Ed Culleeney had been working for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc.  in Chicago since 1985, helping to develop and manage several of its concepts including the Mexican-theme Hat Dance, which he later helped to transform into Nacional 27 . In 1996, company president Richard Melman called one day from Los Angeles.
“He found this restaurant that he fell in love with,” Culleeney says. “The food was so good he had to go back to it three days in a row.”
The place was a popular neighborhood Chinese restaurant named Mandarette . Melman wanted something like it for his multiconcept restaurant company, and he wanted Culleeney on the team that would develop LEYE’s first Chinese eatery.
Culleeney had never worked with Chinese cuisine before, so he traveled first to Mandarette to work with chef-owner Tony Cheung and then to Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong to learn the intricacies of traditional Asian cooking.
Working with a cuisine you weren’t familiar with wasn’t easy, was it?
It was difficult. I had run a Mexican restaurant for 11 years, and I found myself out of my realm. I thought, “Wow, this is completely different.” I immersed myself in all aspects of the operation. I worked on a wok and thought my right arm was about to fall off. It’s all about technique in Chinese cuisine. I really learned a lot.
What memorable experiences did you have in the Far East?
We would go into these restaurants, and we would be immersed in 10 or 20 dishes. It was enlightening to see all these different types of food. The people I met were all very warm and very open to us.
Were there some Chinese dishes you tried that you knew wouldn’t appeal to American diners?
We would go into the restaurants and have bird’s nest and shark’s fin, and we knew we could never make a dish like that in Chicago.
How did diners react to the style of cooking you brought back to Ben Pao?FAST FACTS
AGE: 49 BIRTHPLACE: Oak Park, Ill. EDUCATION: bachelor’s degree in hospitality management from Roosevelt University in Chicago HOBBIES: Italian cooking, home improvement, studying and drinking wine, and reading self-help and motivational books
When we adapted it in Chicago, people didn’t get it at first. When we opened the restaurant, people’s expectations were so different. We just did everything contradictory to what people do here. We really struggled for a long time to the point where we were close to redeveloping the concept in the first six months. Tony [Cheung] thought we were nuts. He said: “Stay the course. Within three months you’ll make money.” It was almost three, three and a half months when it started coming around.
Why were customers’ expectations so different?
They know we’re not authentic Chinese, but they want us to take those menu items and elevate them. What we have to do is take an item like a beef dish and elevate it and just serve prime beef. In today’s world the customer is much smarter and more educated, and their expectations are higher for us. They’re always looking for quality and value. We have to try to deliver.
What’s your favorite Chinese food?
I like simple things, like sautéed green snow peas. I like bamboo shoots. I like tofu, which is strange because I’m a Midwest guy. We have crispy garlic tofu on the menu, and customers really love it. I like the simplicity of steamed fish with the stock and a little ginger and soy.