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Arts & Culture

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

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? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.