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Inside the Journey of Chef Henry Lu at JŪN

Out chef combines diverse cultural influences into every dish.

Chef Henry Lu (Photos by Luke Chang, Jiā Media)
April 2024 cover | Photo by Luke Chang, Jiā Media

A drag queen in a pink leotard and thigh-high white boots leaps from a bench into a death drop while the crowd roars with applause. The DJ playing rap and pop songs does a quick mic check before welcoming a mariachi band that delights attendees with traditional music. Across the bar, an artist draws live portraits of guests while servers criss-cross the restaurant space carrying plates of delicious bite-size dishes.

This one-year anniversary party earlier this year at JŪN was emblematic of chef Henry Lu’s and chef Evelyn Garcia’s backgrounds and cultures, as well as the diverse makeup of Houston. Lu, a Bronx native, has already accomplished big things in the Houston food scene at his “New Asian-American” concept and has made it his mission to live out queer authenticity as a means of championing the LGBTQ community.

“The earliest memories I have are of working in my family’s [Chinese] restaurants,” he reminisces. “It was like my after-school program. I would leave school, do my homework, and then help out at the restaurant—mopping the floor, washing dishes, and eventually food prepping when I was old enough to hold a knife.” His role in the family business evolved over time. “My mom woke me up one day, and she told me I was going to get my driver’s permit. I was like, ‘For what? I don’t need to drive. I’m in New York City.’ My mom responded, ‘You’re going to start delivering for us!’”

Out of all of his duties in the restaurant, cooking was the most satisfying for him. “Cooking fascinated me. Watching the guys work the woks was so thrilling and fun. I also ate so much. No one should ever eat as much as I did!”

Ultimately, Lu distanced himself from the kitchen to pursue a career in fine arts, concentrating on ceramics and other media. “I was terrible at school, but going to art classes made it more interesting and welcoming for me,” he admits. “I went to college at the University of Buffalo after getting into the architecture program. I spent a year in the program, and I hated every second of it.”

So Lu altered course. “I earned a degree in art history, and while I was in school I did a lot of extracurricular activities.” He shares that in his leadership roles, including as president of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Alliance (LGBTA), he worked alongside fellow group members to cater their various events. “We cooked meals ourselves, like a fancy potluck. That sparked a really happy memory for me, working around food and cooking. I decided to go to culinary school right after college.”

JŪN co-founders Henry Lu (l) and Evelyn Garcia at their Heights restaurant and wine bar

That creative spark led Lu to the French Culinary Institute before becoming the executive chef for a hospitality group in New York City, leading all of their concepts. In 2020, the chef set his sights on H-Town. “I needed a change. I worked my way up in New York, and in 2020 I was going to take a sabbatical year. I was gonna travel and remind myself why I enjoy this profession so much,” he explains. “Then, in 2020 everything shut down. I was stewing in my feelings in my apartment with my dogs and wondered what I should do.

“I realized I’d done everything I could for my career in New York. Moving to Houston was on my radar, because Evelyn was trying to get me down here. I had done some events with her and it just made sense. We started talking about our futures and goals; I started understanding the food scene here and how it’s changing. That’s what really enticed me to move here.”

Lu shares how quickly his eyes were opened to the importance of being a visible member of Houston’s queer community. “In New York, queer people are all around you,” he says. Interactions with LGBTQ Houstonians, such as his barista who expressed a desire to paint his nails like the chef, inspire him to live his life out and proud.

“I’m very secure in where I am in my life. It doesn’t matter if people don’t like who I am, what I do, or how I present myself. I’ve made it a point to be more expressive of my Asian heritage and my LGBTQ culture—whether it’s painting my nails or being more expressive in everything I do.”

JŪN’s menu items have various influences, including blends of Asian, Latin, and Caribbean flavors.

“It’s the food we grew up with—a melding of Evelyn’s multicultural Houston roots and my upbringing in the Bronx, with a lot of different Latin and Caribbean flavors.” —Chef Henry Lu

Lu and Garcia ultimately blended their culinary talents to open JŪN, their James Beard Award-nominated restaurant in the Heights. “It’s the food we grew up with. The multicultural environment of Evelyn’s Houston roots, with generations of Vietnamese and Asian influences, and my upbringing in the Bronx, with a lot of different Latin and Caribbean flavors. We wanted to meld them all together and pay homage to our families.”

His success in the kitchen is a testament to his other creative talents. Lu still considers himself an artist, and JŪN’s interior design certainly reflects that. “There’s so much different artwork in JŪN because art plays a huge role in our lives. Evelyn and I love making ceramics,” he says. Lu and Garcia both made the small ceramic pitchers and utensil holders used in the restaurant. The chef explains that the art the chefs create in the kitchen is what adds vibrancy to the neutral space. “The restaurant has a clean palette. It’s inviting and homey, like you always wish your home to be. We allow the food to add the color.”

Lu describes JŪN as a place where all are welcome, and his goal is to cultivate a safe space for all who enter. “We want to have people around us from different backgrounds and walks of life with the same goal of offering the best hospitality. I tell the team every day, ‘We hire you based on your personality, so share that personality.’ If they feel more comfortable wearing a dress, they should wear a dress. This is not corporate America. Evelyn and I are chefs and artists, and we want our staff to express themselves—and our customers to feel welcome.”

Keep up with Chef Henry Lu on Instagram @_henrylu_.

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Zach McKenzie

Zachary McKenzie is a marketing professional and freelance writer in Houston, TX. He received his bachelor's degree from The University of Texas at Austin in 2014 and has lived in Houston since. Zachary is a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters and enjoys spending his free time with friends, exploring the richness and diversity of Houston.
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