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Chef Kee Chan's Design Firm Aims to Revive Chinatown

By Casey Cora | August 13, 2013 7:22am
 Kee Chan's design studio is charged with overhauling the neighborhood's identity, one restaurant at a time.
KeyConcept Design
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BRIDGEPORT — One day, the beginning of Chinatown’s modern makeover may very well be traced to a nondescript storefront at 28th Street and Wallace Avenue.

It’s where Kee Chan leads a team of designers who work on plans for businesses across the world.

His group, called KeyConcept, recently has turned its focus to Chinatown, upgrading and overhauling a handful of local restaurants.

“How do I change Chinatown into this cool little Asian city?" Chan asked during an interview at the offices, a small, sleek space filled with large computer monitors and shelves jammed with design books.

Apparently, he’ll do it one restaurant at a time, replacing faded awnings with modern backlit graphics and transforming old, grimy interiors into swanky ambiance.

For Chan, 41, of Bridgeport, the intersection of good design and the culinary arts is all about creating a destination: good food, comfortable atmosphere.

But it’s not like he’s comfortable playing it safe.

The Vietnamese-born Chinese immigrant first got his start at Boston’s Restaurant Suntory, part of an elite nationwide chain of Japanese fine-dining restaurants.

He arrived in Chicago to work as a sushi chef at Mirai, a well-regarded Wicker Park sushi restaurant. Years later, he took his first crack at designing restaurants, first at the Asian fusion spot Mulan and later at Lure Izakaya Pub, his Japanese twist on a gastropub, with live music and gimmicky dress-up nights.

Chan was also part of a team behind Heat, a now-shuttered restaurant that gained notoriety (and rave reviews) for its "live menu, where some fish dishes were gutted and served still squirming on the plate."

Part of Chan’s plan throughout the 2000s was to open three or four restaurants around the same spot in Chinatown Square, loosely following the model of Chicago restaurateur and designer Jerry Kleiner.

But the economy tanked in 2007, dragging down with it Chan's ambitions for neighborhood domination, as investors bailed.

With the economy on the rebound, the work has picked up.

Last year, the team was approached by would-be restaurant owner Mickie Lee, who gave the firm vague instructions to create a big, open space in what was once the late-night haven Emerald City.

By April, Lee got her wish: Ahjoomah's Apron has a hip interior to match its brand new modern exterior. The regulars are pouring in alongside the tourists for traditional Korean fare.

"I wanted it to be big and open," she said while standing inside the renovated space at 218 W. Cermak Road. "Kee is a genius when it comes to design."

KeyConcept, with its team of six or seven designers and planners, was also behind another recent restaurant opening, Sze Chuan Cuisine, complete with funky chandeliers, fancy upstairs party rooms and an exterior so bold and new it's literally turning heads on Wentworth Avenue.

The team’s latest project is Strings Ramen Shop, an authentic Japanese noodle café with traditional ramen dishes and late hours. Chan will serve as chef at the space, 2141 S. Archer Ave.

That's all in addition to branding work they've done for Headquarter hair salon,  Joy Yee's Noodle Shop and the Tony Group, Chinatown restaurant impresario Tony Hu's collection of Chinese restaurants in Chicago and beyond.

The firm also handles Web design, video animations and marketing.

"Chicago Chinatown is not at the level of Chinatown's nationwide," Chan said, and he considers it a personal challenge to change that.

"It's a little old-minded, not much has improved. There's no leaders out there [establishing] what the area should look like." he said. "But the locals are already here ... and we're three minutes from McCormick Place, and there's more Chinese from China here, college kids. The old folk never seem to get that.

"I want to diversify the area. Create a destination. That's the easy way to change people's minds."