Remembering Chef Ying Jing Ma, who has died at age 59

Ying Jing Ma’s career in St. Louis coincided with a period in which America’s understanding of Chinese food was challenged, redefined and revolutionized. He made a significant contribution to those developments as they reshaped our local scene, pushing St. Louisans to explore Chinese food beyond Americanized takeout classics. Ying Jing Ma died on Aug. 4 from complications after suffering a stroke. He was 59.

If your own interest in Chinese food has deepened in recent years, if you discovered a new favorite dish or a flavor you’d never associated with Chinese cuisine before, there’s a good chance Ying Jing Ma played a part in that. The Hong Kong-born chef’s talents earned him a loyal following in St. Louis over the past decade, first at Mandarin House, then for the past six years at his Overland restaurant Chef Ma’s Chinese Gourmet. 

Ma opened the first iteration of Chef Ma’s Chinese Gourmet in 2015 inside a disused Taco Bell at 2336 Woodson Road. In May this year, he relocated to the restaurant’s current site at 10440 Page Ave. Over the years, the restaurant’s menu included Americanized takeout classics that defined Chinese food in the United States for generations, but notably also drew on Chinese home-style cooking (jia chang cai), as well as distinctive traditions like Cantonese, Sichuanese and Shanghainese cuisine. To some of Chef Ma’s diners, these dishes might have been cooked in the family home, but rarely seen on a menu in a St. Louis restaurant. To other customers, Chef Ma’s menu was a window into dishes they had never experienced before.

His fans will remember Chef Ma fondly for his take on Hainan chicken rice, an iconic dish not only in China’s Hainan province, but also in Hong Kong and Southeast Asian nations like Malaysia and Singapore. Ma was also often a presence front of house, stopping at tables to chat with customers. 

The team at Chef Ma’s plans to keep the restaurant in business. However, at the moment Chef Ma’s Chinese Gourmet has been opening irregularly. On Saturday afternoon, a series of customers pulled into the parking lot at Chef Ma’s to find the restaurant shuttered. Some knew of Ma’s death, while others were hearing the news for the first time. “It’s hard to find good Chinese food. Some places add too much sauce, but I want to taste the spices,” said one customer. “He really knew how to cook.” 

"It's the best Chinese food I've ever had,” said one long-time customer, Joann Foster. “And I used to live in San Francisco.”