A DC Chef Finds New Ways To Feed Customers During The Pandemic Charlie Chen served authentic Chinese food at the cafe in DC's World Bank before offices shut down last year. He shifted to feeding his regular customers through delivery, and picked up some new ones.

A DC Chef Finds New Ways To Feed Customers During The Pandemic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1005833545/1005833546" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The last year and a half has forced Americans who have jobs to change their routines and sometimes find new ways to work. Today, we meet 63-year-old Charlie Chen of Rockville, Md., who takes us along the new route that he's forged for himself.

CHARLIE CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SIMON: Charlie Chen came to the U.S. from Shanghai in 1989. He built a new life for himself here as a waiter, a bartender and a restaurant manager. He even owned some restaurants before he entered semiretirement.

CHEN: I'm too old (laughter). I'm never retired. That's it. I can't. I don't want to do anymore.

SIMON: About three years ago, Mr. Chen started working in the cafeteria at the World Bank building in downtown Washington, D.C. And employees there loved his authentic Chinese meals.

CHEN: We had a group. They followed us to lunch all the time.

SIMON: But when offices and restaurants shut down last year, Charlie Chen was out of work. He was eager to get back into the kitchen.

CHEN: In the first couple weeks, when I stayed at home, I had nothing to do. So boring, you know, staying at home - it's very boring.

SIMON: So he found a kitchen where he could cook again. And that was good news for his World Bank customers who'd missed his food. He also started to pick up new clientele.

CHEN: People recommending people, friends were recommending friends, so we have more people.

SIMON: He's been averaging about 100 orders per week, $26 per order. And he's been planning menus, cooking and delivering meals for more than 60 weeks. This week, he's making...

CHEN: Steamed chicken with a sauce on the side. This is very authentic and traditional Chinese dish, especially the - from the south of China, like a Shanghai-Hong Kong style. And then we have two more dishes coming. Another one's cumin beef - a little spicy, actually. It's very close to Szechuan. Another is vegetarian, like ice cube tofu with napa cabbage and bean noodles.

SIMON: Charlie Chen has had help from two friends, Bei Ming Zhang and Jun Wu. They all use the kitchen at Joe's Noodle House in Rockville, Md.

CHEN: Fresh garlic, onions make a little more flavor.

SIMON: Here's how Charlie Chen has learned to make his pandemic job work. He puts up a new menu online which is shared through a WeChat group. Customers have until Sunday night to order. Mr. Chen gets organized and starts his prep on Monday. The rest of the week, starting at 8:30 a.m. each day, he and his helpers are cooking. By 11:30, he begins to pack up all the food.

CHEN: You see, today is not too hot. So normally, like, too hot, we're going to put the ice boxes. If not too hot, I'll put a dry ice bag - put the cold dish inside first.

SIMON: Delivery is the most personal part of the process. Mr. Chen drives to each customer's house and hand-delivers his meals. He'll sometimes drive up to an hour away from the kitchen in Rockville.

CHEN: Today is in Maryland, mostly Montgomery County. But from the - let's see - Gaithersburg, Germantown to the Silver Spring - so today, probably take me, like, three hours.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

SIMON: Mr. Chen is happy that restaurants are reopening, but he still misses his customers at the World Bank cafe, seeing them during the lunch hour rush.

CHEN: I love them. They love me, too. They love the food.

SIMON: Charlie Chen says that until that happens, he'll just keep delivering stir-fried squid and bok choy, hot pot chicken, even whole steamed crab to all who crave his cooking. Did someone give him our address?

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.