By: JOHN LARSON
When you enter J.W. Chen’s Chinese Cuisine, you might find a bright, aged woman sipping tea and reading a Chinese newspaper. She will quickly rise to greet you, find you a seat, and ask you about the sort of food you like. This is the restaurant’s namesake: Jean Chen.
Chen has lived in South Bend for the last 45 years and felt her connection with the city only deepen after every year. She learned to speak English and about American culture through interacting with the community and her customers. She views her restaurant as her way of giving back to the community she feels such an attachment to.
J.W. Chen’s describes itself as “authentic”, a buzzword which has been frequently abused in restaurant culture. Chen makes it clear that in this case, there is no cynicism involved.
“When Chinese food came to America, there was nothing but chop suey places for railroad workers and miners, and they were everywhere. I felt like, people really deserve something else. When a Chinese person tastes it, they know the difference,” said Chen.
The menu at J.W. Chen’s is varied but also easy to understand. Many of the recipes come from Chen herself, a result of kitchen experimentation. She never claims to be a food expert, but her love for it shows the moment she begins discussing the menu with a customer.
“I can always tell what sort of food people will like,” said Chen. “I don’t know how, but, it’s like, a sixth sense.”
Often, Chen will launch into a discussion about your tastes and dislikes before you have more than glanced at the appetizers. Some hosts would make this seem like an abrasive experience, but Chen makes it seem like a genuine interest. Instead of having a menu explained, you are being welcomed into someone’s home. Whether the restaurant is full, or you visit alone during a slow period, there is an intimacy to the dining space that goes deeper than its layout.
At the age of 73, Chen is faced with having to transition away from the business. She still happily greets her customers and spends time with them, but she wants to ensure her namesake continues with the same standards and love for food.
“When I see people enjoy their meals and tell me about themselves and come back, it makes me know I’m really doing good. I could donate my time at the hospital or at a shelter, but I’m good at food. I never feel worn out or bored because I love food and I love people.”
“One customer told me, ‘You spend more time with me than my doctor,’” said Chen.
J.W. Chen’s can be found at 1835 South Bend Avenue. For a menu and more, you can visit http://www.jwchens.ybsitecenter.com.