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Monday, August 16, 2021

St. Louis Mourns the Death of the Legendary Owner of Chef Ma's Chinese Gourmet

Posted By on Mon, Aug 16, 2021 at 9:11 AM

Chef Ma will be remembered for his outstanding restaurant, Chef Ma's Chinese Gourmet. - MABEL SUEN
  • Chef Ma will be remembered for his outstanding restaurant, Chef Ma's Chinese Gourmet.

The St. Louis food scene has lost one of its greats: Chef Ying Jing Ma, known as "Chef Ma," died on August 5. Ma leaves behind a legion of fans who came to know him for his culinary prowess over the years, most recently at his Overland restaurant, Chef Ma's Chinese Gourmet (10440 Page Avenue, Overland; 314-395-8797).

A representative of Chef Ma's Chinese Gourmet confirmed Ma's passing to the Riverfront Times, though they did not offer any details out of respect for his family. The representative emphasized that the restaurant has continued to operate since Ma's passing and that, even in their grief, his employees are committed to continuing his legacy and plan to keep the restaurant open, as he would have wanted.

A veteran chef with numerous accolades (including his most prized award for a version of Iron Chef in Austin, Texas), Ma was known for his broad appeal to both diners in search of outstanding Chinese American fare as well as those looking for traditional Chinese dishes. He got his start more than 40 years ago in his native Hong Kong with Marriott Hotels and opened properties for the brand around the globe in such locations as Singapore, Malaysia, Hawaii, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Ma arrived in St. Louis in the early 1990s to work for Mandarin House, where he ran the iconic restaurant's massive banquet operation for several decades.

In 2015, Ma struck out on his own, opening an unassuming restaurant, Chef Ma's Chinese Gourmet, in a former Taco Bell in Overland. There, he gained a reputation for everything from his outstanding fish stew (which wasn't always on the menu, but when it wasn't, he would bring it out on request), to twice-cooked pork, black pepper beef, pumpkin brown butter shrimp and his house speciality, Hainan chicken. His mastery of flavor and fierce commitment to perfection was evident in everything he did, even in ubiquitous American-style dishes like hot braised chicken and Mongolian beef, whose sauces he insisted on cooking from scratch. Even when he moved the restaurant to its current location in Overland just a few months ago, he never wavered from his commitment to putting his best into everything he did.

Joel Crespo, owner of Guerrilla Street Food and regular guest at Chef Ma's Gourmet Cuisine, remembers Ma as one of the best cooks in town and an unsung genius in the city's food scene.

"He was so ambitious and a beast of a cook," Crespo says. "He had two menus — one more of your traditional Chinese takeout menu and one that was more authentic Chinese — and no matter whether he was doing orange chicken and crab rangoon or Hainan chicken and pumpkin shrimp, he would execute it with the same perfection and consistency, and he would nail it every time. It was always fresh, and I feel like he did it so effortlessly. Living where I live, there are hundreds of great Chinese restaurants with varying styles, and as much as I love so many of them, anytime someone would ask where was a good Chinese place to go, I'd always recommend Chef Ma's."

For Crespo, Ma's greatness extended beyond his talents as a chef.

"Every time you went there, it was him touching all the food and doing all of the cooking, no matter what day of the week it was," Crespo says. "He'd always be doing five things — flipping woks and plating up dishes — but he would see you, and he would be personable and remember you and remember details of your life. I will remember that level of kindness. He wasn't just a masterful cook; he was a kind person."

Crespo also knows that kindness extended to the staff at Chef Ma's.

"My heart goes out to his family and to the people at the restaurant," Crespo says. "It seemed like they were a close-knit group, and I know how that is — whether they are actual family or restaurant family, that's a special relationship, and I know how much they are hurting. I wish them strength and peace."

A visitation for Ma will be held on Wednesday, August 18 from 10 a.m. until noon at Valhalla Cemetery and Funeral Chapel. As for the restaurant, it continues to operate with its normal hours, and his staff plans to do so indefinitely. Though grief-stricken, the representative from the restaurant explains that it is the best way they know to honor the man who dedicated his life to making the world a more delicious place.

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