The restaurant industry is one of the most competitive industries out there. It has often been described as having a very low success rate as well as long and brutal hours. Comparatively it is much worse in the Chinese restaurant industry. In this interview we learn the trials and struggles of a former Chinese restaurant chef and owner.
Daclaud Lee: Good evening and welcome to Random Interviews! Today’s guest is a washed up Chinese Restaurant Chef.
Chinese Chef (CC): Thank you for having me!
DL: How did you begin your career as a Chinese chef?
CC: Well, it was something I never expected and it only lasted for about two years (2012 – 2014) See, my parents owned a restaurant when I was growing up, but I never truly got the hang of the business. My parents never allowed me to learn how to cook and back when I was a teenager I could not even flip a wok, cut vegetables or even wrap an egg roll.
Above: Egg rolls… Who would have thought these things would be so hard to wrap?
DL: Why didn’t they want to train you?
CC: My parents ran a high end Chinese restaurant in a ritzy part of town and they did not believe I could handle it. They did not want a beginner and nobody believed in me enough to train me. They also didn’t want me to have to take on the burden of taking over their restaurant. They wanted me to have an easy but high paying job. They wanted me to become a pharmacist.
That didn’t happen, because either wasn’t smart enough or wasn’t passionate enough about science and math to get into pharmacy school. I had all the pre-requirements to enter pharmacy school, I just couldn’t pass the PCAT exam because my dumb ass may have passed the pre-required classes, but I never actually absorbed the material fluently, so I eventually changed my major and graduated from a business college in order to land a corporate desk job; that didn’t happen the way I planned. I ended up with a corporate desk job, but it wasn’t what I expected.
Above: That was supposed to have been me… Things didn’t quite happen the way my parents planned.
DL: What did you expect? And how was it not what you expected?.
CC: See, I went to a business college and always wanted to work in an office, so I majored in digital marketing. Unfortunately after college, I was only able to find work in low paying entry level positions that did not even require a degree and none of them involved digital marketing, much less regular marketing. Let’s just say you can ask the Burnt Out Customer Service Rep about that one!
DL: So when did you decide to become a chef?
CC: I actually didn’t, it just kind of happened. See, I didn’t learn how to cook until I was in my late 20’s, this was years after I had graduated from college and was still out to find a career that would make me money, it didn’t have to be my passion, it just needed to pay the bills and make me rich. My mother suggested I open up a restaurant because she was so successful with hers, so it kind of happened that way. Long story short, after I ended up with a small restaurant of my own.
DL: So how did you learn how to cook?
CC: When I first took over the restaurant, we already had a full staff. One of them was a senior chef and I learned a little bit by watching him. He would never teach me entirely because he had an old school mentality and thought I was fire him. It was as if he didn’t want me to learn.
I also learned by some contractors my mother hired. One of them used to cook at her old restaurant. Chef Wu, he was the guy who taught me how to properly flip a wok, because I was doing it the wrong way the entire time. I was doing it in a way that would injure my wrist and he explained the correct way to do it. My left hand thanks him today!
Then my restaurant closed down because of repeated health department violations. This was in no fault of ours, but was due to the age of the restaurant, the poor communication barrier among the staff, the equipment failures which caused holding temperatures to be a few degrees to high each time… and my lack of experience. It was something that all the maintenance people tried to fix, but couldn’t. It was a chaotic and tense situation and I remember I almost killed myself because of the stress and all the f*cked up things that were happening to be that were out of my control. It was as if I was cursed or something because everything just kept on going wrong at the wrong time.
Long story short, soon after we closed, I got a job with PF Chang’s for a while. It was so easy to get a job there. They desperately needed wok cooks and I lied about my experience and was able to talk my way in. I mean I had about two weeks of actual wok training previously by Chef Wu, but it was enough for me to fake it. I eventually trained under PF Chang’s kitchen standards and learned a little bit of how a corporate Chinese restaurant operated. I mean they had me cutting vegetables, prepping and wrapping egg rolls. I was never good at wrapping egg rolls, but they were acceptable. I was probably the slowest egg roll prep guy they hired.
Above: This is where I got my training… maybe not this particular PF Chang’s, but they all look alike!
Three months later, they fired me for saying I was going to quit when I was working on the wok line. The manager was a b*tch anyways, she was a fat White lady who didn’t seem to like me much from the get go. I believed I had learned enough. It was one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had and it barely paid more than $9 an hour. The experience however, was priceless… Well, maybe not “priceless”, but it was a significant learning experience nonetheless.
