David Keh arrived penniless in America in 1964 from China’s remote Anhui province. With $100 from a San Francisco friend of his father’s, he found his way to the Chinese Pavilion of the World’s Fair, where he cleaned toilets and slept till he could afford a room.
Waiting tables at Four Seas in Wall Street, he cajoled the brilliant chef Lou Huey Yen into joining him, and together they opened up Szechuan (as we spelled it then) Taste on Chatham Square. New York went bananas for that fierce chili heat, seeding Szechuan uptown on Broadway and then Szechuan East on Second. Soon Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan was astonishing us with silken venison and peppered rabbit, oily and torrid.
“I want to open the Lutèce of Chinese restaurants,” Keh declared. And so David K’s in the cavernous old Longchamps on Third Avenue at 65th—Rosenthal china, outrageous prices—quickly became a hangout for Danny Kaye, Henry Kissinger, Isaac Stern.
Keh’s thrill was to create, and he often left a team of seconds to run his places while he—gloriously seductive in British tweeds, dark mink, and Rolls-Royce—played mah-jongg till dawn. He taught me to play, too, for the 28-hour train ride he’d arranged for a motley crew of trenchermen he took to China in 1981. The jaunt inspired Pig Heaven (under other owners, it is his only surviving restaurant).
Where did it all go? The union, a fire, a gold mine that didn’t pan out—he was mysterious about money. In the late eighties, the empire had melted. His last gambit, David K’s Noodle Road, on East 49th, with the ambitious Shanghai 1933 above, expired with a whimper.
He struggled as a consultant in Beijing so he could show New York he still had it. He had a stroke, and his son William flew him home. He talked of deals … and grew frailer, forgotten by most of his pals. Last week, he died in his sleep. But the people of Anhui remember him. His hometown is now called David Keh’s Village.