Thomas “Tommy” Yee Chung
In the Beginning:
Members of the Chung family arrived in the United States from China in 1862 settling in San Francisco. In 1892 Tommy’s grandfather, Wah Hing Chung, was hired to be a chef at the Arlington Hotel and the family relocated to Santa Barbara. After working at the Arlington, his grandfather opened the Wah Hing Chung Laundry at 21 West Carrillo Street and later moved the business to 113 W. De la Guerra Street. The Chung’s were originally from Guangdong Province in southern China and Tommy’s father, Jimmy, joined the family in Santa Barbara at age 12 in 1922. The laundry closed down in the early 1940’s about a decade after Wah Hing’s death. Jimmy Yee Chung had worked at his dad’s laundry, but somewhere along the line decided he wanted to open his own business. In late 1936 he opened the The Friendly Cafe on West Cabrillo Blvd and upstairs was a Chinese restaurant, the Nanking Gardens owned by Fun Yee. In 1940 Jimmy closed the Friendly Cafe and opened Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens at 330 West Cabrillo. A few years later he moved two doors down to 320 W. Cabrillo.
Tommy was the second son of James (Jimmy) and Nuey Yee Chung. He was born on September 17, 1942 in St Francis Hospital in Santa Barbara and was a first-generation American. As a child Tommy was often sick and his parents decided that moving away from the chilly ocean air might be good for Tommy. In 1947 they moved into Santa Barbara’s Chinatown and relocated Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens to 126 East Canon Perdido. The Chung’s were the last Chinese family to reside in the heart of old Santa Barbara Chinatown. Tommy was quoted in previous articles: “When I was a boy, we lived in the house out back. I did all the scrub work, washed dishes and stocked shelves.” Later in the story he was asked what made the place so special, “I think this place has a family feeling that extends to the clientele.”
Education/Being a cook:
Tommy graduated from Santa Barbara High School in 1960 and played on the varsity football team for two years. He was known for his quickness and speed on the offensive team, which he attributed to his mother Nuey and her servings of chicken feet, a Chinese delicacy that Tommy claimed to have made him run faster. He continued his studies at University of San Francisco (USF), majoring in Business. While at USF, he worked as a cook’s aide in the student cafeteria. In the spring of 1966 Tommy still had credits to complete for graduation. But when he came home that summer he could see the long hours his mother toiled in the kitchen and his father worked at the bar, had been taking a toll on them. Tommy knew they needed his help so he declared he was done with college and was home to stay. He was going to put on the apron and help out at the restaurant. Jimmy insisted Tommy finish school and receive his degree. Tommy declared he was home to stay and help with the restaurant. After a number of heated family discussions, Tommy won.
This decision marked his full time involvement with the restaurant. Tommy’s typical day started with food preparation around 11 AM, roasting barbecue pork and ribs and making a variety of sauces. Often this was followed by his running errands for the restaurant, something he enjoyed until the day he died – shopping and looking for a good deal whether it be food, kitchen supplies, or just about anything he fancied. He cooked next to his mother and learned the skills of a cook until about 10 PM when dinner service ended. Then he would go back to their home, (just in back of the restaurant) to shower and wash off the cooking grease. Changing into his neatly pressed shirt and slacks, Tommy went back to relieve Jimmy at the bar, so his dad could go back to their house, kick his shoes off, and get his much needed rest.
The bar closed at 2 AM and after the last “guest” left, Tommy would close down the restaurant. Often close friends would stay on and continue to drink “after hours” and continue to chat and laugh. They just had to keep their voices down so the police were not attracted.
Tommy returned to USF in the summer of 1967 to try to finish his Business Degree. His father had convinced Tommy they could spare him for that short period of time. But with the cancellation of one of the courses he needed, Tommy returned home needing just two units to complete his studies and receive his Baccalaureate in Business.
After the unexpected passing of Jimmy in 1970, Tommy assumed more responsibility at the restaurant in order to keep his promise to his father he would do his best to operate Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens and continue to make it a success. Tommy may not have finished his Baccalaureate, but if his mother Nuey was Chancellor of the University of Jimmy O, Tommy would be the Dean of the University. Together with his mother, Tommy accepted, housed, mentored, trained and provided opportunities for numerous young men and women who lived and worked at Jimmy’s during their growing and maturing years. They all went on to successful careers after matriculating from the University of Jimmy O.
Tommy took a trip to Hong Kong in the summer of 1968. He was exposed to a multitude of Chinese foods he had never seen or tasted before. Instead of simply enjoying the food, he was curious about how these dishes were prepared, what ingredients were used and how the dishes were cooked. His incessant questions about ingredients and food preparation at every meal drove Leo, his traveling companion crazy. (Leo Lin was a freshman at USF and worked, as a dishwasher while Tommy was a cook’s aide in the USF cafeteria. They struck up a friendship that lasted a lifetime). Leo told Tommy “If you are so anxious to learn, why don’t you take a cooking class while you are in Hong Kong?” Tommy did and it started his passion for cooking. He started with mimicking dishes he tasted, went on to creating his own recipes, developing his own cooking style, and experimenting with different ingredients to complement his dishes. Tommy carried on with this passion even after he retired in 2006, when he closed Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens.
Local Hero Award:
In 1997, Tommy won an Independent “Local Hero Award” for his wise and wonderful stewardship of the venerable restaurant. It stated: For decades, Jimmy’s has maintained its role as one of the city’s major comfort scenes. On any given day, the bar crowd moves from blue collar watering hole to artist’s salon, as the venue morphs from happy hour specials to after-theatre rendezvous, Tommy Chung maintains the helm, giving great quiet support to his faithful staff and clientele. Thanks to Tommy’s sustained vision, it is more than a kitchen or bar… it’s the kind of place where everybody knows your name.
Husband, Father, Grandfather, Uncle:
Tommy met Julie through a close family friend, Kenneth Pai in the early 90’s. They fell in love and were married on Dec. 6, 1995 at the Santa Barbara Courthouse in the Mural Room. Later, he adopted Julie’s son Andy. Julie had her own successful Chinese restaurant in Camarillo but closed it to be with Tommy. She would work alongside Tommy at Jimmy’s until the family closed the business on July 29, 2006.
After closing Jimmy’s, Tommy moved to Camarillo and fully embraced his retirement and family life. During this time, he was able to pursue his favorite hobby of thrift store shopping and bringing home “goods” of all sorts. Tommy then went on several vacations with his family such as trips to China, Europe, and an Alaskan cruise where he always ensured everyone had a full experience by doing the excursions and other special events. One of the fondest family vacation memories took place during the Alaskan cruise where they got to helicopter up to a glacier and were able to go sledding with the famous Iditarod dogs. In the summer of 2011, Tommy proudly welcomed Andy’s wife Eng to the family, where he hosted a beautiful wedding banquet in San Gabriel. A year later, when his grandson Nicholas was born, Tommy became a proud grandfather. Nicholas was his pride and joy. They had instantly formed a special bond together.
Tommy is survived by his wife Julie, son Andy and his wife Eng, and grandson Nicholas; his sister Barbara Yee Chung and older brother Bill Yee Chung (Amy); nieces Doris, Cheryl (Steven Zaffuto) and Jade and nephews Jeffery and Jerry.
A memorial celebration will be held at Conejo Mountain Funeral Home in Camarillo, Saturday, August 10, at 11 a.m. Visitation begins at 10 a.m.
If you wish to make a donation in Tommy’s name, the family requests Leukemia/Lymphoma Society by clicking HERE, or a local Cancer organization of your choice.
Photo credit: Kim Reierson