Sens owner Johnny Chu driven by passion

Johnny Chu is the owner and chef of Sens Asian Tapas and Sake Bar. (Evie Carpenter/DD)

Passion. That’s what Johnny Chu, owner and chef of Sens Asian Tapas and Sake Bar, said drove him to open his restaurant in the heart of downtown Phoenix.

One might not assume this after walking into the Zen-like, contemporary restaurant and meeting the equally Zen-like Chu. However, he quickly loses his peaceful demeanor once he gets into the kitchen, flying from stove top to stove top, tossing vegetables and meats into different pots, and creating delicious concoctions of sauces. When it comes to food, Johnny Chu’s passion is hard to miss.

Chu, who moved from Tempe to Phoenix in 1996 to be closer to a vibrant and growing art community, said he considers himself an artist, too. As an artist, he creates what he loves — food.

Chu isn’t the only one who loves his intricate dishes.

Andrew Leckey, Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism president and professor at the Walter Cronkite School, frequents Sens to enjoy not just the food but the unique experience that accompanies dining at one of Chu’s restaurants, where attention to detail and presentation are paramount.

Leckey said in an e-mail that he sees the artistry in Chu’s “decor, presentation and the entertainment provided in the evenings.”

Sens is Chu’s third restaurant in downtown Phoenix, and as he passes the two-year mark, Chu seems to be optimistic for Sens’ future. He said he hopes that Sens will be providing the downtown area with small, shareable Asian tapas for “a long, long time.”

For Chu, though, success is not measured by how long his restaurant has been open or how much money it makes but rather by how both he and his customers feel. If the customers are happy and enjoy the food they are eating and if he is able to create what he wants, Chu said that his restaurant is successful.

“Johnny’s success comes from being his own person, presenting food that he is personally invested in,” Leckey said. “It is his way or the highway, which pays off in making it a special place.”

Chu also said that the uniqueness of his restaurant is a measure of its success. He tries to give people a place where they can enjoy the flavors of the food instead of just focusing on eating as much as they can for the lowest cost. No matter how bad the economy becomes, Chu said that he will continue to serve tapas in small servings so that everyone can get a little taste of everything. He joked that he will not be serving sweet and sour pork anytime soon.

“It makes life worthwhile, taking people to somewhere so unique and new,” Leckey said.

Chu loves the downtown area, but said he wished more people appreciated the art and culture of Phoenix’s core. While ASU students have become a large part of the downtown demographic,  Chu admits that college kids on a meal plan can’t afford to eat out at restaurants that often.

Chu laments the lack of parking in the area, explaining that its difficult for those who don’t live downtown to visit Sens or the surrounding restaurants. Nonetheless, Chu said he hopes downtown Phoenix will continue “to get better and better everyday.”

As Chu waits for that to happen, he looks to Chandler for his next creative release in the form of an Asian fondue restaurant scheduled to open this December. He said his plan is to teach people to cook and eat healthy food in a do-it-yourself fashion.

With one successful restaurant and another one that is sure to be just as good on the way, Chu said he is inspired by one rule: “Do what you love and love what you do.”

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