Uncle Yu’s chef expanding empire
By Lou Fancher
A man can live 56 years and travel halfway around the world to helm two successful business operations and end up in some ways right where he began.
Five decades after Uncle Yu’s chef and owner Andy Tsang was a young boy growing up in the countryside outside Hong Kong and dinner was a mere bowl of rice with soy sauce, simplicity characterizes his most common meal.
“What do I cook and eat at home?” Tsang asks. “Instant ramen. Instant noodles.”
But at his Uncle Yu’s restaurants in Lafayette and San Ramon — and opening in Pleasanton in December — there is Pepper Salted Calamari tossed with jalapeño peppers, “spicy” Peking Scallops, BBQ Chilean Sea Bass, Sichuan Beef in spicy garlic sauce, a line of healthy dishes featuring fresh fish, tofu, vegetables, gluten-free entrees and more. Surely he must use his culinary skills for meals with his family, his wife of 26 years, Linda Tsang, and two daughters ages 23 and 19?
“I do requests. My wife likes pizza,” he says, apology in his tone and facial expression. “Maybe pepper salted crab? We don’t have family meals at our home in Danville. We live at the restaurant.”
Tsang’s confession-like statement displays accuracy, dedication and habit. He went to work at age 12, as the oldest of six children in a poor family relocated from Hong Kong’s inner city to live in the mountains amid landowners who treated the family like outsiders.
“I was a dim sum trainee. We were so poor, we didn’t have even bicycles. Every day, walking home from school was 30 minutes. Constantly, there were bullies to pick on you,” he said.
The job gave him freedom from his home and exposed him to more food than he’d ever known previously. Because there was no refrigeration, the ingredients were fresh and the Cantonese-style breakfast cuisine he learned to prepare introduced him to traditional techniques.
Tsang says the experience made him more mature than his biological years indicated, but it also left him wary, protective and intensely self-reliant for survival. Immigrating at age 16 to the United States with his family, he spoke no English and was out of his element in a 10th-grade high school classroom.
“I was like a big brother because I’d been working already, but I couldn’t speak to them. I lasted three months and dropped out,” he says.
Tsang entered Job Corps, a U.S. Labor Department program that offers free-of-charge education and vocational training to young people. He studied to be an auto mechanic, but after graduating, he took a job in San Francisco as a kitchen trainee, then “cooked his way around the country” in various states before returning to the Bay Area in 1984.
He joined Uncle Yu’s when it opened in Lafayette one year later. In 1988, he embarked on his own venture, opening Silver House, a Cantonese restaurant in San Mateo. But the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake crashed the economy, and he closed his restaurant.
Tsang accepted an offer from Jennifer Yu, co-owner of Uncle Yu’s, agreeing to help her “120 percent” to establish the new, San Ramon restaurant — if she in turn helped him to someday again become an owner.
“I consider myself a leader. If you really want to take responsibility, you have to be an owner. I’m not a guy who just comes in and does a waiter’s job and is satisfied,” he said. “I want the people around me to know I can make things better.”
Tsang took over ownership of the San Ramon location in 2005 and the Lafayette restaurant in 2008, while Yu maintains control of the Livermore location.
Tsang’s approach to “making things better” is old-fashioned. Many of the employees have been with Tsang for decades; most new hires are word-of-mouth referrals. “To establish a long and trusting relationship is not set by one or two days,” he says.”I keep employees when they have hard times. Because I come from the low end, like the kitchen, (went from) a cook to a chef, I know the needs of daily life. I manage them with friendship, understanding.”
An optimist who says, “I’m not a worry person; I just take care of business,” Tsang knows there is risk in running restaurants. It has taken commitment from his family and the fickle industry places them in perpetual jeopardy of losing it all.
Yelp, he says, is a “five-star force“ that is too powerful. “If I have one customer who really has a bad night, then the word travels out. There’s no way the owner can fix the problem once it travels. It affects people’s thinking. On the other side, if that person has an excellent meal, that doesn’t mean the other customer will have the same kind of feeling. It’s better to let reputation go naturally.”
Despite the obstacles, by the end of 2016, Tsang will bring his vision to a third venture. He is just one month from opening Andy & Yu’s, which will take over the Pleasanton space on St. Mary Street that formerly housed Fernando’s Mexican. While planning to bring new ideas — more grilled foods, more organic menu items, Western twists to authentic Chinese cuisine — his secret ambition is for a dim sum restaurant.
“I have had many good fortunes since I came to America,” he says. “When Linda met me, I had one bed and one alarm clock. She sensed I was worth a gamble. Look where I came from and where I am. How can I not build another dream?”