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Restauranteur Bruce Ho, Part Two
Spring Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(1) page(s): 25, 26, 27, 28, and 35
The previous issue of Flavor and Fortune, that is Volume 9(4) on pages 11, 12, and 27, I discuss some of Bruce Ho's earlier life and his restaurant career. This issue concludes the article continuing when Mr. Ho opens his famous Four Seas Restaurant. That date is April 30, 1964, the place is Manhattan, and the time is after he left Bill Chan's Gold Coin Restaurant on 52nd Street.
About the Four Seas, Mr. Ho said, “I got most of the very good high clientele, very good people. Comedian Alan King, a friend and restaurant regular, followed us.” King, who wrote a book called Help! I’m A Prisoner in a Chinese Bakery, succeeded Frank Sinatra, as head of the Friars Club where Bruce had become a member. It is at the Friars Club where Ho developes an amusing chopstick routine to entertain mainly Occidental patrons like Ginger Rogers. Burt Bacharach--a newspaper man, who came to the Four Seas as did Burt Junior, the famous composer/musician, and his then-wife, the actress Angie Dickinson.
Mr. Ho, who did not have a staff photographer, welcomed independent photographers looking to sell souvenir portraits to his patrons. Dignitaries from all walks of life ate at Bruce’s, “We even had Roosevelt, Junior come in. Everyone just looked – no one was allowed to talk to him. Also, as you see (he shows a photograph), Donald Trump’s father, and when we sit on the table with Holland Steel, the people who did all the big buildings and structures, mixing steel. Mr Jack Holland, a very good friend of mine, also the Fisher brothers, Zachary, Martin, and Larry.” His customers were truly top-level. Ho is a discreet repository of page-six-type info, such as the news that publicity and runway model-loving realtor Donald Trump likes to eat exceedingly simple food.
“I was a maitre d’ at the Gold Coin. I learned the business from there. I already learned the business from Port Arthur, but then I come uptown, and I can come because I am American born, and I am a little taller, at that time 5’9”, and a little slimmer, not like today with a big belly, and I greet people, ACCORDINGLY, and I become very good at receiving. You have to know your people. Who is taking out all the beautiful girls? When he comes here I know he likes to party! Some like to be treated like regal ladies. Then you are talking about the Attorney General of the United States who might come with some underworld people. I know where they want to sit (Ho never had enough capital to build an exclusive private room). This is something that you have to know. You have different atmospheres. You have to know how to sit them. You have got to know how to deal with them.”
In order to maintain decorum, sometimes Mr. Ho had to refuse entry. Heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis showed up one night at the Gold Coin with a party of six and no reservation. They had to go elsewhere. A famous couple like Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme could get in without reservations, but not if they were improperly dressed. “Gentlemen simply had to wear jacket and tie” and Mr. Ho did not accept excuses like “but we just returned from the beach.”
With a seating capacity of eighty, Chan’s spot became an exclusive restaurant and “everyone really wants to get in so much, as often as possible, and they really have to call up for a reservation to get in there. I worked there for ten years then I thought that I am ready. That is how I opened Four Seas.” Mr. Ho had longed for his own restaurant and he set up a menu of exclusive Cantonese food but would cook whatever customers asked for. The first cook was Stanley Seid. Bruce said Seid was “more or less Jewish.” Phyllis remembers how ‘Uncle’ Stanley would cook for her with the “tiniest pinch of salt with the hugest spoon.” Seid made a marinated pan-fried shrimp like none other--“even Bill Hong envies the recipe.” Hong’s namesake Cantonese spot, a favorite of Michael Jackson (Shrimp and Broccoli) and Mayor Giuliani, persists on East 56th Street. Polly, his wife, wooed Seid from Trader Vic.
Ruby Foo’s head cook Lau Wai, a my-way-or-the-highway man from Toishan, Guangdong, asked Bruce for a job. Lau Wai had learned cooking in Chinatown and was hired for his exactitude. He stayed as second cook until Four Seas closed in 1998. When Four Seas was finally being dismantled, Bruce found some long-forgotten bottles of snake heart. He had given the workers some of the prized and potent tonic as a gift back in the 1960's and gave some again to Stanley. They both felt it an emotional moment. Stanley had never worked for anyone longer than six months before he stayed with the Ho family for thirty-plus years.
Cantonese Chow Mein was very popular, but no one was eating grittier Chinese fare like fish heads or chicken feet, which were reserved for staff meals. I asked if a Chinese restaurateur could successfully introduce Westerners to authentic Chinese fare such as the gummy ovoid cakes of rice sautéed with julienned meats and pickled vegetables called Shanghai Chow Ning Goa? All Ho said was “where did you learn all that?”
