By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
It was more than a Lunar New Year dinner, and this is not the story that I intended to write.
Stone Yee, a former restaurant owner, invited some community leaders to dine at his new employer’s restaurant. It’s not unusual for someone who was once a boss to work for someone else, especially when he didn’t enjoy dealing with pressure and an excessive workload.
News spread fast of the change.
As soon as Yee sold his restaurant, he was approached to be a dim sum chef for Imperial Garden Restaurant in Kent. Although Yee is one of several chefs there and new, it was his idea for his boss to host the dinner. What is unusual is that while Yee only worked there for a short time, his boss listened.
“I want you to meet my new boss,” Yee said to me. “He’s young and very successful in China. He just bought Imperial Garden Restaurant [inside the Great Wall Mall].”
Yee, former president of the Yee Family Association, could have retired after selling his restaurant and lived comfortably for the rest of his life. I was curious as to why he respects this new owner so much.
When I arrived at Imperial Garden, I got my answer. Hongjin Yi, chairman of New Century Youth Food and Beverage Management Co. Ltd., bought Imperial Garden last October. His company owns 40 restaurants in China, and plans to open 10 more. Imperial Garden is his first expansion in the United States. And he is only 45 years old.
Normally, the chefs would prepare the dinner, while the guests and bosses ate. But not here. Yee and another experienced dim sum chef, Jimmy Tang, both sat down next to Yi and another executive, at the same table, wining and dining with us. Tang had worked in a Chinatown restaurant for 13 years.
The chefs were in their casual clothes, not in their chef uniforms. At the table, you couldn’t tell who’s the boss and who’s not. They mingled like friends without hierarchies separating them. I can’t imagine most restaurateurs dining with their chefs, letting them drink red wine, and eating crab, geoducks, and Beijing duck, hosting a group of community leaders. It was a first for me.
I remember my college days when I was a waitress. A Chinese restaurant owner, also a chef, deducted $1 from my paycheck to pay for my dinner while working. (I used to wonder, did I really eat that much? How could some people be so petty?)
So I couldn’t believe my eyes when I was at Imperial Garden. A man as successful as Yi is so down-to-earth with his kitchen staff. On the other hand, you could say Yi is smart. He knows he needs to rely on his team to make Imperial Garden great. Meanness is a bad strategy, especially in the restaurant business.
Enthusiastically, Yee and Tang raved about his boss’ incredible story. “My boss is my role model,” Tang said.
Growing up in a poor Chinese village, Yi left home at a young age to go to Beijing for a better life. Yi said he sold Chinese donuts at Tiananmen Square in 1989 to survive. After that, he started a very small restaurant. The rest is history. Yi’s humble beginnings probably has affected the way he treats his people.
So why Seattle?
Yi said he was so inspired by Starbucks’ success story that he set his eyes on Seattle. There are more than 3,300 Starbucks locations in China, and they are growing rapidly. For sure, it has enhanced his appreciation towards Starbucks now that its founder, Howard Schultz, is pondering a run for the United States presidency.
Once Yi landed in Seattle, he was delighted with the city. He aims to expand in our state. Already, he has studied Seattle’s Chinatown–International District and downtown. “I’d like to make Imperial Garden successful first, and then expand to other parts of the area.”
How many more restaurants does he want to open in King County? Five more, he said. His answer reflects confidence not only in the county, but his company’s ability to establish its footprint in America.
The admiration between the employer and employees is mutual at Imperial Garden. Being in the restaurant industry for decades, Yee and Tang (also a former restaurateur) realize gracious employers are hard to find. Tang recommended Yi to hire Yee. With pride, Yi showed me a video clip of Tang and Yee’s skills, speed, and dexterity in making dim sum.
During the dinner, Yee and Tang repeatedly encouraged the guests to hold their events at their restaurant. I couldn’t believe it —Yee and Tang’s commitment and loyalty to Yi even though they have worked together for only a short time. The bond between the boss and team is the envy of many in the restaurant business. It also reflects a successful working relationship between Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking Chinese in this community, which is unique because sometimes, it can pose hurdles.
The challenge of many Chinese restaurants is dinnertime. Most dim sum restaurants have decent business during lunch hour, and Imperial Garden is pretty popular. On weekends, there are lines.
What Imperial Garden offers is its new specialty, authentic Beijing duck. Yi hired a team of chefs from Beijing who have years of experience in cooking Beijing duck. A special stove was installed to roast the bird, to preserve its natural flavor.
The duck was the highlight of our dinner. The young chef from Beijing told me that he has been roasting duck for the past 15 years, since he was 18 years old. He sliced the duck with precision. What we would regularly do at home, is chop the bird into random pieces. His craftsmanship was revealed in his finished product — each piece laid out the shape of a bird on the plate.
Seattle’s Beijing duck has been Americanized — it’s marinated and then deep-fried. Then, it’s served with a white Chinese bun (bao). “That’s backward,” said Jimmy Leung, one of the guests, complaining about Seattle’s old-fashioned way of preparing Beijing duck.
Leung appreciated the authentic style at Imperial Garden — the duck has no marinade, and it is served with thin pancake, not bao. Instead, two kinds of sauces were on the table for guests to spoon in and place on the duck meat, before wrapping it with the thin pancake.
Tony Au, another guest, said, “I enjoy the duck because it is light, tasty, with little grease and no MSG. In today’s world, what we eat affects our health. I like to eat simple and healthy food. The other dishes are also light with good wok energy (for the stir-fried dishes).”
Dr. Xiao Ming said, “We are fortunate to eat the authentic Beijing duck here. What Imperial Garden did is exactly the way China cooks the duck. I also enjoy the desserts, which is different from other restaurants. My dream is that Seattle’s Chinese food would excel and beat Vancouver B.C.’s Chinese cuisine.”
After consuming many pieces of duck, I didn’t have room to eat much else. I seconded what Au said, I prefer to eat Beijing duck preserved in its natural flavor. It was my first time in many years that I ate the real thing in Seattle.
Initially, I tried to get out of the dinner due to the freezing weather on Feb. 7. But Au said, “No, you can’t. You have to come.” I am glad I did. And I would be back for sure with my friends for both dinner and dim sum.
I have not stepped foot in Imperial Garden for the past few years. The dinner was unexpectedly pleasant. The restaurant has a lot of potential. Its challenge is all the competition in the area.
It takes a village to run a successful operation. And Yi has an A team. What it needs now is to spread the word that Imperial Garden is now under new ownership and management with its goal for excellence. Its leaders’ new vision and its team’s energy and dedication seem to be in sync.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.