Curtis Chin’s new memoir gives insight into life as a 'Chinese restaurant kid' from Detroit

side by side of a person and a book
Curtis Chin and his memoir: "Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant."
Courtesy of Curtis Chin

Curtis Chin grew up in Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine, a family restaurant with over six decades of serving diverse communities in Detroit.

The author spoke with MPR News host Tom Crann about his upcoming memoir, available for purchase on Oct. 17.

The story has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, click play on the audio player above.

Why did you decide to frame your book through the Chinese restaurant?

As a kid who grew up in a Chinese restaurant, I feel like that's the biggest thing that defines my growing up experience. More so than even saying I'm from Detroit, or I'm from the Midwest, I'm a Chinese restaurant kid. And so I really wanted to celebrate that experience.

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What was it like growing up in Chung’s and what the restaurant meant to Detroit and your neighborhood?

When I think about Chung's restaurant, it wasn't just emblematic of my own childhood, it really did represent the whole city. Our customers came from every segment: Black, white, Christian, Jewish, straight, gay … every type of person could find themselves in our Chinese restaurant. It really was a microcosm of Detroit and I like to think of a Chinese restaurant as being an integral fabric to the city itself.

What did you learn in that restaurant about your parents and family?

When you are a kid one of the most common phrases that your parents will say is: “Don’t talk to strangers.” My parents had the exact opposite advice for us. They told us to talk to strangers, and who they were talking about were the people sitting in our dining room.

My mom didn't graduate high school, my dad went to community college for maybe two semesters, I believe. So they didn't really know what opportunities existed outside those four walls, but they knew they had this dining room full of people that had access to different opportunities for us.

So anytime my dad met someone who had an interesting job, he would call all of us over, all six of us, we'd run over and barrage these poor customers with questions and it just opened up our idea, our eyes to different job opportunities out there. And thankfully, we had a lot of news reporters who would come to our restaurant and that's one of the ways that I sort of fell in love with creative nonfiction and storytelling.

I want to get some sense memories of you. If I bring up certain dishes that you mentioned in the book, tell me what comes to mind right away.

  • Egg rolls: I always like to quiz people and ask them, How many egg rolls do you think we sold over the 60 years that we ran that location? We sold over 10 million egg rolls and part of the reason they were so popular was that they were all homemade, every component, even the skin or outer wrap. It would take my grandma and my mom a full day just to make them. That's why people would just literally order them by the dozens and treat them as a whole meal.

  • Boneless almond chicken breast: It is a breaded fried white fillet breast of chicken with brown gravy and served with a bowl of white rice, where the almond comes in is a really light garnish along with slivers of pea pod and water chestnuts. My grandmother claimed that we actually were the restaurant that invented the almond boneless chicken. And it's a dish that we don't really see in many other places around the country. I mean, they're scattered sightings here and there, but really not to the level and love that Detroiters have for it.

Tell us about Mr. Mah, a chef that your family hired who was an influence on you.

It's very hard to keep a Chinese restaurant running in Detroit, because of the availability of cooks who could make really good Chinese food. It's not a very large pool. as you can imagine.

So when he brought in this one guy from San Francisco, my heart melted. I just, I totally fell in love. And he happened to be our fry cook and so maybe that's why I love almond boneless chicken so much, because I just spent so many afternoons just hanging around with him. And so, yeah, another fond memory is that idea of: 'coming out is connected to the food,’ and that's what my memories are.

What message or takeaway do you want people to take from your book?

We live in a very divided country right now. We have these little silos where we don't talk to each other. But Chinese restaurants are one of the few places where you can actually walk in and see people from different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, religions, or sexual orientations. And I thought it would be nice if you actually started a conversation with someone. We're dealing with some very, very important issues, so I don't want to skirt that. We've got to also find a way to talk about these things in a way that brings us together rather than drives us apart. And so in a small, small way, I hope that my book can help with that conversation.