Chifa: Humberto Leon’s Peruvian-Chinese restaurant opens in LA
The Opening Ceremony cofounder is infusing his latest project with community
Tuesday 12 April 2022 By Erin Mosbaugh Photography by Jun Lu
Humberto Leon does things his own way; he loves building community and he has fun. These three principles get infused into everything he touches, and it’s what makes his projects so captivating. ‘If it’s not fun, I don’t think we’d be doing it,’ he says about the Peruvian-Chinese restaurant, Chifa, that he opened with his family in the Eagle Rock neighbourhood of Los Angeles.
Chifa was a pivot for Leon, who cofounded cult fashion boutique Opening Ceremony in 2002 in the Lower East Side and served as creative director of Kenzo for eight years. But to him, creating a restaurant and a retail space aren’t so dissimilar. ‘It’s never about following a trend. We run things the way we want to run things,’ he explains. And that’s exactly what’s so attractive about Chifa, from its zebra-print wallpaper (a collaboration with Calico) and heart-shaped windows to its unusual hours (it’s open three days a week from 4pm to 9pm) and recontextualisation of traditional, nourishing Chinese dishes.
Take the Brulee Char Siu, made from pork jowl – an incredibly marbled and rich cut – instead of the more traditional tenderloin. It’s glazed with beet juice, maple syrup, and a handful of secret ingredients, then grilled over four types of wood until sticky and crisp on the edges. ‘We’re serving the dishes we love to cook and eat at home, because it’s the healthiest, most delicious and simple food that we know,’ explains Leon. ‘Traditional Chinese dishes are as difficult to prepare as Japanese, French and Italian dishes, if not more difficult,’ he adds. It’s that attention to excellence inherent in Chinese food, as well as the opportunity to reimagine what a ‘family restaurant’ can be, that gets Leon going.
He knows that, like a retail space, a restaurant can be a place to foster community and inspire collaboration. Just as he did at Opening Ceremony, Leon uses Chifa as a platform to highlight the work of talented creatives. The restaurant’s pitchers and creamers, shaped like eagles, were made by ceramicist Linda Hsiao of Knotwork LA. Leon partnered with Sweet Saba on a capsule collection of edible jewellery inspired by his mother’s jade collection, available on Chifa’s website. The restaurant recently housed a collection of sculptures by Los Angeles artist Charlie Mai, ‘who takes 1950s and 1960s vintage Asian porcelain dolls and reconfigures them,’ explains Leon. Rashida Jones, another LA native, collaborated on a playlist for the dining room.
‘My mom looks at the weather and says, today is kind of dry, so I think we need daikon and pears in our body’
Leon’s ultimate collaborator and muse is his mother, Wendy Leon (better known as Popo Wendy), who opened the first iteration of Chifa in Lima, Peru in 1975. She moved the kids from Peru to Highland Park (which neighbours Eagle Rock) in 1977 to get them American citizenship. Unfortunately, she had to give up her restaurant and profession as collateral. Now that Chifa is back, Wendy is in the kitchen cooking up dishes like her wellness soup, which she changes each day depending on the weather. ‘My mom looks at the weather and says, today is kind of dry, so I think we need daikon and pears in our body.’
The Leons are so enamoured with the restaurant life that they’re opening a second spot this year in Arcadia, featuring Hong Kong cafe food with a nod to the family’s Cantonese heritage. And just like they’ve done with Chifa, the Leons will be doing things their own way and creating a restaurant like Los Angeles has never seen before.