Where are you from and how did you end up in Maine?
I am from Taipei, Taiwan. I came to America with my late husband in 1980, landing in Boston. I had a sister-in-law who lived there, and I started as a hairdresser, and my husband worked in a restaurant. It was easy for me because I learned English in Taiwan. I studied international trade at a girls’ college.
With family in the United States, we wanted to emigrate for new opportunities. I carry two cultures—I can choose the parts of the Chinese culture that I like best to keep.
We started a restaurant with some partners in 1984, and when that didn’t work out, we wanted to open our own restaurant. We heard that there was a restaurant for sale in Brewer, Maine, and decided to check it out. We drove and drove, and our car broke down in Gardiner. We couldn’t believe how far it was! When we saw the building, we liked the location, and in 1986, we opened House of Hunan.
What is your first food memory?
My mother’s homemade cooking. We grew up poor—my mother always tried to use meat, because she saw it as a treat.
Any family influences on your style and taste?
I always want to make at the restaurant what I eat at home—but many Americans don’t see that as Chinese food. Pu Pu Platters, Sweet and Sour Chicken, and Chicken Chow Mein isn’t real Chinese food! American’s like sweet fried food. Everything here has duck sauce. We don’t have that in China. I prefer to serve people my homemade ginger sauce. I am also a vegetarian. I stopped eating meat overnight, and have been a vegetarian for 26 years.
The food I grew up with and like to prepare is from the rural part of northern China, where it’s cold. They use a lot of garlic and spices to warm you and fill you up. A lot of breaded things too, and pancakes. Spicy northern Chinese cooking is my favorite.
When did you realize you were a chef?
I don’t think I am a chef, but I do have fans. People are starting to chase me down between my two restaurants to eat the food I prepare. People will ask the waiters for me to help them pick their meals. If I’m not there, they’ll call me at the other restaurant! This makes me feel like I am cooking for friends.
What do you consider to be your pivotal career move?
Being involved in the community with volunteer work. I helped out with Spruce Run in the past, and I now teach cooking classes and Chinese language classes. I also teach English to new immigrants.
You have owned a handful of restaurants in the area. What are they and what set them apart?
I owned and ran four restaurants at one time—House of Hunan, Chopsticks, China Garden, and China Wall! I now run only two—Chopsticks in Bangor and China Garden in Orono. Each restaurant had a different atmosphere. Because of their locations, I didn’t feel that they competed with one another.
What do you love about your locations?
China Garden is by the University of Maine and small. It’s mostly take-out orders over there. I have a goal to make the area around my Chopsticks location on Center Street a “Chinatown.” I want to bring more diversity to Bangor.
Every restaurant that has been where Chopsticks is today didn’t last much longer than a year. The landlord didn’t have a lot of confidence in me when I moved in. And I’ve been here for nine years now! The area has cleaned up a lot—that’s why I want to create a Chinatown.
What is your favorite ingredient to work with?
Garlic and ginger! Occasionally I use star anise. I don’t really use weird ingredients, but I do have Chinese ingredients I can’t find locally delivered on Thursdays.
I also like to use produce from local farmers. I use pumpkin and squash in the fall and fiddleheads in the summer. I also use food I grow in my own garden at home. I like to offer different foods throughout the seasons, so it doesn’t get boring. I like variety.
What is the dish we will be featuring?
It’s a vegetarian dish with string beans and eggplant. I love the colors!
Your favorite restaurant...besides your own?
Buddha’s Delight in Boston’s Chinatown, for their vegetarian food.
Least favorite job-related task?
Human resources. It’s hard to find the perfect people as employees. I have always been the owner, cook, waitress, bookkeeper, everything!
The last time you really surprised yourself in the kitchen?
One time, at Chopsticks, I had run out of everything. As a small business, I try not to keep a lot of extra inventory and I got slammed!
One customer kept wanting things I had run out of. I asked him what he liked and told him I would make something special—and I ran back into the kitchen and used a little bit of everything I had.
When he wanted to know the name of the meal I had created out of stress, I thought quick and said “Eight Treasures.” It had a bunch of veggies, some meat, spices, and he loved it! It taught me to never underestimate myself.
What does a perfect day off look like?
What’s a day off? If I had a whole day I would go to a belly dance class and Irish step dance class and spend time reading. I’m learning a lot about traditional Chinese medicine and how to use it with food to promote healing and wellness.
What would you want your last meal to be?
A whole plate of vegetables with a lot of ginger and garlic—really spicy!
What do you love most about your job?
Connecting with people. Each person is like a book, and they bring their different stories to me. I learn a lot from my customers.