy vegetarian dishes. Of course, you need to try spicy food here in Da Sichuan Bistro, but I found a way to balance the taste and spiciness that’s also good for your health.” Chen Long explained that Sichuan cuisine isn’t just hot and spicy; it has many different layers of flavor. He also told us about the principles behind making food that’s both spicy and healthy.
“Among my guests, there is a professor from Stanford University. He likes to eat my Manchurian Chicken. Once, I asked him, ‘You sweat a lot and it looks painful after eating the dish. Why do you keep coming back to eat this?’ He told me that he was sweating, but also feeling relieved from the pressure of work. It was very relaxing.” Chef Chen said that in Palo Alto, there are many professionals from high-tech companies, such as Google and Facebook. They like to come to Da Sichuan Bistro to have a spicy meal and sweat to feel refreshed and energized. “Eating properly spicy food and sweating can actually be good for the body. Many people sit in the office for a whole day and barely get any exercise. Sweating can sometimes cheer you up.” Chef Chen said that he transformed his famous dish, Manchurian Chicken, into a vegetarian version by using veggie chicken instead, and kept the other spices the same to bring out the original flavors. Not only can customers continue to enjoy their favorite authentic spices, but the veggie chicken derived from soy protein is also easier to digest. “In addition to Veg-Manchurian Chicken, we also have a ‘veg’ version of Szechuan Twice Cooked Pork and Boiled Beef.” Chef Chen Long has designed vegetarian adaptations for many of his specialty dishes so vegetarians who love spicy food can savor the authentic Sichuan flavors as well.
Chef Chen has also endeavored to extend the scope of his tasty meals by adding his signature Sichuan flavors to assorted traditional vegetarian dishes. “For example, many vegetarians love to eat tofu, so I use a variety of Sichuan cooking methods to deal with tofu,” said Chef Chen. Da Sichuan Bistro offers Kung Pao Tofu as well as boiled Tofu. In Sichuan cuisine, there are also some dishes that feature mainly vegetable ingredients that can more readily be made into vegan versions, such as the warm and satisfying vegan Mapo Tofu and the delightfully hot and sour Spicy Green Bean Cake. These are both signature dishes at Da Sichuan Bistro. “Mapo Tofu and Twice Cooked Pork are two must-eat dishes in Sichuan restaurants. If you are a vegetarian, it would be hard for you to order it. But in Da Sichuan Bistro, everyone can enjoy Sichuan classics with confidence.”
Chen Long said that as a chef he often had to deal with a table of ‘question mark menus.’ That is to say, the guests at a table may come from different parts of China and, therefore, have diverse tastes. Sichuanese people commonly love spicy food, Cantonese recipes usually favor mild and fresh ingredients, and Shanghainese foods regularly feature sweet and salty flavors. Learning how to balance various tastes and make the proper adjustments can be quite the challenge, but it was one that Chen Long would not back away from. “When cooking, it is very important to be able to keep an open mind and be ready to tune the tastes. For example, the Veg-Pine Nut Chicken in our restaurant. With the tasty vegetarian chicken, the aroma of pine nuts, and the spicy flavors of Sichuan, it is a well-balanced dish. Da Sichuan Bistro provides dishes that suit the tastes of every customer.” Chef Chen said that in terms of cooking, he has actively been seeking to innovate his dishes further. Whether he’s transforming the flavors of Sichuan cuisine into a vegan version or a vegetarian one, Chen Long works hard to satisfy his customers.
Supporting One Another in the Pandemic
Through the continuous efforts of Chef Chen Long, Da Sichuan Bistro has earned an excellent reputation with its customers. “We were originally located near the airport. At that time, 99% of the Chinese travel groups that came to the United States ate in our restaurant and there were many celebrities and leaders,” said Chen Long. “The presidents of Facebook, Apple, Samsung, and even the Secretary of Defense and Deputy Secretary of State of the United States have come to my restaurant for dinner. I treat them kindly as normal guests and they were also relaxed and had a good time.” Chen Long told us that guests from India who love his spicy foods have given him valuable tips for improvement as well.
When the pandemic slammed into the U.S., the restaurant industry was inescapably shaken. With support from local customers, however, Da Sichuan Bistro managed to endure. “The overall turnover has not been greatly affected,” said Chef Chen. “I am very grateful to our customers. Many of them have been supporting us for about 30 years. I want to sincerely say thank you.”
Chen Long said that he shut down indoor dining during the pandemic to ensure the safety of staff and customers alike. “Many people called to ask if the restaurant is open. I said we will not open the indoor dining until the pandemic is over. Because everyone’s safety is always our first priority. If you miss the taste of Da Sichuan Bistro, please order take-out, and you can enjoy the delicious food safe at home.”
Regarding the pandemic, Chen Long maintains a hopeful outlook. He believes that the pandemic will ease within this year. “As long as everyone maintains a healthy body, we could soon be able to go out, have a meal with friends, and reunite with our families.” He is also very pleased to join his efforts with Tzu Chi to promote the availability of vegan options via the Very Veggie Movement: “It is everyone’s own choice to go vegan or not. But during the pandemic, people stay at home and exercise less, while paying more attention to health. It is a good time to try to increase vegetables in your meals. Being vegetarian does not increase the burden on the body and is good for the body.”
After the pandemic has loosened its grip on the nation, Chef Chen Long looks forward to showing his hospitality once again, and inviting everyone to try the healthy vegan dishes he expertly crafts with authentic Sichuan flavors.
Learn more about the Very Veggie movement and join us by transforming your diet into a vegetarian one, or take part as a partner of the movement!