Diners and revelers flocked to Bruce Ho’s Four Seas for both its cuisine and hospitable ambiance. Mr. Ho explained the critical factor of “understanding people, greeting people. See what they like and understand them.” People might be reluctant to spend a certain amount of money on dinner, but “if they like the service, fine.” He also stressed the importance of the maitre d’hôtel passing this knowledge to the captains and on down to the bus staff. “Instruct the people next to you, and they’re gonna pass it down. ‘Remember what customers like,’ he said, and I interjected that it always feels good when a waiter remembers me and can bring my favorite tea without having to ask. He said “that’s right, that’s right. Exactly that way and no two ways about it.”
I asked Bruce why Chinese food, an older and arguably more complex cuisine than French fare, can not command bistro prices. “It’s a way of living,” he replied, “when people go for Chinese food or French food, they really do not know what its all about. Once they taste it a little bit they say “oh that is very good. They are not connoisseurs. They say that just for compromise, oh it’s very good, very tasty” but the discussion rarely gets deeper than that. “Also they want to show how intelligent they are.” So you have conversations that begin with the food and wander into discussions of other topics, and “then you get lost somewhere.”
Wine is becoming more and more popular with Chinese food today, the scion of Port Arthur’s infamous bar noted. High standards in the kitchen were not enough and the Ho family always knew what side their bread was buttered on. All of their restaurants had long listings for specialty alcohols. Even early Port Arthur menus scream “ATTENTION is called to our wine list” in bold red lettering.
“About twenty-five years ago, after Four Seas was open for five or ten years, I kept increasing and stocking the wine list,” Ho said. “At that time my bartender said ‘who is gonna eat Chinese food and think about wine?’ And I said “look, you never know--if you try to set up a French style, high scale place where people enjoy slowly the taste of the food and people have a little bit of wine, particularly red wine, or if they have fish, white, particularly a Cabernet, any good brands, not particular, from Italy, anything, just a good brand, or a California popular name, and people will get it. Encourage people to taste foods and wine. Wine is not as strong as alcohol. And drinks over twelve percent alcohol have more tax. You take one ounce of vodka or scotch and you feel it, but one glass of wine is only twelve percent. People enjoy wine on the table more for food.”
“So now a couple of restaurants have good wine, like Henry Leung’s Evergreen. I know where he comes from a long, long time ago. He was just one of the street boys. Smart guy, pairing wines with Chinese dishes. Very popular. Now he’s at 69th Street on First Avenue. He was on 34th Street and 2nd Avenue some twenty or thirty years ago, and then he and a friend opened up Chiam at 48th and 3rd Avenue but Chinatown tough guys took over financially. Then he went away for a while and then he came back with Evergreen.”
In 1967, with his wife Polly’s coaching and tropical drinks expertise, Bruce opened another Long Island restaurant, Bruce Ho’s Chi-Am, 1506 Northern Boulevard, in Manhasset – it stayed in business for a decade. In the 1960's, well after Ho had returned from China, he brought over a new kid step-brother, Gene Ho, Bruce’s third step-mother’s son. The quick and nimble little boy had great hands and grew into a Northeastern regional champion in gymnastics, particularly the pommel horse and still rings.
When Gene had a summer break from school he would work at Chi-Am, which drew a big crowd from nearby Belmont Racetrack. Polly pulled out a photo of actor Telly Savalas surrounded by a dozen jockeys and Bruce recalled names like Shoemaker, Cordero, Turcotte, Maple, Arcaro. “The whole bunch were patrons,” he said, “even Robin Smith, a twenty-something female jockey who married Fred Astaire when he was seventy-something.” Bruce recounts that a horse trainer spotted Gene in the restaurant. He could see that the lad was deceptively strong for his scant ninety-five pounds, so he teased, “how come you’re so small and your brother’s so big? What can you do?” Mr. Ho laughed, proudly reporting that this was the start of Gene’s very successful career as a jockey.
Conversation then turned to Richard Mei’s King Dragon, another upscale Manhattan ricery, with quilted leather banquettes and white-glove service on 3rd Avenue near 73rd Street. Asked to confirm a rumor that Mei lost his entire restaurant in a poker game, Ho explained, ”Richard Mei is a long story.”
