Jacksonville chefs play a big part in making My Favorite Cookbook a success. Chef Dennis Chan, owner of the Blue Bamboo and author of Hip Asian Comfort Food, is thrilled to participate again this year. Chan, who cut his teeth in his family’s Chinese restaurants and apprenticed under the legendary Ming Tsai, has a surprising backstory, a novel way to shop for cookbooks, and a good reason to support the event.
Jacksonville is lucky that Chef Dennis Chan didn’t heed his parents’ advice. As owners of 12 successful restaurants, his family “did everything they could” to dissuade him from the restaurant business, with its demanding work and long hours. But Chan dug in his chopsticks and followed his heart—and in their footsteps. He opened his award-winning Blue Bamboo restaurant in Jacksonville 10 years ago, with “no regrets.”
Born into a Chinese culture he says is “all about food,” the accomplished chef and Jacksonville native has an even bigger appetite for “giving back to the community.” He’s taught and mentored culinary students at Florida State College at Jacksonville for eight years, and serves as chair of the advisory board for the culinary program.
Chan supports numerous charity events and is proud to participate in My Favorite Cookbook for a second year, because it “benefits the FSCJ culinary program, draws great talent to the city, and brings people together to share food in a perfect venue.” When the FSCJ culinary program recently was named as one of America’s Top 20 Culinary Schools by FSR Magazine, Chan was not surprised. He said the instructors whom he considers peers offer students a depth of experience they won’t find anywhere else. He sees My Favorite Cookbook as a unique opportunity to enhance students’ culinary experiences and education.
Chan’s formal education started with a double major in Asian languages and literature at the University of Florida, but he always knew he would return to his first love—food. He recalls his earliest and fondest memories—as a young child standing on a red stool watching his grandfather cook. After college and a stint at Disney, Chan set off sight unseen to pursue his dreams at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, choosing it because it was the “common thread” among the cooking celebrities he admired—Alfred Portale, Susan Feniger, Chris Schlesinger and Susanna Foo.
Chan also was inspired by watching celebrity chefs such as Martin Yan from the PBS show, Yan Can Cook, and Ken Hom of BBC fame. But no chef influenced him more than Ming Tsai of the popular show, East Meets West. “Ming Tsai would do something we learned in class but put an Eastern spin on it,” Chan said. “It was something I grew up with here in Jacksonville, something my mom had done and her mom had done.”
Recognizing an instant connection with Tsai’s cooking philosophy, Chan called to introduce himself and became the first intern to work under the Emmy-winning chef at his famous Blue Ginger restaurant in Boston. Tsai has been supportive throughout Chan’s entire career, and helped him determine the restaurant’s name. “When he said it should be Blue Bamboo, it was sort of like the Godfather giving his blessing on the name,” Chan said.
The skill, knowledge and experience he gained under Tsai galvanized his idea to open his own restaurant, creating a menu based on the food he loved growing up. “It’s Southern, hip Asian comfort food,” Chan said. “It includes all the flavors of classic Asian recipes but presented in a modern, tasty, and new way.”
At Blue Bamboo, Chan takes pride in delivering personalized service and using only the freshest ingredients from local markets. His signature dishes include sweet and sour pork, a throwback to what he ate as a child, and mandarin orange cake. He loves inventing new recipes and finds inspiration in the smallest thing. This summer, he offered fun “food truck” themed meals that paid homage to food trucks.
Chan also finds inspiration from reading other cookbooks. He enjoys adding to his own home library by shopping at the Friends of the Jacksonville Public Library book warehouse sales, and says he’s “honored” that his own book Hip Asian Comfort Food is part of the library’s extensive cookbook collection. It’s a good bet that anyone who meets Chef Dennis Chan and samples his tasty delights will feel the same way.
Those who choose to attend the ticketed event for My Favorite Cookbook can sample some of Chef Dennis Chan’s delights.