Restaurant News & Reviews

New Fat’s corporate chef brings breadth of experience

Chen, 47, has run kitchens in his native China and in Kazakhstan. He taught in San Francisco and Singapore.
Chen, 47, has run kitchens in his native China and in Kazakhstan. He taught in San Francisco and Singapore.

Fat’s Asia Bistros in Roseville and Folsom always have covered a lot of culinary ground, starting with Chinese favorites from Sacramento father ship Frank Fat’s and radiating out to other countries’ cuisines.

New Fat Family Restaurant Group corporate executive chef Lin Chen has taken that concept deeper and farther, adding Singapore laksa spicy noodles, Rendang Padang (Malaysian) beef stew, gado-gado Indonesian salad and (Indian) lamb vindaloo to the bistros’ new fall/winter menu.

“These are four very authentic Asian dishes,” Chen, 47, said during a recent interview. But they’re also not particularly common at pan-Asian bistros in upscale American suburbs.

It makes sense that the first menu makeover under Chen’s leadership (he collaborated with Roseville’s executive chef, Michael Cantin, and Folsom’s Brian Griffin on 18 new dinner items) would be adventurous.

Before going to work for the Fat family five months ago, Chen ran kitchens in his native China and in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. He taught budding chefs Asian, European and American cuisines at culinary schools in San Francisco and Singapore.

Part of the reason the Fats hired Chen – to fill a role vacated by family matriarch Lina Fat, who now directs research and development for the restaurant group – was his truly pan-Asian culinary knowledge, said Fat’s chief operating officer, Kevin Fat.

Chen “is very familiar with all the provinces and flavors in China, and familiar with cuisines from other Asian countries,” said Fat, grandson of the late Frank Fat and Lina’s son. “He has some experience with Middle Eastern and Indian (food). His vindaloo is delicious.”

Chen said his role is to “extend what is good and historically successful in the family business here, and develop more culinary stories.” Kevin Fat said Chen came in knowing how to run kitchens. The Fats have taught him how the family, which last year celebrated the 75th anniversary of Frank Fat’s, does things.

“We have been focusing a lot on letting him know how we have gotten here, and what our family’s expectations are, and what the standards are,” Kevin Fat said.

Chen is the second non-Fat in the job. The first lasted only a brief time. But Chen, who worked in high-end hotel kitchens in China and briefly co-owned a French and Asian restaurant in the Bay Area, looks like a good fit.

“We felt he had a wide range of experience,” Kevin Fat said of Chen.

Chen already has hired two executive chefs with impressive credentials. Richard Jensen, one-time chef de cuisine at the Grill at Meadowood in St. Helena, just came on board at Fat City, the Fat’s American restaurant in Old Sacramento. Cantin, formerly of the Beverly Wilshire and Four Seasons Resort Maui-Wailea, started in June at Fat’s Roseville. Cantin’s time in Hawaii played into the addition of “Hawaiian-style poke” to the bistros’ fall/winter menu.

“My kind of management style is to guide (chefs) to do things (themselves),” Chen said. “I want them to feel like it is their restaurant, but they have my support and assistance.”

Chen said he also learned, after leaving China for the United States 15 years ago in search of greater opportunity, to massage his communication style.

In China, one could be blunt about fellow cooks’ work.

“You can taste something and say, ‘What is wrong with you? Throw that out and start again,’ ” Chen said with a laugh. Here, he will remember to compliment a cook on his or her julienne technique, for example, before urging a do-over.

Chen grew up in the ancient city of Xi’an (home of the famous terra cotta warriors and horses), where he started work in hotel kitchens at age 16. He later moved to Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, where he worked his way up in hotel kitchens and served as food and beverage director of a golf course and country club.

But when he moved to the Bay Area, “nobody would hire me,” Chen said. In China, he had moved directly from high school to the kitchen. So he enrolled at San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy (now Le Cordon Bleu). He later taught at the school for several years.

“I taught Asian cuisine, then I taught all over the place – Asian, European, all courses,” he said.

He later moved to Singapore, to be chief instructor at Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, before becoming manager and executive chef of a high-end restaurant in Kazakhstan, a country perhaps best known internationally as the fictional home of Borat.

Chen, who lives in the East Bay with his wife and two children, also has consulted for celebrity chef Martin Yan, and serves as a judge for the ChefsBest Awards.

Chen and Frank Fat’s executive chef, Mike Lim, also have added menu items at the L Street dining staple, Chen said, but they number fewer than the bistros’. Chen said a highlight is “squirrelfish.” For this dish, the cook de-bones a whole fish (sometimes a striped bass), scores the meat into ridges so the fish resembles a squirrel’s tail, and then fries it. Diners should call 24 hours ahead (916-442-7092) if they want to order this dish, he said.

The Fat City menu will offer new items as well, Chen said, but he’s waiting for Jensen to get up to speed.

Chen has no plans to ditch or alter Fat’s favorites such as honey-walnut prawns, orange chicken and banana cream pie.

“I will not take off those dishes that people love so much,” he said. “But we are going to put on new items that will excite them.” And who knows? Over time, Singapore laksa could become the new honey-walnut prawns.