“One day before I started working at Gold Coin, I was standing on a corner in Chinatown, waiting for friends to go to Coney Island. At that time you stayed overnight in Coney, just on the beach, a whole bunch of Chinatown guys all staying on the beach. Seven or ten people and everyone got to eat and drink on the beach. Anyways, I was waiting on the street when this guy, Dong Yuen Hing, comes along and says, 'what are you doing here,' and then I remembered him from the summertime when I used to work in Long Beach and they owned a place out there. I said ‘I am going to swim.’ ‘Well, he said, ‘I opened a restaurant - wanna come help me?’ I said ‘OK, fine’ - if I can raise some money why not. At that time my apartment was only $23 a month.”
“That place was called East Sea (Tung Hoy) in Larchmont at the Shopping Center. They had three or four places, East Sea, West Sea.....now they had a place in Brooklyn and he was OK running a Chop Suey place but he really was green and didn’t know anything about the sophisticated end of the restaurant business. They had no menu, and the place was opening up that day. He did not know how to conduct himself, could not section out the stations for the waiters, the captain was not trained, nobody. I was new and just part-time so I didn’t say anything.
Finally, they learned I can speak English a little bit and they knew I can write. They said ‘Hey Bruce, (they spoke Chinese to me) – what can we do? We open up at 5 o’clock.’ ‘You got a mimeograph machine, I asked’ ‘I’ve got one in Brooklyn but this is Larchmont, a one-hour drive.’ ‘I said if you get somebody get the mimeograph machine up here and I’ll start typing’ – the restaurant address, telephone number, sautees, deep fries, about ten items of American food at that time, family dinner, you can take dinner for two, you take one in the A, one in the B, and then a la carte menu. So I got all that done. So OK. So I print it. Still wet when people coming in. True. I was just a waiter – ‘do you have a jacket,’ they asked? ‘No, I just came in--I was standing in the street.’ They gave me a tie, black jacket and put me right away in the front.”
One of Dong’s partners in East Sea was Richard Mei, who worked there as a manager before he opened his own place. When Mei quit, he insisted that he would only give back his initial investment if they got rid of Bruce Ho, too. Bruce went to Brooklyn, to Dong’s place then being run by their young daughter. “Soon I got out and went to Gold Coin,” Bruce went on, “but back to the long story about Richard Mei. He opened King Dragon sometime around 1957 and stayed in business until the early 1990's, when he left to take it easy in Florida.” Mei has since passed away.
Today, Ho remains a student of the restaurant business and has remembrances and anecdotes about seemingly every Chinese restaurant one can name. I asked if he was friendly with other restaurateurs of his era and he said yes, but they found him a bit independent. There was no association of restaurant owners, formal or informal, because everyone worked long hours. Of course, he said, “you pay your respects and visit other restaurants, and also go out to be seen, perhaps in a Madison Avenue hotel, or at Harry’s Bar at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
As attentive to cooking as he is, Mr. Ho never trained as a chef and does not cook for himself. His wife often makes a simple family favorite, chicken marinated in soy sauce and pan-fried. The couple married on June 28, 1959, and a traditional banquet was held, of course, at the Port Arthur. Bruce recited the entire wedding menu from memory:
Shark’s Fin Soup Three Appetizers: Pan-fried Shrimp, Lobster Rolls, Crabs Rangoon Chicken with Broccoli Dai Buh Goo (large black mushroom in oyster sauce) Pork with Broccoli, Water Chestnuts and Straw Mushrooms Bird’s Nest Soup Gua Loong Gnop (duck skin in wheat buns) Sauteed Hearts of Choy Sum (green vegetable) Duckmeat Young Chow Fried Rice Yee Mein (longevity noodle) Sai Mai Lo
That last item was a dessert of tapioca pearls, which Phyllis noted is akin to today’s popular 'bubble' teas, known affectionately by many nicknames such as 'Dragon Eyes' or 'Frog Eggs.' After his recitation of their wedding banquet from half a century ago, Polly exclaimed wondrously, “you remember all that?”
Polly was always an integral partner in the business, largely due to her experiences in the late 1950's when she worked in her hometown of Seattle at the Trader Vic’s in the Westin Hotel. Trader Vic was a legendary epicurean and bon vivant, a French Jew named Victor J. Bergeron, Jr. Polly described “The Trader’s” first foray into restaurant bars as a “two by four [tiny] dainty old house.” The small cabin in Oakland CA opened in 1934 with the quixotic name Hinky Dinks. Polly advised Vic as he opened branches in cosmopolitan cities worldwide, and worked for him from 1954 until the mid 1980's.
