Richard Wing passed away On October 8, at age 89. Richard was a great chef and a great person. Self described as a “humble Chinese cook” that said a lot about the man. In fact, he was one of the greatest chefs of his time and his French style cuisine with a Chinese influence was truly unique. For over 40 years his Imperial Dynasty restaurant, located in the little town of Hanford in California’s Central Valley mid-way between Bakersfield and Fresno, attracted diners from all over the world.
The Wing family was part of the large Chinese population that fled the oppression in China and worked on the railroad in this country. A significant number of Chinese settled in Hanford and soon Chinatown became a part of the business district. It was here in 1883 that the Wings opened their first Restaurant, a noodle house named Mee Jan Low. In 1937, they opened the Chinese Pagoda, a family-style Chinese restaurant. And, in 1958, Richard, his sister Harriet, and his late brother, Ernie, opened the Imperial Dynasty next door to the Chinese Pagoda. The restaurant was divided into two areas separated by a wall. One side offered a menu with Chinese and Continental dishes. The other was for advanced reservations and offered a spectacular six course gourmet dinner featuring Richard’s unique blend of French and Chinese flavors. With Richard in ailing health, the restaurant closed in 2006.
Richard graduated from Visalia High School and attended the University of Southern California where he received degrees in International Relations and Architecture. Richard was a Staff Sergeant in the Army during World War II and served as chief aide and food taster to General George C. Marshall. General Marshall had several personal chefs and during this time Richard learned a lot and refined his cooking skills. He was very proud to have served General Marshall and spoke of him often. When the restaurant opened, Richard was the chef, Harriet, his sister, the manager, and Ernie, his brother, was the front man and wine buyer. My friends, who introduced me to the restaurant, said that the family worked very well together, except that Richard was so shy they never saw him. They only knew Harriet and Ernie. But sadly, Ernie passed away some time just before I first visited. When I first met Richard, I could hardly believe the shy person they described was the man I met! You see, after his brother’s death, Richard transformed himself. He was outgoing, affable, fun loving and in constant motion. He seemed to be everywhere at once. In the kitchen preparing fabulous dishes, talking with diners, greeting arriving guests, talking about the food and the wine, Richard was a one man gang!
His brother Ernie was very wine knowledgeable and built a formidable wine collection numbering in the tens of thousands of bottles, including great California wines such as Inglenook Cabernets from the 40s, 50s, and 60s and BV Cabernets from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. There was also a large quantity of classified Bordeaux including first growths from the 40s, 50s, and 60s as well as a lot of Burgundies from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Later, other wines were added, such as Chalone, Hanzell, Heitz Cellars, Stony Hill and others. It was a real treasure. And even though it was Ernie who started the collection, Richard quickly learned and continued with the tradition of buying some of the finest wines.
My wife Laurie and I first started going there in the early 70s. I had joined the Hollywood Wine and Food Society headed by Nathan Chroman, then the wine writer for the Los Angeles Times and the organizer of the Los Angeles County Fair wine judging competition (which was the largest event of its type at that time). Friends, including the late Greg Doerschlag and his wife Sandy, the late John Sola and his wife Terri, as well other members of the Hollywood Wine and Food Society had started going there in the 1960s. So we joined them and also brought along others such as my very good friends, Edward Lazarus and Geoffrey Troy. Steve Mirassou from Mirassou winery and Ken Burnap, founder of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards, and his late wife Re, also joined us from time to time. Over the course of 15-20 years we wined and dined at the Imperial Dynasty dozens of times.
On one of our early visits we happened to meet a couple, the late Bob Justman and his wife Jackie, who were dining at the table next to us and our friends. All of a sudden there was a huge commotion and Bob jumped up, pulled out a pistol, and ran into the bar area which was adjacent to the main dining room. It seems that there was a robbery going on and Bob, a reserve Sheriff’s officer, was there to save the day! What an introduction, but we became very good friends and had many wonderful times together, including more great meals at the Imperial Dynasty.
On another early visit, our then new friend, Geoffrey Troy and his late father, Mel, were in California on business. Both were anxious to experience the Imperial Dynasty so we arranged a dinner for a small group in the private room downstairs. Mel and Geoffrey brought a double magnum of 1949 La Tache which Mel had purchased in the early 1950s and we also had magnums of 1952 La Tache plus many wines for the Imperial Dynasty cellar. The wines were just phenomenal and the food at these early dinners was nothing short of spectacular.
There were six courses in the gourmet dinner. They always included a great consommé which Richard made by steaming oxtails for days. And, when it was available, Richard would add Hasma, the reproductive gland of a special type of Chinese frog. In ancient China the story goes that it was reserved only for the Emperor. Richard would go to great lengths to obtain Hasma from Chinatown in San Francisco or Los Angeles. And, when it was served, he would come bustling out, laughing and saying over and over again the amount of Hasma in the broth and the cost. So it might be something like: “One pound Hasma, $200 a pound!” “You eating at least $100 Hasma!” which he would repeat in rapid fire fashion until everyone for sure knew what they were eating and how much it cost! (Today Hasma is over $3000 a pound!). The soup was out this world and truly unique.