DL: That’s an interesting story, so how did you get your restaurant to open back up?
CC: I had an investor. A guy who was friends with my mom decided that he wanted a piece of the pie, which was 75%. I had three months experience at PF Chang’s, which was enough to get the restaurant started back up again.
During the time off from work, I had borrowed many ideas from PF Chang’s including menu design, prep techniques, food storage techniques, and general kitchen operations. I wanted to have full control over the entrees and I wanted proper portion control, so I re-wrote the previous menu and did it my way. Sure it was different, but we were also new owners, so it didn’t matter. people who didn’t like the change would have to either go somewhere else or ultimately accept it.
We also had a full team of people including Chef Wu, Pablo, the former prep guy, and a few others who were to run the front of the restaurant. We were back in business and it felt great! It was better than sex! Well actually, I take that back… sex is definitely better, as long as the woman you’re with is attractive!
DL: Did you start cooking full time again?
CC: Sort of, I was just a back up chef, since Chef Wu was the main line cook. I took over on his one day off and I always looked forward to that day because I got a chance to cook. I enjoyed cooking a lot and I came up with a lot of signature dishes and sauces. My most unique creation was the Fiery Peach chicken, which had a sweet and spicy peach sauce, chicken breast, bell peppers and red chili peppers. It actually became a fairly popular dish based on sales.
DL: So what was your favorite creation? Was it the Fiery Peach Chicken?
CC: Yes and no. I mean, I loved the taste of the Fiery Peach Chicken, but I was still concerned about my weight, so I didn’t eat it much or even at all due to the amount of calories in the sauce. I suppose that was what made it good, but I was watching my figure.
I enjoyed making up chicken wings mainly. I eventually created a section that consisted of only chicken wings. I had my version of the Spicy Sriracha wings, Asian Honey Lemon Ginger wings, Spicy Korean BBQ wings, Fish Sauce Wings, Thai Basil Wings, Chinese Spiced Salt Wings, Kung Pao Chicken Wings, among others. Come to think of it, I probably should have just opened up a food truck instead. Less overhead and I could focus on just selling chicken wings.
Above: Kung Pao Chicken Wings by the Chinese Chef
Above: That was an actual picture of my Fish Sauce Wings.
But my favorite creation of all time was my version of the Hawaiian Fried Rice! Yeah I know, this isn’t exactly “Chinese”, but whatever, there are enough Chinese people in Hawaii and we almost look the same! Hell, for Halloween, I even came up with a recipe for Pumpkin Fried Rice!
Above: That was an actual photo of my Hawaiian Fried Rice creation!
DL: Was this your favorite part of being a chef?
CC: Having full control over the menu and food! And cooking! Hell yeah to cooking! Cooking was fun and it was also a challenge to be able to keep up. You had to be fast and accurate. Like Bruce Lee! Although I’d hardly be fit to compare myself to a man so great as Bruce Lee. Hell, I was never even close to being Gordon Ramsey!
DL: What was the worst part about being a Chinese chef?
CC: The dinner rushes! Man it’s like people have the same goddamned mentality all over! It’s like every single f*cking person orders food at the same exact moment in time! You’re all chilled out from the off hours, but then suddenly at 5:30 – 7:30 there’s like a huge list of carry out orders and you have maybe a few minutes to make them. It was crazy! It was hectic, it was insane! I may also mention that you might have to be either desperate or crazy!
Besides this, the low profit margins. For some reason it has become the norm for Chinese food to be cheap and huge in portion. Americans would rather pay 8.99 for a hamburger at a burger joint like 5 Guys, that requires very little skill to make and yet they complain that a 6.99 meal that feeds two people is too expensive at a Chinese restaurant. It’s as if our labor is worth less.
Subtile racism, I suppose? But maybe it’s the Chinese restaurant owners who are to blame? I mean I personally think it’s the restaurant owners who are sabotaging and saturating the market by making everything dirt cheap and forcing themselves to work harder for less money because they are so fearful of losing customers to competitors. The mom and pop “Chinese” restaurants run by Cambodian or Vietnamese refugees where they have their 9 year old kids working for them (totally violating child labor laws by the way) so they can afford not to pay a full staff. But then again, I digress, what I’m saying also sounds a bit racist in its own way. I’m just gripping, but yeah, that was the worst part, the low profit margins and the competition who had more cheap labor than you do.