In the late 50s, Vic announced big plans for Polly in hustling Havana, Cuba, but she said ”no thanks, that is the one place I will not go.” She had heard that the Cuban staff was unreliable. Her decision proved wise: a short six months after Trader Vic’s Havana opened in 1958, the manager was shot at as he ran for one of the last planes taking Americans out of Cuba. Later that same year, Polly accepted Vic’s one-way airplane ticket and moved to New York to supervise the opening of Trader Vic’s in the Savoy Hilton, 7 East 58th Street and 5th Avenue (the hotel was eventually razed for the current General Motors building).
New York’s Savoy Trader Vic’s was a huge success--one day Bruce asked the maitre d’ “how’s business” and was told “we’re a little over 950 [reservations] for the day.” When the hotel was razed for the General Motors Building, Vic scored a major coup and moved Trader Vic’s across the avenue to the swankier Plaza Hotel. Donald and Ivana Trump bought the Plaza in 1989, and closed the restaurant. Despite a rash of closings in the mid-1990's, Trader Vic’s operates a website at: www.tradervics.com and seventeen remaining restaurants in places as far flung as Chicago, Oman, Singapore and Bahrain. Still, no one knows what happened to the forty-foot outrigger canoe that used to decorate the New York Plaza’s Trader Vic. It was a real boat that Marlon Brando rode in the movie version of Mutiny on the Bounty.
Sugary-sweet Polynesian fare was a draw, but the main attraction for Trader Vic’s, and the legions of competitors it spawned, were the tropical drinks. Four Seas eventually drew a competitor further east on 57th Street called Luau 400. With Polly’s help, Trader Vic created gaily decorated cocktail menus featuring lurid descriptions of the exotic ingredients and reputed effects of Zombie’s, Samoan Fog Cutter’s, Mai Tai’s, and the like, drinks which were hugely popular in the 50's and 60's before they became cliché in the 70's. Like the racially charged humor of Alan King, Buddy Hackett and other Jewish comedians, these often faux-tropical drinks became extinct in the 1980's just as culture became more sensitive to things foreign, only to reemerge at popular 1990's camp boîtes like Lucky Cheng’s. The fun that can be swizzled with these off-color cocktails persists even against today’s strong waves of political correctness.
“You know what it means?” Mrs. Ho asks about the “Banana Cow--for butterflies in the opu.” “Opu means big, when you drink it, you be like--you know.” She laughs about the silly things she wrote years ago on menus: “Suzie Wong--could be wicked. Sailors beware” and “Coolie Collins--it is no lemon. It’s kumquat.” She admits they had no connection to the famous actor when she created a menu announcing, “Charlie Chan proudly offers these Special Drinks.” When customers would inquire about the nature of the “Tiki Puka Poka--strictly on the kini popo” her servers were instructed to “tell ‘em anything and leave em” grinning and guessing.
It seemed like a good time to get Mr. Ho’s take on the Chinese penchant for eating purported aphrodisiacs like tiger penis. His response seems to concur with scientific findings about the thousands of different aphrodisiacs around the world--the most potent ingredients are somewhere in the mind of the ingestor. He said exactly, “When you want to do that, you really think what you have to do, so you think: I want to.”
All those mid-60's kitsch palaces like Hawaii Kai, in Manhattan’s Theater District, with their poetic Pacific Island names, exotic “moon doors” and bubbling brooks forded by faux antique wood bridges, humongous plastic clam shells complete with grapefruit-sized pearls, and monstrous 'Tiki' glasses with eighteen-inch striped straws, owe their incarnation and success to the creative libations of the real-life Trader Vic, with not a little nod to Mrs. Ho, a keen observer and reporter of the likes and dislikes of Western patrons of Polynesian restaurant bars.
“Here’s our collection of old, old menus,” Polly said, pulling out a small stack of well worn bills of fare from Bruce Ho’s Four Seas, Trader Vic’s, House of Mah Jong and a few others. “Look at the price--dollar fifty, dollar twenty-five--ever hear of such a thing?” she marveled. Some are signed by a group of Baltimore Colt footballers, including quarterback legend Johnny Unitas. Another is signed by a favorite customer and friend, the Academy-Award winning actor Sidney Poitier, about whom Mr. Ho posited, “he doesn’t seem to have black and white--he does not even think that he is a different color.”
All of their restaurants, including the last one to open, in 1969, Bruce Ho’s Chateau Gourmet (on route 9W about 10 miles north of the George Washington Bridge) used Bruce’s own menu design. The food and drink offerings changed, but the large, distinctive white menu with red and blue lettering stayed fresh-looking for over five decades. Bruce’s clever graphic device, a fake tear in the cover, provided a strong background for his Chinese calligraphy of Zhong Mei--Chinese-American in Mandarin, a reference not only to his food and restaurant, but to himself.
