Some people coast toward retirement, but not Kwok Cheung.
As the owner and chef of Shanghai Village in Bethesda for 15 years, Cheung has routinely worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. And before that he labored for 22 years as co-owner and chef of China Village, just up Bethesda Avenue from his current restaurant.
Now, as he’s getting ready to retire, the 75-year-old Cheung is working harder than ever.
When Cheung told his staff last fall that he was going to close the restaurant in February, his servers and other front-of-house staff found new jobs. For the last four months, Cheung has been the restaurant’s lone host, server, busboy and bartender—in addition to cooking and managing the kitchen staff.
“I can’t do it,” Cheung said of his current work schedule.
A sign that was on the restaurant’s front door until recently warned patrons that service would be slower than usual.
A Potomac resident, Cheung said some patrons have complained about the service, but that most have been sympathetic, especially his regulars.
“Most people are happy, they understand,” Cheung said.
One recent patron got special service: When Marriott International Executive Chairman Bill Marriott came to the restaurant for an early dinner, Cheung snuck over and locked the front door so he could focus on his VIP guest.
Customers at Shanghai Village are greeted by framed photos of now deceased celebrities who dined at the restaurant, including Boston Celtics coach and owner Red Auerbach and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. Until his death in 2006, Auerbach ate lunch with friends most Tuesdays at China Village and then Shanghai Village. A small group of Auerbach’s friends still eat lunch at Shanghai Village every Tuesday.
Former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and journalist Helen Thomas were frequent patrons. Cheung personally delivered food to Kirkpartrick and Thomas when they became too sick to go to the restaurant—and then went to both of their funerals.
Cheung is known for his Peking Duck (which he used to carve for customers tableside) and Mai Tai cocktails, which he makes with a secret recipe. With retirement looming, he has begun to divulge some of his recipes to longtime customers. On the day that Bethesda Beat visited him, Cheung was in the kitchen teaching a customer how to make the glazed pecans that accompany several of his dishes. He said that he’s even told a few trusted friends the secrets of his Mai Tais.
Cheung said he made the decision to retire because the demands of the job were becoming too great for him. “I need to face my old age,” he said.
After working nearly every day for 37 years, Cheung will have plenty of free time after he closes the restaurant on a yet-to-be-announced date in late February. As for his plans following the closing?
“That’s a good question,” he said.