Standing in the street by his car, Charlie Chen stops to chat. He’s been up since 7 a.m. cooking, and now that it’s 4:30 p.m., he has to make sure everyone gets their meal in time for dinner. Chen still has around a dozen deliveries to go.
It’s a long day’s work and he takes home very little, if any, money for it. But he’s cooking the meals he’s known for and delivering them because he feels like his customers need him. Plus, he gets to enjoy the same rewarding feeling he felt when cooking for a couple hundred people a day before the pandemic.
Chen’s in his 60s and has the wiry look of someone who’s spent a tremendous amount of time on his feet. Before COVID-19 reached D.C., he ran a station in the cafe at the World Bank serving East Asian and Southeast Asian cuisine. He is one of 263 World Bank food workers who will be furloughed after January 1 and whose health care benefits will end six months after that.
Technically Chen is an employee of Restaurant Associates, with which the World Bank contracts. Even with the bank building being closed, the World Bank and Restaurant Associates have continued to cover salaries and health insurance benefits of their food workers. A report by the Post found that the organization has paid out as much as $11 million in non-obligatory subsidies to their food workers since March.
But the news of the furlough, which would impact Chen, has caused a stir within the building: 2,300 employees signed a petition asking management to reverse their decision. A 501(c)(5) organization that represents 12,500 of an estimated 16,000 bank employees expressed the same position.
Chen has found a way to continue cooking for World Bank employees, plus some new customers he’s picked up through word-of-mouth. A big part of that has to do with the community he built at the bank. Regular visitors say the line for his station at the cafe was always the longest and that the bank even expanded his station to meet demand. Chen created a group for his station on WeChat, a messaging app popular in East Asian nations and communities.
Not long after the bank building closed on March 13, Chen started to receive dozens of messages on the app from his regulars saying how much they missed the food. He reached out to a friend who owns a restaurant in Rockville and by April he was cooking again. The restaurant lets him use the space in return for a small percentage of sales. Two people help with the cooking.
The $26 menu that typically consists of three dishes changes every week, but recent hits have included braised short rib with steamed broccoli and shrimp stir fry. Usually, he does a veggie dish, a noodle dish, and one main protein. One week it’s lion’s head meatballs—pork-based meatballs known for their size and tenderness. Another week it’s steamed whole crab.
“I can’t hire any people because of [COVID-19],” he says, “I try to be safe, delivering to the people, I need to be really concerned about the people.” He says he felt compelled to step up and do something. “I feel like I’m still a World Bank employee. That’s why I started doing this. I’m keeping the price low, no tips, nothing extra.”
Most weeks, Chen makes an average of a hundred deliveries to residents in D.C., Montgomery County, and Northern Virginia, taking one day to deliver to each area. But orders took off the week he offered steamed crab. He did more than 350 deliveries that week. People remembered it from the cafe and it’s a difficult dish for home cooks to pull off.
Chen’s WeChat group migrated to a new page when he started offering meals via delivery. The chatter is mostly in Chinese, but some is in English. The new Google Sheet where customers place orders is in Chinese, but everyone inputs their info in English so it’s easy to follow. Chen says the new customers he’s picked up are mostly students. They use the WeChat group to talk about what they want, whether they will order that week, or what dishes they miss from outside the U.S.
“Chinese food when it came to the USA changed a lot,” Chen says. “We would say it’s Chinese-American, not authentic Chinese … The World Bank group, they love authentic Chinese. So, I never cook like that.” His customers won’t get dishes like General Tso’s chicken. “They’re not in China, not like this,” he says.
Chen admits he has a hard time finding some ingredients. He orders spices from China when they’re available, but he can’t do that for every dish. Before Chen moved to the U.S. from Shanghai in 1989, he traveled extensively throughout China for work and during that time, he tried as much food as possible. “I love to eat, taste different things, different flavors, get some ideas, and learn how to cook them at home,” he says.
After he makes deliveries, he follows up with customers on WeChat to see how they liked their meals. The feeling he gets when people enjoy his food drives him more than anything else.
“When you are a cook and people love your food, that means you are a success,” he says. “And when you feel success, you want to be more successful, so you have to pay more attention and listen to people.”
Chen plans to continue running his business for now, but he’s hoping the World Bank building will reopen soon. That’s looking unlikely as COVID-19 cases climb again locally and nationally. Since he’s in his 60s, he says he was hoping his World Bank job would be his last before retirement.
“I think my company, Restaurant Associates, they have really good management,” he says. “I really love to work for that company. That’s why I put all my attention on the dishes, the food, and caring for all the people who are eating my cooking. I’m really happy working there. Just pray they can open soon.”
Chen sighs as he says this and it’s the first sign he gives that the pandemic is getting to him because he’s otherwise relentlessly optimistic. He says Washingtonians must place orders on Sundays for the upcoming week. Reach out to this writer, mjloria at gmail.com, to get in touch.