Wendy Leon: The Heart of Monarch
Updated: Oct 28
What a fabulous human! Wendy Leon, the co-founder of Chifa, lovingly known as 'Popo,' (translated as Grandma) collaborated with her family and son, Humberto Leon (co-founder of Opening Ceremony and former co-creative director of Kenzo), to open a new breathtaking restaurant, Monarch in the city of Arcadia.
Here at Jiā Food Blog, we had the honor of sharing a meal with Popo as she shared her passion for food, family, and giving back to the community through home cooking. She looked so glorious as she strolled in from her other location Chifa, walking in with her vintage glasses and printed jumpsuit with so much energy to share her story. She had what we would describe as STAR energy.
Jacob proceeded with the interview after finishing all their most popular and delicious dishes, including their Monarch Bolognese and Baked Pork Chop Rice.
Tell us about the beginnings of Monarch
Monarch is our third family restaurant, with our first Chifa opening in Lima, Peru, in 1975. There, I initially focused on serving Peruvian food. I married my Chinese husband in Hong Kong, where our two daughters were born. Later, we moved to the United States, and our son was born here. One day, my son approached me with the idea of reopening a Chifa in Eagle Rock - the place where we first settled in the United States. I was surprised, considering my age (75). Whoever, he insisted, 'Mom, it's okay. You don't have to run it. Just show us, and we'll help you run it.' That's when my son-in-law, grandson, and granddaughters all got involved. It became a true family effort.
A few years after opening Chifa, an opportunity in Arcadia emerged due to COVID-related shifts. My son went to school in the San Gabriel Valley area, so we saw this as another opportunity to share the food we love and give back to the community. So we decided to open Monarch and choose Arcadia as its home.
How is it collaborating with your son and family?
My son, I learned a lot from him. You know? They are different from us older people. We’re passionate, but many young people go after their passions. I love to follow the kids. Whatever they do I really like it. I enjoy it. That's why I spent 10 years in Paris working on the Opening Ceremony with my son. I like to keep myself super busy and back then it was always go go go. Finally, with COVID we were forced to slow down. Now. Next week I have to go to Korea and then to a fashion show in Shanghai. I still have a little bit of energy left. That’s why I want to follow the young. I enjoy all my grandkids and my kiddos. I really enjoy my family and love to follow and help young people.
What is your approach to cooking?
Our approach to cooking is rooted in family traditions—no unnatural food coloring, no MSG, just pure, natural ingredients. It's a fusion of Peruvian, Chinese, and Taiwanese cuisine, and our goal is to make people feel like they're eating at home. We aim to provide a warm, welcoming environment, unlike the typical restaurant experience with greasy food and MSG. Our vision is simple: come here, feel at home, and enjoy the taste of home-cooked meals
What does the name “Monarch” mean?
It symbolizes a happy butterfly. Everybody likes butterflies and we want to inspire everyone. My son chose baby blue as our restaurant's main color to make it feel calm and peaceful. He chose green for Chifa because it represents money. That’s also why we also chose a butterfly. To represent peace.
How do you get new generations of your community excited about Monarch?
This is a family business and we all work very hard. My son-in-law is now the head chef. We put everything together. Like tomorrow, we’re closing the restaurant for a wedding. We like to host events that get young people excited to come in and enjoy our food.
Fun Fact: Popo Wendy's son, Humberto Leon, personally designed Monarch's logo and hand-molded the restaurant's cutlery.
Did Monarch or Chifa face any struggles during COVID-19?
Trust me, the next day after I opened Chifa COVID hit. And then they closed up the whole restaurant and only allowed to-go orders. And then only 1 to 2 months later, they allowed us to open again 5pm-9pm Friday to Sunday. And then they made another announcement that COVID was back and we had to close. We were only open for sit-down dining for 1 hour total. But we adapted and survived. When they allowed us to open the restaurant outside, we moved to the parking lot. Thank goodness we had a huge parking lot. My son designed the parking lot and we were doing very well! We also held private events and people were very happy.
People would tell me they were sad because they couldn’t celebrate their birthdays and now because Chifa opened up outside they could celebrate it there. They were very happy and we were fortunate to do very well. We worked hard, had good luck, and were very fortunate.
What inspired you to combine Peruvian food and Chinese food?
We chose the top menu items from the first Chifa in Peru and brought them to the Chifa in Eagle Rock. And then everyone was like “Wow” this tastes better than Peru. Why? Because of the quality ingredients and the addition of flavors influenced by my family’s Chinese and Taiwanese heritage. I do home cooking all the time with my kids. For my family, my house is like a restaurant. I always open my house to so many family members for holidays, birthdays, Thanksgiving, etc. I spent my whole life cooking.
Which dish at Monarch is most meaningful to you?
First, I just want to say that this whole menu is my favorite. Every dish that I put out is loved by my family and grandkids. If my family doesn’t love it, then we don’t serve it. This is family cooking! To answer your question, our customer’s favorites are Si Yao Chicken and Popo’s Wellness Soup. For my wellness soup, I cooked it at home all the time to help my family members feel better. One of our workers at the restaurant was feeling under the weather and my granddaughter, 9 years old, every day would ask “Popo can you make some soup for him to make him healthy?” Every time my family is sick they say “Popo can you make me some soup?” The food we serve at Monarch is made with real love. Many people who eat the soup say “Oh my gosh I’m thinking about my grandma” and it brings back memories. Monarch’s foundation is my family’s beloved home cooking and we want to share that love with everyone.
Thank you, Popo!
Monarch is more than a success story of art and culinary excellence; it’s a testament to the unwavering spirit of Popo and her family. As young Asian Americans, their story speaks to us on a personal level, emphasizing the importance of family and showing that pursuing one’s passions knows no age limit. It’s a reminder that even in the face of challenges like COVID-19, embracing our cultural roots and sharing our unique stories can create something beautiful that resonates universally.
Popo spent even more time with us giving life advice that we will never forget. You may even find me working as a busboy just helping her out to gain more experience as it’s so important to start from the bottom up, just like her! Thank you Popo, we have so much respect for you!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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