Wandering chef finds home in Sarnia

Sunny Chen does virtually all the cooking at his Christina Street Asia Style restaurant. Since coming to North America he has adapted his Chinese cooking to American style but likes to prepare authentic Tai food as well. Cathy Dobson

Sunny Chen has known hard work all his life.

He grew up in Fuzhou, a seaside city of seven million people in southern China.

Every day after school, he went home to help his father out at the family restaurant on the main floor where they lived.

When it came time to choose a trade, cooking was the obvious choice, says Sunny.

He attended three years of chef’s school and graduated when he was only 20, then left for New Jersey where he and a cousin became partners in a Chinese restaurant business.

That’s where he met Gina Zheng, his wife and mom to his two daughters, ages16 and 11.

He moved from state to state, trying his hand at various restaurant businesses, finally ending up in Michigan where he and Gina operated their own restaurant in Kalamazoo for 10 years.

But the hours were long and the family decided to set out for Canada where they planned to get into retail.

They arrived in Mississauga in 2008. But the economy proved too challenging to start a venture in a sector in which they were inexperience, said Gina.

So they reverted to what they know best and opened another restaurant called Green Wok.

Five years later, they became restless again and noticed an ad in a trade magazine for restaurant space at 493 Christina St. in Sarnia.

The promise of a slower pace enticed Sunny and the family opened the Asia Style Chinese and Thai Restaurant nearly a year ago.

In Fuzhou, Sunny grew up cooking traditional Chinese food that emphasized the natural flavour of vegetables and cooked meats. Fuzhou cuisine is flavourful but not heavily seasoned, Sunny explained. The city is famous for its sweet and sour flavours, dumplings and seafood.

“Not a lot of people in North America want original Chinese food,” said Sunny, who has learned to prepare Chinese dishes in demand like chicken balls and garlic wings.

As a young man he spent a year in Thailand and loves Thai food, especially curries. So Asia Style features numerous Thai items such as pad Thai, pad siew and Thai green or red curry.

Every day, Sunny can be found in the kitchen making his sauces and chopping vegetables. He’s still doing preparation for the next day at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. in the morning.

“Every day, I make my chicken balls with only a little batter.  That’s the way people really enjoy them,” he said.

The restaurant is open seven days a week and the couple work long hours with few breaks.

“But if I didn’t have a restaurant, I’d cook anyway,” said Sunny. “I like to see people happy when they eat my food.”

Asia Style Chinese and Thai Restaurant seats 40 and does takeout and delivery. Call 519-337-1688.

– Cathy Dobson