Many operations utilize guest chefs, culinarians who come in from the outside from time to time to add a little something out-of-the-everyday to an onsite dining operation. But the Sodexho campus dining operation at Drexel University in Philadelphia has a very special guest chef, one who is there daily.
Hing ("Cowboy") Siu is a successful commercial restaurant operator who owns and operates Yum Yum, a Chinese-themed eatery on Spring Garden Street, just north of Philadelphia's downtown. Nine years ago, he formed a partnership with Sodexho to bring his expertise into Drexel's Handschumaker Dining Center, where he now manages the Asian station. He has been splitting his time between the two operations ever since.
Siu is a real American success story. Born near Canton in Mainland China, he studied classical Chinese cuisine as a young man and worked in Hong Kong banquet facilities for 20 years. In 1982 he emigrated to the U.S. to work in an uncle's restaurant in Philadelphia. By the early 90s, he had his own place, Yum Yum, which has been a success ever since.
His Asian station at Drexel has also been a continuous hit. Starting with a single wok and a very limited selection centered around basic lo mein and fried rice dishes, it has expanded into a volume production operation that utilizes a staff of six and features an ever-changing daily menu emphasizing authentic Chinese cooking along with traditional Americanized favorites. He estimates he serves some 1,500 customers daily, with over 2000 on some days.
How did the relationship with Sodexho begin?
My daughter Victoria [who served as translator for her father in this interview—ed.] was a student at Drexel in the hospitality program. At that time they had no Asian cuisine at all on the campus, but she found out that Sodexho was looking for a way to introduce that kind of food. She told me about it, so I approached them with a proposal to open an Asian themed unit. That was nine years ago, so obviously it has been something that the students have really liked.
How did you get interested in cooking in the first place?
My mother did home cooking and it was part of my life. When I was very young I started to help her in the kitchen. Aside from working in the fields and going to school, the tasks I liked most were in the kitchen with my mom.
What was your favorite dish as a child?
I loved anything coming from the fields. I have a vivid memory of my mother carrying a huge winter melon and saying to me, ‘Son, go home and prepare this for me.' I asked her, ‘How am I going to prepare this big winter melon?' She told me to cut it into small pieces, then put it in a nice hot wok with a little oil, some salt and a nice piece of ginger, then add water, cover the wok and cook for about five minutes until the melon is soft.
How did you get the name "Cowboy"?
In Chinese, "cowboy" is associated with good health and refers to one who is strong and earnest in his work.
Hong Kong must have been quite an experience for a young chef.
Yes, it is a culinary capital. Because it is a major seaport it receives influences from all over—in many ways the original capital of fusion. Food is a big business draw for the hotels, and they have customers from all over the world. Plus, you also have all sorts of very interesting street food, with vendors selling all sorts of interesting dishes.
Is the Drexel menu similar to Yum Yum?
The basic menu, yes, but this clientele is quite different from the one at the restaurant, and so are the facilities. The menu started with basic Americanized Chinese food, but as time went on and with the support of Sodexho, we've been able to incorporate more seasonal items and do different things, to be more flexible. For example we've been using more whole grains like brown rice. That's something I can't do at the restaurant, where the menu is fixed and customers expect the same things. At Drexel, I love to introduce students to different Chinese ingredients, and they are very open to trying new things. This is my playground.
What is the students' favorite dish?
General's Chicken is by far the favorite, as well as the sushi, spring rolls and egg rolls, steamed rice paper rolls. Vegetarian choices have also been very popular, especially ones with tofu and the hot and sour and seasonal vegetable soups.
I understand you are also popular at catered events...
Yes, the president's holiday dinner will not be held without some Asian feature from Cowboy. Last year I made a chicken and shrimp meatball and a sesame ginger dipping sauce, and of course General's Chicken.
How do you juggle your time between Yum Yum and Drexel?
I am usually at Yum Yum during lunch, then I turn it over to my wife and and come over to Drexel for the dinner service. They are about 25 minutes apart so the trip is not a big deal.
| Hobbies: |
Gardening,exercising (TT Chi), biking
other than his) – Golden City in Colmar, PA because they still respect the art of classic Chinese cuisine”
Emerging food trend he’s watching:
Natural foods and fresh ingredients
Simple stir frys,fresh seafood, “anything in season ”