by Barbara Serf
While many Chestnut Hillers were away vacationing this past summer, Cin Cin Restaurant quietly celebrated its 15 years of being at 7838 Germantown Ave. in June.
“Maybe for the 20th we’ll do something bigger,” said the soft-spoken owner Michael M. Wei, a humble man who believes the natural things in life — like sunsets, animals, beautiful clouds and flowers — spark creativity. Wei, his Cin Cin partner, Henry Lee, and executive chef James Huang sat down recently to talk about Cin Cin, Chestnut Hill and their management style.
“Inside my restaurants you will always see fresh flowers and pictures depicting scenes from nature. I have even named my restaurants with names from nature — Cin Cin, which means ‘fresh spirit of springtime,’ Yangming (in Bryn Mawr), which means ‘sunshine and brightness,’ Nectar (in Berwyn), the sweet syrup of a flower, and so on,” said Wei. Opened in 1996 with cuisine described as “Chinese kissed by French,” Cin Cin has developed a loyal following. Wei also owns Mandarin Garden, which he opened in Willow Grove in 1985, and did own Szechuan East, which he opened in Northeast Philly in 1984, until he sold it in March of this year.
The group of restaurants have received numerous awards. Chinese Restaurant News, a national trade magazine for the Chinese restaurant industry (there are at least 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S.), recently named the 20-year-old Yangming No. 1 in America in its seventh annual “Top 100 Chinese Restaurants” competition. Wei was also named one of the 20 most influential personalities in the American Chinese restaurant industry.
“The award was totally unexpected, so I was shocked to win,” said Michael. “After it finally sank in that my restaurant had been named number one, I felt humble and blessed. I was excited to be able to share with my wonderful, loyal employees who work so hard everyday to make this happen. To be recognized personally is an honor that I will always treasure.”
Over the years, Wei’s restaurants have been showcased at the prestigious James Beard House in Manhattan. Two years ago, Yangming was chosen to present a Chinese New Year’s Banquet at the house where one of America’s most celebrated chefs lived for many years. Last year, Wei and his chefs were invited back to the James Beard House to prepare a French-Asian fusion banquet.
“To be asked not once but twice to present my cuisine there was such a wonderful honor. I would have liked to meet chef Beard when he was alive,” said Wei.
As for his cuisine, Wei believes in fusing food and cultures. “I’m passionate about blending cultures together; the fusion of cuisines from different cultures is my real joy,” said Wei in his Taiwanese accent. “Fusion food makes for a fused community — where all people can blend together and feel equally important.”
Wei believes the key to the longevity of his restaurants has been in being fair to his staff and treating them like family. “I try to be fair and equal to everyone. I share my success, share my profits and never play favorites,” he noted. Asked if he has a favorite restaurant among his group of four, he was quick to respond. “Like children, they are all different. You cannot be asked to pick one. I love them all. They are all very special to me.”
Wei, who prefers not to have his age published, lives in nearby Maple Glen, works 15 hours a day and seven days a week, but he insists that “my employees have helped to maintain consistency in the restaurants, and I know that I could not do this without them.”
“It is like an extended family,” said the ever-smiling Henry Lee from behind his post at the front entrance to Cin Cin. “We treat each other and our customers like family. We have had baby showers here years ago, and now the child is a young adult. We are seeing a new generation of customers. I work 12-hour days with maybe two days off a month, but I just got back from visiting my family in Malaysia and was gone for 17 days straight.”
Lee, 53, has three children, all of whom are in college. “They have no interest in the restaurant business. They have seen the hours I’ve put in, but they also realize it has given them opportunities.”
As for the customers, while Lee knows many by name, he is known as “Mr. Cin Cin.” “I was in Center City going to a concert, and a couple waved to me. ‘Mr. Cin Cin, Mr. Cin Cin,’ they said.”
“I’ve been here at Cin Cin since day one, and the time has gone very swiftly,” said chef Huang while taking a rare trip from the kitchen to sit at a table in the soothing peach-colored restaurant. Huang, who hails from Shanghai, was an engineer in China. “I came here when I was 30. I always liked cooking, and so here I am.” Huang, who attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York state, refers to his menu as a “Four Season Menu” where “we use the freshest, seasonal ingredients.”
Wei noted that all of his award-winning chefs and his managers are partners in the business. “If we do well, then they do well. It’s really quite simple. Having them as partners means that they take pride in the quality of the food and the service. They have an interest in keeping our customers happy and coming back.”
The two top sellers on the menu, offered throughout the year, are the jumbo lump crabcakes ($20.95) served with fresh herbs in a white wine mustard sauce, and the honey-walnut shrimp ($15.95), described as jumbo shrimp sautéed in garlic sauce and topped with house-made honey walnuts. Wei noted that the crabcakes are 95 percent meat with a little bread crumb filler, egg and “Chinese magic” holding them together. They make about 180 of them a week.
As for why Chestnut Hill was selected as the location for Cin Cin, “I’ve always loved old Chestnut Hill. I have a growing and on-going love affair with the neighborhood.”
Early on, nearby neighbors raised concerns about parking, fumes and garbage. As the three men posed for a photo outside, Springfield Avenue residents Sara and Alex Bedrosian stopped to say hello. The couple live in a historic stone house just behind Cin Cin and were very complimentary toward their restaurant neighbors.
“They are friendly and keep the property clean. They help out with snow plowing, and we can walk to this place that not only serves good food, but also has good vibes,” said Alex. “One reason we moved here in January of 2006 is because of the proximity to Cin Cin. We are both addicted to the crab cakes. Everything on their menu is good. We have never had a bad meal here.”
One of six brothers who grew up in Taiwan, Wei came to America in 1970 to study journalism at the University of Missouri. Upon graduating, he then worked for a law firm in Washington, D.C., and at a Chinese restaurant there, where he caught the culinary bug. He then came to Philadelphia to be closer to a brother, William W.S. Wei, who teaches mathematics and statistics at Temple University.
“My mother was a very good cook, and I always liked food and felt creative in the kitchen,” he said. In 1977, he opened his first restaurant, Ming Garden, in Elkins Park. While Ming Garden is no longer open, Wei’s other four restaurants continue to thrive.
Asked how he recharges, Wei likes to travel and visits a different country each year. “This year it was England and Scotland. Very beautiful country. When I am working, my mind is 100 percent on work, but when I vacation, I am all about the relaxing time away from work.
“As an Asian I’ve been raised with the values of finding happiness in working hard and in being creative. My mother was very supportive of everything I did. She was a very positive force in my life,” he added wistfully, as she passed away in 2003. “I think she would have been proud to have seen Cin Cin turn 15 years old and Yangming turn 20.”
For more information, visit www.cincinrestaurant.com or call 215-242-8800.