Lunch With The Family Behind an H-Town Legacy

Lunch With The Family Behind an H-Town Legacy

Hoi and Dory Fung on life lived in and around a restaurant.

October 30, 2018
● 4 min read
Lunch With The Family Behind an H-Town Legacy

Lunch With The Family Behind an H-Town Legacy

Hoi and Dory Fung on life lived in and around a restaurant.

October 30, 2018
● 4 min read
By Ian Floyd | Photos courtesy of the Fung family, art by ChefsFeed

On a recent Tuesday, Hoi Fung and his daughter, Dory, ate a meal they rarely get to enjoy: lunch.

Hoi, 64, still cooks seven days a week at Fung's Kitchen, the restaurant he meticulously built, expanded and redesigned over 28 years in Houston, Texas. Dory, heir apparent, is the executive pastry chef at Poitin and a pastry arts instructor at Houston Community College.

"This is kind of nice, because, to be honest, we don't eat that much," Dory says as Hoi leaves to prepare us his specialty black pepper and butter stir-fried lobster. "When lunch starts, I'll be like, 'Do you have any scraps?'"

After a few minutes, Hoi returns, placing the cleaved, cracked and lightly battered Maine lobster among steamer trays of pork shumai and har gow. A delicate marriage of fragrances — velvety butter, the pop of peppercorn, the crustacean's soft-sweet charm — consumes the table. The lobster, like much everything at Fung's, has been tweaked, tested and perfected by its bubbly and exacting owner.  

"I'm very picky," Hoi says. "Everything has to be right."

Hoi spends much of our conversation dissecting the surrounding minutiae: The ten seafood tanks with individualized temperature controls; the one thousand custom-made stackable, identical dining chairs with wood trim, red plush cushions and gold leaf stenciling; soundproof room dividers that slide open and cost more than a new Mercedes. "If the owner doesn't care, nobody cares. You have to spend money," he says.

Hoi began cooking in 1971, at age 17, in Hong Kong. When he and his wife moved to the United States, Hoi landed a gig as chef of Golden China in 1985, known for serving traditional Cantonese cuisine. While his counterparts in the rest of the city slung chop suey, Hoi introduced Houston to Hong Kong-style cuisine—rich with light, often steamed, dishes with an emphasis on live seafood. Five years later, he bought real estate in a strip mall that had been ravaged by Tropical Storm Allison months prior. The place was in tatters, but it was all Hoi could afford at the time.

He laid the kitchen tile himself and enlisted his children to help spruce up the space. When it opened in 1990, Fung's Kitchen was a small buffet restaurant in a soon-to-burgeon Chinatown. Hoi cooked, his wife Nancy ran the front of house, and Hoi's mom emigrated from Hong Kong to take care of the kids. 

Restaurant life is all consuming and unrelenting, and Hoi spent as much time with his children as he could. They accompanied him to the produce market and the free-range poultry farm, which Dory remembers with equal measures of adoration and trauma.

"We thought we were just hanging out with chickens," Dory tells me. "As I got older, I realized that we were picking the chickens that were getting killed."

The kids were often entrusted with restocking the fried foods on the buffet, even after Dory was repeatedly caught devouring batches of crab puff — eating the filling and trashing the crispy wonton carcass. She was better at helping label and organize the morning prep work.   

"When I was going through elementary school, I was always the one who labeled everything," she says. "I would always put stuff in color code, and by size. Being in the kitchen, seeing my dad do all that, made me like that naturally."

I ask if Hoi had been grooming Dory to run the restaurant from an early age. They both laugh. "Did you want her to be a chef?" I ask.

"I hoped so," he says, smiling. 

As the 90s marched on and neighboring businesses in the strip mall closed, Fung's methodically metastasized. When the waterbed store and its showroom shuttered next door, Fung's Kitchen bought it and used the extra space to offer pushcart dim sum service on the weekends. As a result, the sprawling 25,000 square foot restaurant now commands the entire strip mall. It stands as a testament to Hoi's discerning standards: He buys quality ingredients, treats them with respect before and after the cooking process, and provides a comfortable atmosphere for customers to consume them.

"As long as Fung's kitchen is alive, it will be my baby," Hoi says. "Someday I need to retire though. I don't know how to do it." 

He tells me that his staff is autonomous, allowing him to come late, leave early and not possess the keys to his own restaurant's storage room. He continues to cook every day because he enjoys it. This is his life's work, and he hopes Dory, a fifth generation chef in the Fung family, will take over one day. 

"I just bake cookies for a living," Dory jokes. "I don't think I can even lift the wok."

She is, understandably, conflicted. Tempted, yet reticent. She admits she would love to take over, but fears eroding the institution three decades in the making. Perfectly pleated dim sum dumplings seem to her a far cry from the pastry world. "I feel like I would have to start [learning] now," Dory says. "And, in a lot of ways, I'm not ready to quit my own career path that I started for myself."

Dory's love for the kitchen was accidental. She attended the University of Houston to become an elementary school teacher. When an elective baking class ignited something in her, she shifted her career focus in her third year.

"It's funny that I'm a chef now because growing up, I hated it," Dory told me, a few days before we lunch with her father. "I hated never hanging out with my parents and getting to do normal stuff."

But whether by happenstance or genetic predisposition, Dory worked her way through Houston-area kitchens and became the chef Hoi hoped she would become,  on her own terms. Her drive, passion, and attention to detail are undeniably hereditary.

"This is not very typical to have five generations in the same business. I am very proud of our family," Hoi says. Then he transitions into a conversation around the restaurant's air conditioner.

After more than an hour of describing in exquisite detail his quest to find the perfect chopsticks; to discover inspiration for new dishes in Los Angeles, New York, and Hong Kong; to stock his storage room with a spare of every possible belt, fuse, and motor a restaurant might need, Hoi is peacefully silent.  

He extends his arm and puts his hand on Dory's shoulder. “Okay,” he says, grinning. “Your turn.”