Quincy’s Laurence Louie, 35, planned on becoming an academic. He even got his master’s degree in American Studies before taking an enormous risk: Without much cooking experience, he sent his resume to Boston’s top restaurants and hoped for the best. Oleana owner Ana Sortun took a chance on him, and Louie stayed in Cambridge for three years before leaving for London to lead the kitchens at Turkish restaurants Kyseri and Oklava, run by noted chef Selin Kiazim.
But his biggest culinary role model is his mom, Boston rock musician and restaurateur Joyce Chan. This month, he takes over her Contempo bakery on Hancock Street in Quincy. Now it has a new name, Rubato, and a new menu, focusing on Hong Kong-style steamed buns. The official ribbon-cutting is slated for Saturday, Aug. 13, at noon, with lion dances and appearances from city politicos.
Tell me about the restaurant.
Sure. So it’s going to be a modern Hong Kong café. We have a pretty small menu; it’s going to be about probably 20 to 25 items — pretty affordable, and it’s all quick-service. It’s these kinds of Hong Kong-inspired dishes that I think really play on nostalgia and comfort food and what that means to me as a Chinese-American chef.
What is a Hong Kong café, for those who don’t know?
There are these things in China called cha chaan teng. These appeared in Hong Kong post-World War II. It was this blended Western Chinese cuisine that took off and got really popular. I think, with immigration from southern China to the US through the ‘70s and stuff, it started to popularize itself in America as well. I grew up on it.
As our generation has grown up, I think we’ve seen less and less of them around Boston Chinatown, at least, and I don’t know about other cities, but it’s something I really missed and I always looked for. I spent a little bit of time in Hong Kong, and that was the opportunity to jump back. Whenever I saw one, I was like, “This feels familiar. It feels like childhood.”
What’s it like to take over a business from your mom?
Essentially, my mom was a full-time Boston public school teacher. She taught at Charlestown High School for 30-plus years. In the year 2000, if my math is right, she decided to open a bakery because she had a rock band that was called Contempo. My mom’s a rock star. She had a pretty locally famous band; they did a lot of gigs in Chinatown and played at all the organization banquets and stuff. It was called Contempo, a Chinese rock cover band. She’s the band leader. She plays keyboard, but also knows guitar, drums, bass. It’s mostly Chinese rock, but then some English classics like The Beatles and “Stand By Me.”
They had a practice space in Chinatown. As you know, I think it was being gentrified, and there was a rent increase that she couldn’t afford. It wasn’t a for-profit band or anything; they just kind of made a bit of money here and there to buy dinner for the band members and buy some new equipment. But it was just kind of a hobby and for fun.
So she teamed up with her lead singer and her drummer, who was also at the time working as a baker, and they opened a bakery together in Quincy to have space for the band and to build a business out of it. She did well and kind of became a local staple in Quincy — so much so that, it’s kind of crazy, actually, the more people I’ve been talking to, chefs around the city, they say, “Yeah, I know that place! That’s your mom?” It’s really sweet that it’s come full circle in a really cool way.
During the pandemic, essentially, my wife and I were living in London. I was working as a chef there. We originally had plans to open a restaurant in London, and there was an investor lined up and all that, but this was all pre-pandemic. Once the pandemic hit, it was just all a no-go. The investor pulled back. I remember having a conversation with my wife talking about: Are we ready to spend the next several years here, maybe to build a family in London? We had prepared for that. But I think, once the pandemic hit, everything changed.
My mom called me — she’s 68 this year — and said, “I want to retire. Do you want this space?” She’d asked me before, but I never jumped at it. I’ve always done more upscale cooking at nicer, fancier restaurants. So I was like, “I want to be in the city; I want a bigger space with more seats and a more modern kitchen.” All that stuff. But I think, the more we thought about it, the more this just seemed like a really great opportunity for both of us. Reevaluating a lot of things in life during COVID, this just seemed like it came at the right time. We both felt good. And my wife and I looked at each other: “Are we moving back to the US? OK, let’s go then!”
