Q & A: Wilson Lui


Andrew Allen

Wando culinary teacher Wilson Lui.

What was your life like before Wando?

I taught at the Arts City of Charleston downtown. I taught mainly college kids and people who want a second career, those who were in the military [that] wanted to know how to cook. I also did a lot of restaurant consulting — helping ma and pa’s restaurants, breaking down their menu and making it more cost effective (limiting the menu items and making it more modern, appealing to younger crowds). I helped Cam Newton start a food truck in Charlotte. I helped plan out their menu, how their food truck is laid out, and what routes they should be doing. Currently, my favorite restaurant in Charleston is Obstinate Daughter. Another really cool place to be is The Workshop — they always have different people there. Right now one of my friends who used to go to school for me has a shop there and he does Jewish Deli food. 

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Florence, S.C.. We had a family restaurant and I grew up in the family restaurant. I did everything possible in the restaurant. After school I would come back to the restaurant, help serve and help cook. I was 10 years old and I was teaching like 20 year olds how to be a waiter/waitress. Prepping food in the back, helping my dad cook, I used to have a stool in front of the stoves so I could be tall enough to actually cook, but ya that’s how I grew up — in the restaurant. I would make sure homework was done, ok homework’s done, now go help prep, go help wash dishes, do whatever. That’s just the mentality that I’ve been going with. 

What type of food did your family restaurant serve? 

We did Chinese-American food. So classic chicken wings, fried rice, we did a whole buffet because back in the ‘90s buffets were everything — cheap as possible while serving the best quality possible. We were actually the first Chinese restaurant to have like a hibachi set up and a stir-fry set up. This was in 1997-98, and we would also serve like pizza — so we were the first to put it out there. We were always figuring out new ways to attract more people and my dad was always focused on producing the freshest thing possible — cooking stir-fry in front of customers. 

What other hobbies do you have outside your occupation?

I do normal things. I play video games — I’m not that old — I play Pokemon. I go bowling at Stars and Strikes. Not much, just hanging out and having fun with friends.

What was the most intense memory from your life?

I have kind of a funny one. So for the past couple years I would drive with my mom and dad up to New York. So driving to New York that huge 10 hour-11 hour span of just highway and then we get all the way to New Jersey and then going from there to New York is probably the most crazy thing I’ve ever had to drive through. No one understands what lanes are, no one understands what lights are, people are just honking everywhere — It is just super intense. When I get down to South Carolina, I’m just like oh my God! Thank you! I used to complain about people down here not being able to drive, but now I’m like sweet — y’all stay in your lanes and we’re good. 

What is your family like/What is one of your favorite moments? 

I grew up in a restaurant setting and right now my parents are retired. So I have an older brother and he has a 2-year-old daughter now, and she is the first granddaughter on both sides. Every weekend, I drive up to Florence and drive [my parents] to Charlotte to go visit my niece. They can’t drive that well anymore, so every weekend I drive up to Florence to take care of them. Every weekend that I’m there, I see my parents with their granddaughter and just spoil her — like where were these toys when I was a kid? My niece has three toy cars that she can drive and I got toys from the Flea Market. Spending time with them has been so memorable because I know how much they (my parents) had to go through to get to this point. They’ve been working really hard for a long time so now the fact that they can just rest — just be a family — is the greatest thing.  

What is something that made you who you are today?

In high school there was this thing called the career center and at Wando we have a kitchen in the school, but my high school didn’t, so when I got there I was like why is there a kitchen in a school and a classroom right next door to it. And I finally realized — wait it’s a class. I didn’t even know you could go to school for culinary. I did and it was great and my teacher was really cool. At the time I knew I wanted to do something with talking and teach people how to do something, and before I was doing great in history. That was my best subject. But now it was culinary, and actually after I incorporated culinary into my schedule, my grades in my other classes started going up. 

My brother was also the one to get straight As — he’s an engineer right now. I was also a Bs and Cs student, my parents were like what is going on. Something definitely flipped. I knew from then I wanted to be a culinary teacher. I have already done the restaurant thing my whole life. I don’t really want to go back to that yet. I would love to open a restaurant, but it’s on the back burner.      

Are there any moments that you have that describe your childhood?

My parents are first generation from China, and I know how stressful it was to own the restaurant, survive the restaurant, having to close the restaurant because of maintenance — all which was super stressful. I knew how much stress that was even if I was just in middle school or high school. I would work the same hours at night as them, sometimes not going home until 11 or 12 o’clock. Sometimes I remember I would miss the bus and I would just start walking and school wasn’t that far — it was like five miles. But I didn’t want to wake them up because that means they have to wake up earlier then they need to then they would have to take me to school and they would not have time to sleep before going back to the restaurant. 

My parents also used to record a lot of TV. There was a channel TLC and there was a cooking segment with Martin Yan, “Yan Can Cook.” It was a Chinese dude teaching people how to cook Chinese food on TV. This was like in the ‘80s, so when I started watching Food Network it was mainly like “Iron Chef America.” It was mostly American and Italian people like Bobby Flay teaching stuff — not a Chinese guy. During school people always asked how I cooked different dishes at the restaurant like fried rice or chicken wings. I always told people because it’s not a secret. When I watched this show, I loved it because it was someone talking and there was a live audience there. It reminded me of Emerald, but with a chinese guy. 

If you could reconnect with one person from your childhood, who would you choose and why?

So we all have that childhood best friend that you are always with up until about high school or college. But strangely enough, I actually reconnected with him a couple years ago. He moved down to Charleston from Florence with his grandma. I used to go over to their house every day after school — it was like my back-to-school program. I would go there and then they would either drive me home or go to the restaurant, and we would all eat at the restaurant. 

So, his grandma was like my only fabric to American lifestyle. Eating lasagnas, chicken alfredo, going to McDonalds or Applebees because before it was all rice and Chinese food all the time. So any American lifestyle came from them. His grandma came down because she had cancer. So I got to reconnect and talk with them. But then she passed away.

The reason why we had stopped talking was because he had started doing drugs and going down a bad path that I did not want to be a part of. But since he has come to Charleston, he has gotten clean and we started talking again. I actually helped him get a job at a restaurant and now he’s doing well.