Longtime Austin restaurateur CK Chin has a bit of a reputation as the consummate host. You might catch a glimpse on Instagram of Chin taking care of the Wu Tang Clan or Captain America himself (actor Chris Evans) at either of his restaurants — Swift’s Attic and Wu Chow. And his prowess for creating a good time for all is partially why news of his involvement in the upcoming revamp of the HOPE Outdoor Gallery was met with such excitement. If an art gallery is also going to have music and food, who better to call?
It turns out Chin’s friends know this, too. “With a lot of people in my life, there’s no obvious reason why we’re connected — the reason is we shared a meal,” he says. “And the ongoing joke among my friends has always been, ‘Let’s invite CK over and have him cook for us.’”
While this happens at houses across the city, Chin’s own downtown apartment is a little too cozy for the crowds his gatherings attract. However, the meals Chin collaborates on with friends and business partners Paul and Denise Smith in their Austin home have recently become “kinda legendary.” Working together under the name Goldsmith Entertainment, this trio has turned hosting into a harmony. Chin and Denise handle the cooking and menu planning (increasingly more of a “yes, and” exercise), while Paul happily serves as the glue guy, handling grill starting, dish finishing and occasional tequila pouring.
Chin wasn’t always so welcome as a guest star in kitchens. He grew up in Houston, raised by his mother and grandmother. He named Wu Chow after his grandmother and says her classic Chinese cooking influenced the restaurant’s flavor profile. But he did not learn to cook from her — Grandma never really let him in the kitchen. The future restaurateur didn’t start cooking for himself until he left for Texas A&M, where he quickly became the kind of Aggie who wouldn’t stick to the classic ramen packet. “I was the guy who was putting bok choy in there or poaching an egg, trying a different spin every time,” he says. “The first step is to enjoy eating, right? If you like to eat, you want to know how it’s made.”
Improvisation is something Chin has embraced ever since. Swift’s Attic’s famous laid-back atmosphere and hip-hop soundtrack, for instance? Chin just happened to open the place on the night The Beastie Boys’ MCA died in 2012, and he thought it felt appropriate to blast “Brass Monkey” after an impromptu, late-service moment of silence. “Eating quail while listening to Biggie Smalls? No one’s ever done that, so we started doing that every night,” he says. “So much fun.” Now that’s as much a part of the place’s fabric as Swift’s over-the-top burgers.
When it comes to cooking, Chin uses the same approach. He thinks his openness to a good whim came partially from his uncle, the only chef in his family. The Swift’s team once wanted to add a scallion pancake to the menu, so Chin volunteered to call up his uncle and get the family recipe. And, well, it was all casual to say the least. Enough flour so things aren’t wet; add fat till things are shiny. “I gave that to my chef: bowl of flour, just enough water, fat till it’s shiny,” Chin recalls. “Good luck.”
Talk to Denise about cooking with Chin during their now-routine monthly gatherings, and she might say the same thing. She asks if the cilantro rice — it’s tradition to always do one entirely new dish, and tonight this is it — needs lime juice or zest. “Why not both?” Chin responds.
“He’s so good at winging it but somehow nailing it,” Denise says. “He’ll be so late when we have people coming over, but he always pulls it off right on time, which is infuriating to me because I’m up prepping the night before.”
Chin may work in globs and Denise in grams, but together they groove like the jazz bands working a few floors below Swift’s at the Elephant Room. It’s easy to see why the duo’s Sunday Suppers have become a bit of a thing. Guests recall previous gatherings centered around classic Italian fare or roast chicken done several ways, and this day’s taco-inspired spread for 12 has something for everyone. That is, if folks aren’t already stuffed from Denise’s gallery-worthy cheese-and-charcuterie spread.
Tender beef comes off the grill, cooked at all levels of preparation. The nice thing about grilling flank and skirt steak, Chin notes, is that you get the whole array from rare to well done. Chin’s “Asian guacamole” is bright and produce forward, with chunks of avocado and cilantro and ample lime. What makes it Asian guacamole, you ask? “An Asian person made it,” he jokes — though in this case it also means adding more lime and cilantro. And the cilantro rice prompts one guest to admit she’d even take cooking classes from these two. It has the indulgent silkiness of fried rice while echoing the bright flavors of the guacamole. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Chin’s cilantro rice puts Chipotle’s universally beloved version to shame.
As another guest contemplates seconds, he sums up the experience for anyone — from celebrity to restaurant guest, or friend of a friend — lucky enough to break bread with Chin: “When people hear it’s going down, they clear their schedules.”
By Nathan Mattise • Photography by Dustin Meyer