Chef Interview: Four Seasons Owners on Lunar New Year
One of the most popular restaurants among Chowbus customers is Four Seasons Dumpling Chinese Restaurant (“Four Seasons”). After a recent interview with co-owner Zhao, it’s easy to see why: the passion Zhao and her husband have poured into their restaurant since it opened a few years ago can be tasted with each bite of food. In our conversation, Zhao offered an inside look into what it’s like to start a business as a Chinese immigrant, what she’s learning from working with her husband every day, and what her favorite customs (and foods!) are for Chinese New Year celebrations.
四季饺子馆是Chowbus最受顾客欢迎的餐厅之一。 在采访餐厅老板娘赵姐后，很容易就能明白他家店受人欢迎的原因。自从几年前开业以来，赵姐和她的丈夫就对餐厅充满了热情，这在他们卖出的每一份餐点中都可以体现出来。 在我们的对话中，赵姐讲述了作为中国移民做生意的难处、夫妻一起打拼的点点滴滴、以及她最喜欢的农历新年的习俗和美食。
Can you briefly introduce yourself and your family?
I am Zhao, and run the restaurant with my husband Yuan. We are from Tieling, China originally. We now live in Chicago with our teenage daughter. My husband has been in the U.S. since 2012 and I came with our daughter in 2014.
My husband started to learn how to cook when he was around 16 years old at a five star hotel. Then he went to a Korean cooking school to further advance his skills and experiences. Since he has over 20 years of cooking experience now, his taste buds are particularly sensitive and that’s one of the reasons why his food is always delicious. Of course, he is naturally talented in cooking but also in managing the business.
What led you to move to Chicago?
My husband came to the U.S. to seek for a better life and decided to settle in Chicago as he already had family here. He arrived by himself first while my daughter and I remained in China for another two years. Tieling is much colder than Chicago so it hasn’t required much adjustment weather wise, but it took time to adjust to the ingredients as we have high standards and there are some ingredients from China that are not available in the U.S.
What did you do after you settled down in Chicago?
Yuan was hired as a chef at a Chinese restaurant through the help of an agency. It was difficult for me to find a job because I didn’t speak any English. I attended English classes for 3 months to learn the basics, then I worked at a nail salon despite having no prior experience. That’s a common place for Chinese women to work upon moving to the U.S.
Why did you and your husband open Four Seasons?
When Yuan was working at another restaurant, he was working 12-hours a day and was not able to spend quality time with the family. We barely saw each other and our young daughter. That’s when we decided to open a restaurant in order for us to spend more time together as a family, even if that means we will still be working but at least we can physically see each other. We decided to open a dumpling restaurant not because we had a secret recipe but simply because our daughter likes dumplings.
Initially, we debated among several names for the restaurant including using our daughter’s name. However, after consulting friends and family, we decided to name it Four Seasons. The name is meant to represent that our daughter can enjoy dumplings all year throughout four seasons.
最初，我们想了好几个店名，包括使用女儿的名字作为店名。 但是，在咨询了亲朋好友之后，我们决定将其命名为“四季”。 这个名字是希望我们的女儿可以在一年四季中都可以享用饺子。
What challenges, if any, did you encounter at the beginning?
It was really difficult to get started when we didn’t even know English. We had to ask our friends to review legal contracts for us because we didn’t understand them otherwise. There were many things that we had to learn ourselves especially when it came to marketing. It also took time to perfect our recipes. We are really grateful to our friends and family who provided us with feedback and helped us along the way.
当初我们有语言障碍时，经营餐馆真的很难上手。多亏了家人和朋友们的帮助和支持。我们不得不请朋友为我们审查法律合同，帮助我们翻译。 我们在经营餐馆的过程中学习了很多东西，特别是在营销方面。 我们花了很长时间去完善餐厅的食谱。
What brings you joy from operating Four Seasons?
It brings me joy to hear positive feedback from customers such as when they tell me our dishes are delicious. It has also been fulfilling to see our restaurant grow overtime.
What is it like to own a business with your spouse? How do you divide up responsibilities?
I am responsible for more of the social aspect of the business such as communicating with customers, while my husband is in charge of the kitchen and general business operations. Something that might be different because we are a couple is that my husband often tries to hide issues and worries from me regarding the business, but I can always tell.
Of course, there will be arguments and things we disagree on when it comes to the restaurant. But since we have been married for a long time, we already know how to deal with it when it happens. Also, we try our best to minimize discussions about the restaurant after we get home. We usually do a brief summary like how business was overall for the day, but then we try to relax and focus on our personal lives.
This past year has affected many people, especially restaurants. How has Covid impacted you, the restaurant, and the family?
We had to make some adjustments at the beginning especially around our staffing and hours. Despite that, our business hasn’t been heavily impacted and we are continuing to grow thanks to our loyal customers. Even though restaurants are able to open for dine-in again, we have decided to keep it as delivery / pick up only for safety reasons.
Can you talk about how you spend Chinese New Year? How is CNY different in the U.S vs. in China?
Chinese New Year for the restaurant is always one of our busiest days, but we would still make time to eat lunch with our employees and dinner with our family. We would also give out red packets to employees to thank them for their efforts during the year.
Chinese New Year celebrations cannot be separated from food. Our Chinese New Year meals typically must include chicken, duck, and fish. I would also make some pickled vegetables to help balance out the meal from all the meat. In Northern China, we like to roast chicken and enjoy it with beer which creates a joyous occasion with family and friends. The chicken tastes even better the following day. Of course, there are always dumplings at the table even if you are not wealthy.
Aside from food, we would also put up CNY decorations, set fireworks, and light up lanterns. But the most important thing is to have the family together and spend time with each other.
Chinese New Year in the U.S. is very different from China because it's not a holiday that most people celebrate here so it’s not as festive. It’s also lacking since we don’t have a lot of family and friends around us.
One of the most popular foods for CNY is dumplings, and your restaurant is one of the top places for that in Chicago. Do you have any tips for how to make delicious dumplings? What’s your secret?
We don’t have any secrets to share. Our recipe has been tweaked and improved many times based on feedback received from friends and customers. We have heard from our customers that they particularly love our soup based dumplings, for which we boil the broth down to its collagen and mix it with the dumpling filling.
What’s your favorite dumpling?
Zhao: Lamb and carrot. Lamb is especially good for the winter because it helps to warm up your body. Carrot is good for your eyesight. Lamb and carrot are great compliments to each other.
Yuan: Pork, shrimp & chives. This is a classic dumpling flavor. It has meat, seafood and vegetable so what’s not to love?
Lastly, what are some popular dishes from your restaurant other than dumplings? If you can only choose one dish, what would you recommend to customers?
We recently launched two new dishes that we would love for our customers to try: 1. Pickled cabbage pot, and 2. Spicy whole fish pot. We buy fresh whole fishes to create this dish, and customers can select how spicy they would like it.
Other than dumplings, I would also recommend our stewed meat ball with mixed vegetables, and braised chicken.