It seems that these upscale Chinese restaurants all took tag-lines. Richard Mei’s was “the house of quality food for the epicurean,” and Bruce’s was “Sip, Savour for the Gourmet.” Bruce is congenial and was always sure his menus noted that “any dishes not listed can be prepared upon request.” He helped ensure good service with other menu entries like “Any suggestions or criticisms will be most appreciated to promote a more favorable atmosphere.” A student of his customer’s likes and needs from the get-go, Bruce reports that it was customary for post-War diners to make a pit stop at the dirt-cheap Chinese restaurants on Delancey Street for a snack of egg roll or roast pork, and then come to Port Arthur for Chop Suey with ambience. Over the decades, Ho stayed abreast of foodways, adding and deleting Polynesian, Hunan or Szechuan dishes as trends waxed and waned. Ho insisted on old-fashioned Chow Mein--only onion, bean sprout, chopped chicken, gee yow (brown sauce), cooked very soft and tender, noodles on the bottom.”
Ho always consulted with the head chef to create the menu and was sure to incorporate any bright ideas from the chef. In addition, Ho put himself in charge of listing daily specials for captains to read to patrons. Although Ho’s bills of fare were typical of the period in their large format, the actual number of dishes to choose from seems smaller than average. Bruce felt that a limited selection meant patrons “did not have to keep flipping.”
Where he drew a lot of Jewish customers, he knew it was best to keep pork offerings to a minimum. Ho then told of how he learned about the Italian predilection for pig’s knuckle. “During Prohibition, there was Tony Merenda who had around forty speakeasies in the Bronx--the main one being Tony’s Flash Inn, across from Yankee Stadium. They had lots of cash. Tony’s son Danny was a real character who liked to challenge you. One day he told me he had very good pig’s knuckles at Shun Lee restaurant and he asked why can’t I make it? Next time he came in with friends I served him a plate. It hurt a little when he said "just as good as Shun Lee.”
I could only find one typographical error on all of Bruce’s carefully-conceived menus, Parchmont Chicken (chicken cooked in parchment paper), a humorous and perhaps subconscious nod to the wealthy community of Larchmont. Ho would also create custom menus for special occasions--the Gala Bruce Ho New Year’s Dinner 1967 costing fifteen dollars included champagne.
The pretty and evocative menus from a bygone era made my mouth water with the imagined taste of specials that rolled out of Chinese-American kitchens when I was still mawing pablum, wondrous sounding platters like 'Mahi Mahi with Macadamia Sauce.' When I inquired as to why shrimps pan-fried in the shell were listed with the inscrutable name “Shrimp Look In Shell,” Ho could only laugh. When asked about the American side of the menu, he replied: “Had to have American food in those years, you needed American food such as steaks--because in compromise you do not want them to go somewhere else.” “Oh they got American food too.”
Mr. Bruce Ho has always been open to new ideas. Sometime in 1969, he brought his family to Taiwan to investigate the possibility of going into the frozen Chinese food for the American supermarket business. Polly and Bruce’s daughter Phyllis is a fourth generation ABC (American-Born Chinese), a dentist and documentary filmmaker who is knowledgeable about international foodways in general and New York City Chinese restaurant history in particular. “I was too ambitious--I wanted to sell it in gourmet corners in all supermarkets but I never knew underworld people had a hand in it.”
It had become clear during these interviews that I was dealing with a major major domo. Mr. Ho has lots of good tips and when we ate take out dim sum at their home one Sunday, it had been procured at a number of different restaurants to ensure the highest quality of each dumpling. He recommends Hop Lee at 16 Mott Street for their authentic Cantonese fare, but he provided a live demonstration of how a sip of Coca Cola can stop a persistent cough.
I knew I had asked too many questions, so I bid adieu, but not until I saw a copy of a New York Post article dated April 13, 1983. With a copy of that in hand, Mr. Ho graciously escorted me to the door, in his inimitable, eloquent, and suave style. I could almost feel the 1950's and I imagined I was exiting, fully sated with a head full of Maui Waui, a bellyful of classic high-class Chop Suey, a celebrity sighting or two under my belt, and a hankering to come back ASAP.
So that you can taste food from a Bruce Ho kitchen, enjoy three recipes that appeared in the article headlined ‘Bruce Ho’s is an Oriental Institution’ rewritten with more appropriate titles in the style of all Flavor and Fortune recipes.
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