Then would come a dish of beef tartare and sashimi with special seasonings. And his incomparable Escargots a la Imperial Dynasty which won numerous awards including two from Cordon Bleu. Richard once told us the secret ingredient was cashew butter which was blended with other things to create a dish of sublime flavors and texture (a later article will feature the recipe). Following these dishes would be a fish course. Different preparations of fish such as sole, trout, and salmon were always fresh and wonderfully prepared with delicate flavors. Once when serving my dish of sole he very excitedly told us over and over “Two pounds of fish on Mr. Tilson’s plate. Mr. Tilson big eater.” That was Richard. The food was so good, but sometimes it was difficult to eat it all. And with two pounds of fish after the other courses and before the meat course (which included fabulous tournedos of beef, baby lamb, elk, venison, or whatever Richard felt was the best available at the time) and dessert (sometimes crepes, puff pastry, or other melt-in-your-mouth dishes)… well, I think you get the picture.
But Richard was only happy when you were happy and his goal was to please everyone which he did night after night for all those years. And, oh yes, the price? For most of the early days it was $35 and later went up to $40. In the last years, the price was $60, but it was always one of the greatest bargains on the planet. And Richard was always very excited to tell you what a bargain it was!
The fame of Richard’s cuisine was known all over the world. One night just as we were approaching the entryway to the restaurant, a procession of chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces pulled up to the curb. The people began to exit and what a sight that was. The gentlemen in black tie. The women in evening dress with sables and jewels. It was a large group of international dignitaries led by the late Hernando Courtright, the famous hotelier and owner of the Beverly Wilshire hotel, who had come up from Beverly Hills to dine at the Imperial Dynasty.
And, there should be some mention of the little farming town of Hanford. In those days, there were very few places to stay. We usually stayed at a motel a mile or two away. You know the ones with the “Magic Fingers” beds? Well, if you don’t know, that was a big luxury for a budget motel. Put a quarter into the metal box attached to the bed, lie on the bed, and you could get the “Magic Fingers” vibrating message. Just what you needed after a big night of eating and drinking! And, there was the water. Hanford water, in those days, was full of sulphur. Showers were a real thrill the morning after with the terrible smell of rotten eggs overwhelming your dulled senses. And, woe was you if you forgot to bring your own water to brush your teeth! You see, you had to really want to go to the Imperial Dynasty to overcome some of the obstacles. Mr. Courtright and his friends obviously found commuting preferable to staying over!
Finally, no mention of the Imperial Dynasty would be complete without more on the fabulous wine cellar. Some times we would bring wine (like the great bottles of La Tache mentioned earlier). But most often, it was Champagne or White Burgundy as in the cellar there were not nearly as many great white wines as there were reds. But, the reds! Oh my. We would begin by going to the cellar and choosing our wines for the evening. The cellar was not in any particular order and scattered here and there in bins or behind other bottles would be remarkable bottles. All labels were marked in pencil with the prices. The prices having been established many years before and not changed very often (you could tell those that were changed by the erase marks or one price crossed out and replaced by another), were almost always well below the current market price. This was like a treasure hunt. One evening we had bottles of 1959 Lafite, Latour and Inglenook Cabernet side by side. The Inglenook was right in there with the big boys. We also drank many other 1970, 1964, 1962, 1961, 1959, 1955, and 1953 Bordeaux as well as some from the 30s and 40s. Wines like 1964 Cheval Blanc were plentiful. There was also some Petrus, most of the other first growths and many other classified growths. And, the California Caberents – Inglenooks from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, BV Private Reserve from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and Heitz Martha’s Vineyards and many others. Also, old Burgundies such as 1945, 47, and 49 Richebourg from Vienot and many other Grand Crus from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, most from negociants like Thorin, Calvet, Remoissenet, etc. And Vintage Ports from the 40s, and 50s.
We would go through many, many bottles on every visit and Richard was always amazed not only at our ability to drink all the wines, but our ability to find them. In fact, at one point, I think I knew the cellar better than Richard. You see, when he knew we were coming, he would go down to the cellar and stand up some bottles from which to choose. We would then select from those as well as others that we might find. Often when we would choose one of the bottles he had selected he would proudly say “Very, very, last bottle” over and over again punctuated by his infectious laughter. That in itself was worth the price of admission. But, often on later visits I would stumble across yet another of the “Very, very last bottles.” Richard would then ask where I found it and I would tell him. Then he would look at the price on the bottle (which most often had been there for many, many years) and proclaim “This price a bargain. Too cheap” and roar laughing.
You see, he got immense pleasure in having you there and being able to please you with great food, great wines, and great service and all at an extremely attractive price. Hanford is, after all, not Beverly Hills and the Wing family enjoyed very low occupancy cost as a result of being there so long which allowed Richard to put a large percentage of the cost into the food.
I shall always remember the great food and wine at the Imperial Dynasty, also the great times and friends (sadly some of whom have left us way too soon). But, there would be none of these memories were it not for Richard. Always happy and smiling, he seemingly never rested. That is except for very late in the evening when the last diners were finishing their food and drink (and that ALWAYS included us!), he and his lovely wife, Mary, would come in to have their dinner of Chinese food. We would talk about food, wine, and many other things, all the time laughing and having a grand time that would often extend into the wee hours of the morning. Those were the days!
Richard Wing was truly one of a kind. There will never be another like him. So Richard, “humble Chinese cook” by your perception, but great chef and remarkable human being in the eyes of all who knew you, rest in peace. You will forever be loved and remembered.