How chef Ron Hsu pays tribute to his late mother through food.
Hop on the rug with us — and get to know how restauranteur and chef Ron Hsu lives life well.
When Ron Hsu was a kid, his mom convinced the principal at his school to let the bus drop him off at their family’s restaurant and not at home. “She did it in exchange for a free meal from our Chinese restaurant,” he says. “When we studied China in Geography or History, she would donate a box lunch for my entire class.” She used food as a bartering system, to make sure she could raise her children under her eye.
As the son of immigrants who worked non-stop, Hsu spent most of his time at his parents’ restaurant. It’s there where he started learning the skills that would later help him one day establish and run his own restaurant. And it was Hsu's mom who would inspire him to open Lazy Betty, in Atlanta, where he is also the culinary director.
The business of becoming a chef
Arriving in the US from Taiwan when she was 19, Betty moved the family to Georgia when she had saved up enough money to take over a restaurant, before opening their own spot, called Hunan Village. After finishing his homework, 10-year-old Hsu would get to peeling giant bags of onions – “as big as I was” – at the restaurant. It instilled a solid work ethic in him, and also fostered a sense of familiarity in the kitchen.
But he didn’t always know he’d become a chef. After school, Hsu studied business at the University of Georgia, but wasn’t enjoying it. “I’d always worked in my parents’ restaurant and part time at other restaurants, to earn money, and I really enjoyed cooking,” he says. Going through what he says was a quarter-life crisis, trying to figure out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, led him to culinary school.
“One of my roommates at the time suggested that I consider being a chef,” he says. “I always liked cooking but I was also always a little on the fence about it, because my parents wanted me to have more of a white-collar job, like a doctor or a lawyer or something like that.” But once he decided he wanted to pursue a career in the culinary world, and told his mom, she was ready to give him her support.
“I had gone into that conversation thinking that she would be more willing to give me her blessing if I planned on finishing college first, but when I told her she was like, ‘Why even bother with finishing college? Why don't you go straight to culinary school and don't waste your time?’” She did, however, suggest he also spend time in “a more serious kitchen,” and if he still wanted to do it three months later, she’d give her full blessing. Hsu did that, working as a line cook at an Athens pizzeria and then a tapas bar, and Betty kept her word too.
Opening his own spot
After enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu in Australia, he returned to Atlanta a year and a half later, where Hsu began working in a popular French dining room. Soon after, he found himself in New York, as line cook at the 3-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin, and would go on, years later, to become its creative director. All of this gave Hsu the experience he needed to go into his own venture.
Lazy Betty, a restaurant centered on a multicultural tasting menu, opened in February 2019. The name is a play on a family joke, poking fun at the zestful energy Betty, who passed away in May 2019, had. And even as Hsu has had to navigate the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit his business in its infancy, her influence has remained on – both in the restaurant and its approach to hospitality, as well as in his own life.
Posted by Lazy Betty - Atlanta on Wednesday, May 29, 2019
“I take a lot of my mom's tenacity and stubbornness,” says Hsu. “To not fail and to not give up. I would say that’s probably been the key factor in surviving the pandemic and being able to get a restaurant off the ground.” Hsu did what so many had to during the early stages of the pandemic, and pivoted – moving from a tasting menu to family-style take-out, and also co-opening a more casual spot, called Juniper Cafe. He also has a pizza spot opening later this year, called Humble Pie.
Just like Betty did what she needed to do to provide for her family, so Hsu has done. “If I'm not providing for my family or providing a workplace for my staff, then I’ve let everyone down," he says. "There's really no other recourse. I can't just stop cooking and stop running a restaurant and decide to become a lawyer or an architect or something. I have to make it work. I don't have other options. You've to either figure it out or or you've got to give up. And I don't want to give up; I want to figure out a way to get it done.”
It's a can-do, will-try approach Betty would surely be proud of.
Header photo by Andrew Thomas Lee.