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From army cook to bistro chef, he knows how to feed hungry people
By Leah A. Zeldes | Daily Herald Correspondent

Chef Jack Liang cooks traditional Sichuan cuisine and specialties from other Chinese regions at Asian Bistro in Arlington Heights.


Daniel White | Staff Photographer

Chicken Wrapped in Lettuce Leaves


Daniel White | Staff Photographer

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Published: 8/27/2008 12:07 AM

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Jack Liang first started cooking in the Taiwanese army. The chef-owner of Asian Bistro in Arlington Heights grew up in Taiwan, and learned Sichuan cooking from his mother and grandfather, who came from the Chinese province.

His family emigrated to the U.S. while he was doing his required military service, and he followed after his discharge. At first, Liang worked as a salesman in Ohio, and then started working in restaurants.

Liang and his family ran Whey Chai restaurant in Racine, Wis., from 1993 to 2004, before opening Asian Bistro in 2004. The restaurant specializes in Sichuan cuisine, with some dishes from elsewhere in China and Taiwan, as well as Thailand and Vietnam.

Liang spoke with some interpretation from his sister, M.J. Hohl. He and his wife, Angel, who also works at Asian Bistro, and their 7-year-old son, Kaile, live in Rolling Meadows.

What led you to become a chef? I started cooking in the army. The army's not like family style. It's not fancy - it's only to feed people that are hungry.

When I came here, I worked for somebody else to get experience. I had to learn how to use a deep fryer.

Chefs make people happy; I like to see people happy.

Why Sichuan food? Our grandparents came from Sichuan province in China. My mom, she's from Sichuan. And my wife is, too. My grandfather, he was a very good cook. I just loved the food he cooked. I couldn't cook exactly the same taste he did.

What's the difference between the Sichuan and Taiwanese cuisines? Sichuan food is hot, spicy. In Taiwan, the food we eat is lighter, and it's more seafood, because it's all surrounded by water.

Do you cook traditional fare or make up new dishes? Mostly, it's traditional. We do change things sometimes depending on the customer.

Do you have trouble getting the ingredients? Today, we are here in Chicago and I can find most ingredients. But when I was in Wisconsin, I couldn't find anything.

What brought you to the Chicago area? In Wisconsin, we never saw any Asian people. They thought we were Japanese. They thought all Asians were the same thing. Here, more people like Sichuan food. They like spicy food.

Why did you come to the United States? America is a free country. It's paradise. My country is so small. The pollution is so bad. You take off your glasses and it's like you have a suntan. In my country, we say, "In America, the moon is bigger." Because you don't have pollution.

What do you like to do in your spare time? I'm teaching my son to fish. I like to fish in the Fox River. White bass is my favorite. White bass, perch, crappie. I go ice fishing, everything.

Do you eat your catch or are you worried about pollution? I eat most of what I catch. You die, you die. Don't worry. Just enjoy life.

Is there anything about you that might surprise people? My marriage was arranged. My aunt and her aunt, they fixed it up. I went there and we got married. You have to take a picture together and get a blood test. Then we had to do the paperwork to bring her here. I came back to the U.S. I went back to see her once. She had the baby all by herself in China.

When my wife first came here, I felt weird. I had somebody I had to account to.

Tell us about this recipe: Chicken wrapped in lettuce leaves. This isn't a Sichuan recipe. I don't where it comes from - it's probably Cantonese or Mandarin - but it's easy to make at home. A lot of the Sichuan dishes I make use ingredients that are hard to find, even in Chinatown, especially if you can't read the labels. We use everything imported from China. Sometimes I order, and they say, "You have to wait. The ship is coming."

Try this at home or at Asian Bistro, Arlington Towne Square, 65 W. Golf Road, Arlington Heights. (847) 439-5888,

• To recommend a chef to be profiled, write food@

Chicken wrapped in lettuce leaves

½ egg yolk

1 tablespoon rice wine

½ teaspoon cornstarch

6 ounces chicken breast, finely chopped

3 tablespoons cooking oil, divided

Salt to taste

2 dried black mushrooms, soaked in water till soft, drained and finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped bamboo shoots

2 cloves garlic, chopped

Ground white pepper to taste

1 teaspoon Asian roasted sesame oil

1 tablespoon white wine

Rice noodles, deep-fried till crisp and drained

Lettuce leaves (any kind, best if in a half round shape), washed and dried

Whisk together the egg yolk, wine and cornstarch and combine with the chopped chicken.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a wok or saute pan over medium-high heat. Stir-fry the chicken until thoroughly cooked; add salt to taste. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the mushrooms to the same pan, stir-frying until you can smell their aroma; then add the bamboo shoots and salt to taste. Cook a few minutes more and then remove from the pan.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil and stir-fry the garlic just until fragrant. Do not cook the garlic too long; it'll turn black. Return the chicken mixture to the pan and stir-fry together. Add white pepper to taste, splash in sesame oil and white wine, then just couple more stirs and take out immediately. Place on a serving plate or bowl and mix in the deep-fried rice noodles.

Let your guests serve themselves by spooning onto the lettuce and rolling up.

Serves two to four as an appetizer; one as an entree.

Chef Jack Liang, Asian Bistro, Arlington Heights