Behind every great Asian restaurant are the owner’s children doing their homework nearby, or so the joke goes. Whenever Tony Chung sees those memes in the Facebook group “subtle asian traits,” he can’t help but laugh. He was one of those restaurant children. “There was this corner table, number one, at the restaurant where we would always sit and just do our homework while people were eating,” recalls Chung, now a 23-year-old Biomedical Science Master’s student at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Chung’s father Dennis has owned and operated Pasteur Grill and Noodles since 1995, when he bought the restaurant from the original owner. Out of their small space at 85 Baxter Street in Chinatown, Chung senior has been serving the kind of South Vietnamese food he grew up with in his home village, Soc Trang. His family immigrated to New York City in 1980.
When Tony was seven years old, his dad would bring him around to customers’ tables to take orders or to just talk to them. He recalls a judge who worked at the courthouse across the street and had been coming into the restaurant since before Tony was born. “I remember one time, he thought it would be a good idea to take my sister and I to the courtroom to see what he does. Needless to say, I did not pursue law,” Chung said.
Chung is now on the path to becoming a physician, hoping to “work with my hands and treat patients with cancer,” he says. He splits his time between his work and the restaurant, where he has been helping more since the coronavirus pandemic ravaged Manhattan’s Chinatown. He is the one answering Pasteur’s Instagram messages.
On this Wednesday evening, Chung is calling over Zoom from a research lab at Mount Sinai. Dressed in a navy-blue fleece jacket, silver wire-frame glasses and a yellow disposable mask, Chung sits in one of Icahn’s stairwells and spends almost two hours talking about Pasteur, his father and what it’s like to grow up in a restaurant.
When did you start stepping in to help at your parents’ restaurant?
This was a little after COVID peaked right around the end of May. That’s when I stepped in to really help, and I saw that our business was struggling. Most of the restaurants were closed at the time, but there were some that weren’t planning on opening again. Having the restaurants round since I was born, I spent a lot of time there. So I thought it would really break my heart if the restaurant closed. So I thought to myself, I don’t want our restaurant to be like that. So I said, “Let’s do something about that.”
I always try to look at things optimistically and try to see the positive in bad situations. I thought this would be a great time to find ways to improve the restaurant. Maybe it is a blessing in disguise.
So you took a step back and looked at the restaurant? What did you guys decide to change?
I think the first step was delivery. No one could sit in the restaurant at the time so all the food ordered was coming through either the delivery services that we partnered with or through takeout. So it started with learning how to package food better.
I’ll admit, I haven’t been spending as much time as I’d like on our social media pages, but one good thing that came out of it was being able to connect with customers. Some really loyal customers do reach out and say, “Hey, we love your food.” Or they’ll post our food, and tell their story about how they first started coming in and what they order. We’ve been able to connect with people, and I think that’s really special.
Your parents have owned this place since before you were born. Was there ever a point where you thought you were going to inherit the restaurant?
During college, my goal was always to go to medical school and become a physician. But I think after I had started working there after COVID, I started getting more invested in the restaurant. It’s a really hard thing to do to juggle everything, but I really do enjoy helping my parents develop recipes and seeing customers be happy.
My dad always told me, “Just focus on school. Don’t worry about the restaurant.” But I do enjoy being an entrepreneur, and I do know some doctors who own restaurants and are also physicians. There’s one I follow on Instagram. His name is Chef Dr. Lo. He’s an anesthesiologist at some hospital in Queens, and he also owns Spy C Cuisine.
Your dad has been running this restaurant coming up on 26 years. At some point he’s going to stop working at the restaurant, right? I’m wondering if there are any thoughts or plans for its future or if you’re going to cross that bridge when you get there?
My dad was 21 when he came here. Now he’s 62. So I imagine he’s going to retire in the next 10 years. What’s going to happen to the restaurant after that? No idea. We haven’t really talked about that. I think at the end, what he wants to see is that I’ve finished my education, and that I’m working and am able to provide for myself, and then he’ll call it quits. But like I said, I don’t want to see the restaurant go like that because I have an emotional investment in that restaurant. It’s been there all my life.
I think there’s this disconnect where your dad sees the restaurant as a means to an end where he can put his kids through college and close the restaurant, but this is also a pillar of the Chinatown community.
Well, I’m glad you think Pasteur is a pillar of the Chinatown community. I always thought we were one of the smaller restaurants, and there’s just so many Vietnamese restaurants.
It’s crazy you mention there’s so many Vietnamese restaurants because when your dad bought the restaurant in 1995, there were almost none. Now we’re looking at a Vietnamese food craze over the last decade. When you look at all that, what role do you think your dad played in that?
I think our restaurant definitely helped put Vietnamese food on the map in New York. New Yorkers definitely had to know and taste Vietnamese food before anyone could garner an interest in the cuisine. There had to be some Vietnamese restaurants in New York, and I think the very first ones to exist were in Chinatown.
I think that the Vietnamese food craze is still going very strong. I think some of the Chinatown restaurants, such as my restaurant, helped put Vietnamese food on the map, but it’s these modern restaurants, these restaurants [that] are doing their modern take on Vietnamese food that are continuing this trend.
It’s interesting that you want to be a physician and a restauranteur, two industries that famously have no time for family.
I did always feel that way. Growing up, my dad was trying to build up the restaurant and he was just working a lot. I always wondered, “Why aren’t you home?” The picture of a dad that I had in my mind was an image ingrained in me by American ideals. You know, a guy who would work 9 to 5, Monday through Friday.
I think I have a better appreciation for what he does now that I’m older. When I was a kid, I remember being a little frustrated. Sometimes my mom would work at the restaurant to help my dad catch a break. On those days, my dad would take my sister and I and travel, sometimes we’d go to Disneyland or somewhere. He really did try to help me and my sister have a good childhood.
I kind of feel bad for him, cause he’s worked so hard his entire life since starting the restaurant. Since coming to America, he’s worked every day. He even told me, the first time that he was ever unemployed was COVID.
How did your dad cope with being unemployed for the first time in over four decades?
Surprisingly, he took it pretty well. He didn’t show signs of distress or anything like I expected he would. I think one of the good things that came out of COVID, if there ever was a good thing, was that it allowed our family to bond more. My dad was spending a lot of time with us and with the dog. He was generally happy and learning new things, learning about the stock market. I was surprised at how upbeat he was despite all the bills coming in. I knew he was panicking inside, but I guess that’s what I always liked about my dad. He always saw the positive side of things.
I know we’ve talked about a lot of things such as fatherhood and growing up in a restaurant, but I want to top it off with what might be a sort of surface-level question. What is your favorite dish you serve?
I would say right off the bat, our pho. I can never get sick of eating it. I eat it probably every day. I’ll ask my dad to bring some home from the restaurant. I think the reason why I like it so much is not just because it tastes great, but because I know so much work has gone into making this one dish, this one liquid. There’s a long process into making a soup that takes eight-plus hours. It doesn’t look like it when you see it, because it just looks like soup.
When you know the process, and just how much work people put into it, you can really tease out the notes in the soup and really appreciate the food and the process and the history behind it. I see people before they’ve even tasted our broth, they’ll just dump in basil, the beansprouts and the hoisin sauce and the hot sauce. Please taste the process first.