Above: Chinese food is not expected to be high quality because of this reason.
DL: Do you think it’s difficult or easy to become a Chinese chef?
CC: It depends on how dedicated you are. Typically there is not a high turnover being a Chinese restaurant chef. Usually those guys who just immigrated from China are there to stay because they have no other choices in life, mainly due to the language barrier. I mean, if you can’t speak English, then no one is going to hire you. If you have no other choice, then you have to cook. The average American has choices, so very few of them are willing to learn the trade if they can do something else for more money.
DL: But what about you? Didn’t you have a choice?
CC: Yes and no. I’ll get to that later. To answer your first question, yes, following a recipe is indeed easy, but it’s difficult (if not impossible) to hire someone who can flip a friggin’ wok. I mean, I tried training many young guys, some who were 19 – 22, but none of them were able to learn. None of them really had the physical dexterity. I don’t know why, but they just couldn’t do it. And if they had the physical dexterity, the didn’t have the mental dexterity and would mess up the orders by adding the ingredients in the incorrect order. I guess the “rush” can panic anyone.
Above: This is a typical Chinese Restaurant set up. Note, that is not me nor did I take this video. It is simply used here as an example.
Hell, even I panic during rushes, but you have to keep your head clear. You can’t mess up, because if you mess up a customer’s order, then guess what? That customer might not come back next time and the house has to pay for the meal and the lost customer. Even if it’s a minor, trivial, mess up like a customer who asked for no bell peppers in their General Tso’s Chicken. The problem is, as a chef, you have always been conditioned to put bell peppers in General Tso’s Chicken, because that’s just what you do as a chef.
At PF Chang’s they had a guy who did what was called “Dharma”, which was the guy who would pick out the vegetables and meat ahead of time for the wok line chef. Since we were a small business, we could not afford to hire a “Dharma” guy, so the line chef had to do both, but we didn’t have the luxury of extended time. Chinese food needed to be prepared fast, or you lose a customer because they expect it to be out on time and within 10 – 15 minutes, which was not possible all the time. We were placed in fast paced, high stress situations like that daily. The customer orders man, those were a pain in the ass!
I mean at first I couldn’t do it either (cooking), but I learned. I suppose in my case, it was because of the dire necessity of survival, but these kids would rather work at a warehouse or a factory. I mean who can blame them? Maybe not at a warehouse, but the pay at a factory is definitely much higher. The Chinese restaurant industry is brutal, it’s rough, it’s thankless, it’s often times racist, and in the end, the profit margin is extremely low to justify the effort.
DL: So how did it all end?
CC: (Laughs out loud) Very Abruptly, but we lasted a good 2 years. Two years of hard work, blood, sweat and tears. The investor had decided to simply close the business because he was losing more money than he was making.
We all sat down one night for a meeting. Two of the guys had not been paid in over a month, so they were disgruntled. The truth is, I had not been paid either, but I told my partner that I was willing to continue, even though my personal salary was only $1500 a month on a 6 – 7 day work week at 12 hours a day. Yeah, that sounds sh*tty right? I mean who in their right mind would do this?
For me, the restaurant was my baby. I wanted to watch it grow. I was crazy and I was desperate. But my partner decided to call it quits and so we closed. Oh did I mention I have a college degree? A Bachelor of Science in digital marketing? Yeah… and I still can’t find a job in that field by the way.
DL: So what do you do now?
CC: This and that. Right now I’m contracting with a temp agency. I’m full time, make more money than I ever did, but it’s not a permanent position nor is it in a digital marketing field. I’m still looking for permanent work in digital marketing.
DL: Did you get any digital marketing experience while working in the restaurant?
CC: Absolutely! You see on my down time or when I was off work, I would always be working on new marketing material for the restaurant, whether it was social media, my blog, the restaurant’s website or my own personal website. I did my best to keep my digital marketing skills sharp and relevant.
DL: Ain’t that the truth? So do you think you’ll ever go back to the restaurant industry?
CC: If it made me money, then yes. But unfortunately it didn’t. But it was fun being a chef. The experience should be well worth it’s own story!
DL: Indeed it is. Thank you for the interview. I still have the belief that we all have our callings in life, and I do hope you get chance to find yours and finally have the career you’ve always wanted!