How’s the food scene different in London than it is here?
I mean, it’s just huge. It’s so much bigger. You know, there’s a lot more competition. … There are a lot more big-name chefs doing things there. And it’s a bigger stage for sure. … I would argue it’s probably a top-five food city in the world in terms of reputation and whatever the rankings are, Michelin stars, or whatever it is.
Did you always want to be a chef? What were your early food memories?
I grew up in Brookline. I never had dreams to be a chef. I think inherently, growing up the son of Chinese immigrants, food has always played a big role. It was always present. Again, for better or for worse, I think it was probably the biggest form of communication to show affection or to show care.
I’ve always liked eating. I was always an eater as a child. That always stuck with me. I went to Rutgers for college and had my degree in history. Then I went to UMass Boston for my master’s in American Studies. I planned to become a professor. And, you know, I was really interested in Asian-American history, but I realized that academics was not for me.
I started working at the Chinese Progressive Association in Chinatown, which is a nonprofit that does grassroots organizing work in the community. I ran the youth program there for probably four years or so, maybe a bit longer. And I then took a year off just to kind of reassess life and what I wanted to do. I went to China, which is where I met my wife. In that self-reflective year, I think I realized how important food was in connecting this piece around community and trying to fight for, you know, the people that I cared for and the people that I loved, with my childhood and food being a love language. And I think this was the intersection for me in my life.
When I got back from China in 2014 I started to, on a whim, try to find a job as a chef and start from the beginning. I’ve always wanted a restaurant. I wanted to do it right. I wanted to start from square one. So I just kind of sent my blank chef resume to a bunch of people and got two callbacks. One was at Ten Tables, the one in Cambridge. Then I got a call back from Oleana in Cambridge. I took the job at Oleana, and I really lucked out. They were really nurturing; they were great. Chef Ana Sortun is a talented, amazing person. The head chef there was great. I was there for three years before moving to London.
Growing up in Brookline, were there restaurants you loved as a kid? Maybe they don’t even exist anymore.
We didn’t eat out that much. We’d go to McDonald’s. We’d go to Friendly’s. But I would say my favorite restaurants growing up were all in Chinatown. For dim sum, Hei Lei Moon and China Pearl. Asian Garden in Chinatown came up, and actually part of it was that they were one of the only ones that were doing Hong Kong-style brunch kind of stuff. So I always went there, but their food is really good. I always had breakfast with my mom; there were always American pancakes and sausages and bacon and stuff like that with my mom. There’s a local diner in the area in Chestnut Hill that we went to. I think it was the Chestnut Hill Diner.
Is your mom going to be working with you at all?
My mom is more of a community liaison. She’s not going to be working. She’s offered, but I told her she needs to enjoy her retirement and take it easy. She can come hang out if she wants, but I don’t want to put her to work. My wife has a full-time job as a client success manager for a company in Austin, Texas, but she’s been a big creative force, working on the marketing and pushing the public piece of it. Then I’m kind of in the back, doing the day-to-day operations. Cooking, obviously. And then managing the staff.
Where do you eat when you’re not working?
I love to eat! There’s a place called Ming Seafood in Quincy that’s fairly new, but it’s a great location, and we love going there. In Cambridge, there’s so many good restaurants. We usually probably go out to Cambridge to eat. The Oleana patio is always an absolute joy. And, most recently, we went to Mahaniyom in Brookline. That was one of the places that really reminded us of London; it has some really good Thai food. It was really reminiscent of that for us.
One hundred percent: Chocolate chip cookies. Not particularly good ones, either, any kind of cheap Shaw’s brand. Costco. I don’t know. Not particularly artisan ones at all.
What are you most excited about on your menu?
The most exciting dish for me is the fried chicken bolo bao, being a classic Cantonese and Hong Kong bao, a snack or breakfast. We’re putting our twist on it by making it into a fried chicken sandwich.