by Len Lear
Some people call Henry Lee the “Mayor of Chestnut Hill,” although politicians all have both supporters and detractors, and it’s hard to imagine Henry having any of the latter. Managing partner of Cin Cin for the 24-year-old Chestnut Hill landmark, Lee has been called the Mayor of Chestnut Hill because he seems to know everyone in the area by name.
“I love my customers and treat them like family,” Lee said last week. “People seem to love to hug me, and I like to hug them. One man said recently, ‘Henry, you’re so lucky because you get to hug all the ladies.’ I hug them because I truly appreciate them. I go to a diner in South Philly once a week, but nobody knows me after all this time.
“At Cin Cin, though, I know my customers by name. Everyone wants to be treated special, and people who know me know that’s how I am. It’s not all about the money. And there’s a reason why every server in this restaurant has been here at least 16 years. There is absolutely no turnover except for dishwashers. I think that is the hardest job in a restaurant, and I know because my first job in the U.S. was as a dishwasher in New Jersey. I got it the second day I was in this country.”
The 61-year-old native of Malaysia, one of 10 siblings, began working at age 16, helping family members with their food carts, and came to the U.S. in 1981 because “it is the land of opportunity.” Lee soon was studying business administration, first at a community college and then at the University of Delaware. But after three years, Lee left school to start a Chinese restaurant with a friend. Business was good, but Lee sold the restaurant in 1991 and moved to Philadelphia to be closer to relatives and buy a house for his wife and two baby boys.
Looking for work in the business where he had experience, Lee heard about Yangming, an upscale Chinese restaurant with sophisticated cuisine in Bryn Mawr that opened in 1990. Owner Michael Wei hired Lee, who then worked for five years as a server. Lee then left to take a job as the assistant manager at a Chinese restaurant at the Trump Marina Casino in Atlantic City. But after one year there, Michael Wei brought Lee back into the fold with an offer he could not refuse — to be managing partner at Cin Cin, which Wei had just opened in 1996.
The food at Cin Cin has always been advertised as “Chinese cuisine with a French flair,” part of a movement pioneered by Susanna Foo in the 1970s, combining Chinese ingredients with French cooking techniques, particularly sauces reduced with wine. “I like French food,” said Wei in an earlier interview, “and I eat a lot in French restaurants and use French recipes.”
Regular customers at Cin Cin would be excused for believing that Henry Lee lives in the restaurant. Since day one he has worked in the restaurant six and a half days a week. “And even when I am not in the restaurant, I think about it.” The only days of the year when Lee is not physically at Cin Cin is during his yearly vacation to visit his family in Malaysia and possibly a few days in San Diego, where his three children all live.
Cin Cin’s executive chef is Mu-Yang Shen, who recently came from Yangming, where he was one of two executive chefs for 30 years. (Wei closed Yangming in late December and sold it, citing his age, 77, and decades of 24/7 tirelessness.) “Mu-Yang now has time to create new dishes for us,” said Henry. “We now have customers from Yangming and New Jersey coming here. My goal is to build up our reputation like Yangming had.”
Chef Mu-Yang delivers flavor-packed dishes the way Jove delivered thunderbolts. The texture and intensity were quite palpable in the Chilean sea bass (in the recent Chinese New Year’s banquet), which was kissed with an exquisite sauce and presented like a work of art. Someone once wrote that in the life of the earth, we are all houseflies, here for just one flash of light. If that is so, I want to gobble up a whole lot of this sea bass before the light goes out.
Roasted salmon, hugged by a brandy-hoisin glaze, represented a primal love of great products and of sealing in every drop of flavor, a paragon of seafood freshness.
One thing Cin Cin has always had is a strong takeout business. According to Henry, at least 15 percent of their business is takeout, but if you go to Cin Cin at almost any time of the day or night, you are virtually guaranteed to see customers picking up takeout orders. The restaurant also delivers orders to homes and businesses within a three-mile radius.
Of course, it is always a difficult adjustment for immigrants who come to the U.S. When Lee was working as a dishwasher, another of his responsibilities was to cut up an endless supply of onions. “When I was crying, I did not know if it was because of the onions or because I was homesick and lonely. I had no friends or relatives nearby. I just had $200 in my pocket when I arrived in the U.S. I have worked very hard for generations (like most immigrants) and given every penny to my kids, and they do appreciate it. They had no student loans.”
Like so many immigrants who come here with nothing and work around the clock so their children do not have to, Lee’s oldest child, Stephanie, 30, went to Brown University in Rhode Island, an Ivy League school, and is now a pediatrician. His son, Alvin, 29, went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a private research university in Troy, New York, and is now a software engineer. Calvin, his twin brother, went to the University of Vermont and is now a medical research scientist. Lee’s wife, Ami Li, is a native of the People’s Republic of China who met Henry in New York when she was working in the fashion industry. For years they lived in South Philly, but they moved to Northeast Philly last October. “It’s too expensive around here (Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy),” said Henry, “and we have a garage now.”
For more information, call 215-242-8800 or visit cincinrestaurant.com. You can reach Len Lear at firstname.lastname@example.org