Kelly Chu ended up in Charleston because of a chance meeting on a street in Chinatown in New York City in 1996.
Born in Shanghai 43 years ago, Chu and her family moved to Brazil when she was 11 as her father helped to open a hotel. She spoke no Portuguese.
But five years later when the family relocated to the United States to reunite with a set of grandparents, she spoke fluent Portuguese. But not English. So she had to learn it, too.
“We were in Chinatown and dad passed by a guy — it was super-random on a steet — and it was his childhood friend from Beijing,” Chu recalled. “They just looked at each other and stopped.”
Turned out the guy was a professor at the College of Charleston. He invited Kelly’s dad to visit and, as the story goes, that was that.
“He fell in love with Charleston and said he didn’t want to live anywhere else.”
So Chu and her parents moved to the Lowcountry. Soon they opened Asia Market, a small grocery store on Ashley Hall Road in West Ashley. It closed, but it wasn’t long before ty opened Joy Luck, an Asian restaurant in West Ashley that old-timers still talk about today.
Chu entered Academic Magnet High School, learned English, graduated and went to the University of Maryland, where she met Tony Chu, who eventually became her husband. Both got degrees in information systems management. And then they headed to Charleston.
A restaurant of their own
“I run everything; she runs me,” Tony Chu joked while standing next to a large, bright kitchen island in the couple’s West Ashley modern split-level home.
Kelly clarified: “He’s front of the house. I’m back of the house. We divide and conquer.”
In 2003, they opened Red Orchids China Bistro in West Ashley, a perennial winner of the Charleston City Paper’s Best Chinese Restaurant.
“Running a restaurant is a lifestyle,” Kelly said. “It’s not just a job. You have to be very passionate to do it. You have to be able to sacrifice a lot.”
They work a lot in the restaurant, which is open every day. They’ll usually take a day off once a week, but they keep busy.
And that led to a second business, Cirsea Craft Ice Cream. In 2008, Kelly started experimenting with different, unexpected flavors of ice cream. After a few years, they came up with some “really wild ideas.”
“Cirsea Craft Ice Cream is committed to bringing smiles to our community,” the company website says. “Coined after the southern term ‘surcee,’ which typically refers to a small surprise gift, Cirsea Ice Cream is a treat that is equally as inventive as it is traditional.”
Through the years, Chu said she has crafted more than 50 flavors of ice cream, some of which also are squeezed between two cookies for ice cream sandwiches available at the restaurant.
Five top flavors are bourbon caramel, strawberry goat cheese, vanilla, cinnamon and lavendar. Two flavors that might surprise you: Black sesame and vanilla black pepper. Kelly’s favorite — mustard, which was served one year at the Charleston Wine + Food festival.
“The mustard was kind of mind-blowing for them,” she said. “It was mustard ice cream topped with pretzel bites. It was sweet and savory with a little texture.”
The one flavor that just didn’t work — black truffle.
The Gelato Olympics
In 2017, Cirsea competed against 35 finalists from 19 countries for world’s best gelato after Chu’s dessert won the American competition at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City. Her entry was called “Bacche de Marsala” gelato and featured a crunch of biscotti and taste of Colombo Marsala, Italy’s top imported Marsala wine. The ice cream also included flavors of basil, hone and goat cheese.
At the time, she said, “I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to compete. It feels like the Gelato Olympics. All I can do is my best and hope to have as much fun as I can, doing it!”
While she didn’t win, Cirsea got great exposure and now is a major distributor of ice cream to area top-end restaurants.
These days at the restaurant, the Chus are continually updating their menu to introduce old-time favorites of the Chinese community to the Western palate.
And when she and her husband aren’t working, they might take a short trip to New York or some other foodie haven to eat and explore new tastes to bring back to Charleston.
“We travel and eat,” she said. “We’re looking for childhood flavors and tastes and menus. We are seeing the fusion and new interpretations [of Chinese food] but we are missing that simplified flavor of yesterday.
“We’re searching for that old classic flavor. What better way to understand a cuisine than its roots?”
And it seems to be working. Menu items like mapo tofu or fish hotpot just didn’t work two decades ago when the restaurant was new. Now, those and other traditional dishes have followers in the Charleston foodie community.
“We now have a whole page of Chinese classics,” Kelly said. “We have Chinese customers who come and say it is the best they have ever had.”
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