Tony and Kelly Chu, who own and operate Red Orchids in West Ashley, are in the midst of opening a new restaurant and launching an ice cream company. “It’s like we’re having twins,” jokes Tony. 

He says the Chinese word for it is simply, “Work work work work work.”

Opening the restaurant is Tony’s big focus. Aya will be an Asian cookhouse in the former Eurasia spot near Whole Foods in Mt. Pleasant. “A cookhouse is between a bistro and a kitchen,” he says. People will have time to hang out in a less formal spot and enjoy small plates and share dishes family-style. As for the type of food, it will be classic Asian along with modern interpretations, using spices from the entire continent to inform and inspire.

“We’re going to try and keep it fun and approachable,” he says. “The flavors will be bold and intense but down to earth. We don’t want to scare anyone away.”

To help him in the kitchen, he’s tapped Christian Abbott, a former sous chef at High Cotton. The two were introduced by a mutual friend and discovered a kinship. Abbott grew up eating in Chinatown, is well traveled and well versed in Asian fare. “He’s a brother from another color,” says Tony. “He grew up eating the same food as us.”  

The two are still ironing out the menu, which will have dishes like clams in miso butter and Chinese lion’s head (meatballs) in a star anise broth. “It’s all over the board,” says Tony. The interior is being revamped into a rustic Asian vibe. 

If you know how Tony is behind the bar at Red Orchids, you know that he’s quite obsessed with wine and cocktails, and he’s already spent a fair amount of time working out the drinks list. The wine list will have plenty of balanced French wines to pair with the food, champagnes by the glass, some Willamette varietals, plus Arcadian Syrah. Cocktails will be simple and classic like Negroni and a modernized Cape Cod (bay leaf-infused vodka, ginger beer, and cranberry). One of his favorites is called On the Fence and is made with gin and Headwaters ale. 

Dishes for sharing will be priced $16-$24 while smaller plates will be $8-$14 and snackier treats will run $4-$6. He expects to be open in March but wants to make sure that his staff is trained and ready to go. “My main concern right now is that our people can take care of you and have the knowledge they need.” The next couple of weeks they’ll be finalizing the menu and training before the soft open. 

In the meantime, Kelly is focusing on the launch of Sugar Mama, their ice cream company. Kelly has been experimenting with her ice creams for the last few years at Red Orchids, with flavors like lychee, black sesame, and chocolate cayenne. For Sugar Mama, she’ll be making French-style ice cream using S.C. dairy products, packaging them, and selling to area gourmet shops. “It’s kinda crazy,” Tony says. “People are already asking us to create accounts for ordering ice cream. It’s truly a blessing.”

The Chus have been considering expansion plans for years, and people like me have been begging them to open another spot forever (James Island please?), so it’s exciting to see the couple take the plunge. But after hearing Tony’s tale, it’s easy to understand their hesitation.  

“Ten years ago, we started Red Orchids,” says Tony, “and we worked 105 hours a week. And we just have each other to do all of this.”

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