Tzy-Woei Wu, founder and owner of Cakes by Happy Eatery in Centreville, was a disciplined man, whether experimenting with just the right blend of wedding cake ingredients or searching for just the right stone for his backyard Asian garden.
Mr. Wu was impatient with wasted time, wasted effort; for him, perfection was paramount. A slight man, relentlessly energetic, he was just as exacting with family members and co-workers (often one and the same) as he was with himself.
Such a description makes him sound severe, like a Zen master wielding his hard disciplinary stick over cowed disciples. Not true, his daughters say.
"He was always smiling, always in a good mood," Emily Wu-Rorrer recalled recently. With her 2-year-old son, Zachary, she sat at a small, round table near a display case of alluring cakes, pies and cookies in the family's full-service bakery in Centreville Square.
Yes, he could be demanding -- and outspoken and opinionated -- but the loving father recalled by Wu-Rorrer and her sister, Victoria Wu, sounds less like an unforgiving taskmaster and more like Mr. Miyagi of "Karate Kid" renown. (A third daughter, Charlotte Wu Homme, lives in Oslo, where her husband is a Norwegian diplomat.)
Mr. Wu, a Falls Church resident, died of cancer Sept. 20 at Inova Fairfax Hospital. He was 69.
Born the youngest of 15 children in Guangzhou, China, he was ambitious and energetic from the beginning. He left his home town as a teenager and ended up in Hong Kong working for a company that recycled corrugated paper. His job occasionally took him to Taiwan, where he met a shy young woman named Fu-Mei. In 1967, she became his wife.
Fu-Mei Wu recalled with a smile last week that in those days, her husband was "a very street-smart and funny guy." (Actually, those are the words of daughter Victoria, translating her mother's lilting blend of Mandarin, Cantonese and Taiwanese dialects.) The young couple lived for a few years in Hong Kong before moving to Northern Virginia in 1973. They expected that the United States would be a better place to raise their three daughters.
A relative wanted to retire from a bean sprout business he operated out of a Chinatown warehouse, Lun Chong Lung Inc., and the Wus took it over.
Cultivating bean sprouts then was labor-intensive, and the Wus worked long hours. The mung beans that produced the tender sprouts were kept in several hundred containers in the warehouse and had to be watered every four hours, the sprouts harvested every four days or so and carefully washed. The Wus were among the first wholesale suppliers of bean sprouts to Chinatown restaurants.
In 1977, they moved the operation to Arlington, where Mr. Wu designed an automated system for watering and washing the sprouts. Soon, the business began selling to restaurants and supermarkets across the area, including Giant, Magruder's and A&P.
In 1984, Mr. Wu got out of the bean sprout business and, with two partners, opened the Happy Eatery Restaurant and Bakery, a buffet restaurant in Alexandria. "At a typical Chinese restaurant, you get orange slices and a fortune cookie for dessert," Victoria Wu recalled. "To differentiate themselves, they came up with cakes."
It wasn't long before the cakes and other bakery items began to develop a following of their own. Customers began clamoring for birthday cakes, wedding cakes, specialty cakes.
When the shopping center where they were located closed for renovations in 2001, the Wus closed the restaurant and opened the bakery in Centreville the next year. More than 50 percent of their customers migrated to the new place, even though it was a half-hour's drive from the old. Word of mouth also helped. Literally.
Rick Nolet, a bank services manager at SunTrust two doors down from Cakes by Happy Eatery, wandered in one afternoon last week, as he does almost every day. Nolet is still svelte at 52, despite having been designated Mr. Wu's "unofficial taster."
"He didn't speak a lot of English," Nolet recalled, "but every time I came in, he'd have something he was working on, and he'd say, 'Here, try this! Try this!' "
Nolet happily obliged. "Everything here is made on the premises. It's light, and it tastes good," he said, eyeing a stack of Swiss rolls in the display case. "I bring samples to my customers at the bank, and they love it."
Mr. Wu's other passion was designing Asian gardens.
With two koi ponds, a gazebo and a tiny bridge, his was a backyard masterpiece. He was constantly working on it, improving it.
"It grew a lot whenever my mother went on vacation," Emily Wu said, laughing.
Last month, on what would have been Mr. Wu's 70th birthday, family and friends gathered for a birthday dinner that featured pan-fried fish, one of his culinary specialties and one that no one else was able to prepare to his exacting standards.
But this time, the skin was golden and unbroken, the flesh tender and moist. Fu-Mei Wu had outdone herself. Her husband and companion, the old perfectionist, would have been pleased.