First-generation Chinese American chef Ray Hui brings the special to Gan Shan West

Asheville can thank Shakey Graves for bringing Ray Hui to town, and restaurateur Patrick O’Cain for giving him reason to stay. The first-generation Chinese American has come a long way from rolling cutlery in a booth of his parents’ restaurant in Fort Myers, Florida, but he digs into those roots in his role as executive chef of Gan Shan West.

“I came up here with a friend to see Shakey Graves at the Orange Peel,” Hui says. “We went hiking, we ate at Curate and a couple other Asheville restaurants, and it was so great, so different from Florida. I moved here in 2016 and got a job at Asheville Pizza. It was my first time living on my own.”

But not the first time in a restaurant. Hui’s parents were from southern China and wanted to live in a region of the U.S. also near water, with the heat and humidity they were accustomed to. They settled in Fort Myers, first working in other people’s restaurants before purchasing their own.

From a young age, Hui helped his mother in the front of house, doing side work, then bussing and serving. His interest in cooking was piqued watching his father cook at home. “Even working so many hours, and no matter how tight money was, he made sure we had something good to eat.”

When Hui was finally allowed in the restaurant kitchen, the first lesson was, “’Don’t get in the way.’ That was definitely the case with my dad. I got a role I could do – washing rice – and stayed out of the way.”

Still, from his vantage point, he studiously watched his father as he cooked; eventually, his father watched Hui, and made suggestions to improve his skills.  He began helping with prep and graduated to making sushi. At home, he watched Food Network, read cooking blogs and researched cuisines and techniques.

The last thing his parents wanted was for him to go into the restaurant business. “They knew how hard it was and they spent their lives working to provide a better life for my brother and me.”

Hui got his degree from a local university and had what he calls a ‘semi-career’ as an IT professional. But it didn’t take. “I was always interested in technology and still am, but sitting at a desk is not for me. I was still working part time for my parents and doing the IT thing.”

Then came the fateful trip to Asheville, which confirmed what he already knew. He loved to cook, and Fort Myers was not going to satisfy his curiosity or ambition. “It’s beautiful there, all the beaches, but what made me move away was there wasn’t a lot of excitement in the restaurants there, or appreciation for new things. When I visited Asheville, I saw a whole world of possibilities.”

One of those was part-time work as a line cook at Gan Shan Station, the pan-Asian restaurant Patrick O’Cain opened in a refurbished service station in 2014. “Working there opened my eyes to see what a next-level restaurant could be,” Hui recalls. “It was making food to give people experiences. The Chef’s Table was so cool and let you interact with diners. It was an open kitchen and almost like being on stage. I loved it.”

He went full time, and eventually became sous chef. When O’Cain sold Gan Shan Station (to fellow restaurateur Eric Scheffer) in January 2020, he moved Hui to Gan Shan West and promoted him to chef de cuisine. “I had never been in charge of a kitchen, and I didn’t think I was ready for that,” Hui admits. “I asked Patrick if he was sure. He said, ‘I’m sure. You’re ready.’ I will always be grateful for him having that confidence in me.”

Two months later, Covid put the restaurant industry on a runaway car on a roller coaster. Luckily, O’Cain’s confidence in Hui was merited. “My first time running a kitchen and the world blew up. The model of how restaurants run got flipped on its head. It was a crazy time.”

Gan Shan West immediately locked in on take-out – a model Hui had witnessed firsthand at his parents’ restaurant – and Gan Shan West was slammed with orders. They added a second phone line, then online ordering and saw a tremendous spike in sales of menu staples like the customizable rice bowl.

In October 2023, Scheffer purchased Gan Shan West, and named Hui executive chef. Though he spent much of the first two years at Gan Shan navigating pandemic pivots, when things settled, Hui began adding weekly specials – often drawing lessons from his father —  announced in a weekly Thursday email that drives curious regulars to try something different.

Hui describes the five specials recently added to the Gan Shan West menu:

  • Wonton soup – Made with ground chicken, coriander and scallions, wrapped in wontons, in a chicken broth with char siu pork.
  • Char siu ribs – A very basic Chinese dish, like the ones my dad serves at his restaurant.  Slow-smoked pork ribs, glazed with a Cantonese BBQ sauce that has smoked confit garlic, brown sugar, hoisin, and a touch of five spice, served with hot mustard and bread & butter pickles.
  • Cold sesame noodles – These hold a memory for lots of people who had take-out Chinese in New York. It’s cold noodles with peanut butter and sesame paste, very creamy, slightly sweet and sour, with lots of scallions and peanuts.
  • Mongolian beef – This dish has a great history behind it, but it’s not Mongolian. It is credited to a political refugee who opened a food stall. It is marinated flank steak with a dark, sweet soy glaze, and stir fried with onion and dried hot chili.
  • Kung Pao chicken – This is a more authentic version than people are used to. It’s marinated chicken thighs, shishito peppers, carrots, dried chilis, pickled celery, oyster sauce, peanuts and Szechuan peppercorns, which gives it the numbing, tingling feeling we call mala. It’s buzzy.

There will always be a spot on the Gan Shan West menu for favorites like rice bowls, dumplings, ramen, Japanese fries, Dan Dan Brussels and General Tso’s chicken (which started as a special). “They are things that people find comfort in. It’s one of the things I love about Asheville, the intimate relationship between owners and diners that is built on trust. They come for the things they love, then trust you enough to try something new.”

Written by Kay West