My Time as a Waitress in a Chinese Restaurant
Getting the Job Done
I worked in a Chinese restaurant called Asia Garden, when I was seventeen. The place was run by a married couple, Anne and Danny Hom. He was from Cleveland, Ohio, but Anne was from the Cantonese Province of China.
I can tell you I was told they would not hire me because it was a family run place, but I got lucky.
They had three children, all still in school, who would come and help out at night and on weekends, if their homework was done. I still remember the smell of the food when I walked in. I have gone to many chinese restaurants looking for the same gravy as Anne put out for the Egg Foo Young. I used to put that sauce on everything, rice egg rolls, you name it.
Well, I guess first I should tell you why I did.
I had never eaten any Chinese food in my life. It was the late 1970s and all we knew of Chinese food was La Choy, or Chun King. Canned chow mein. Do they even make that any more? After I went to work for them that all changed,
Anne said I could make myself a plate from the buffet when I worked the lunch shift. The food was all foreign to me and I would just wait till I got home to eat.
One day I was opening a package of coffee to make a pot and it spilled all over the buffet. Danny was furious. He called me a stupid girl and shouted at me in Chinese, Anne came out of the kitchen and quietly helped us clean up the mess. Danny scooped out any food with coffee grounds in it and threw it away. Then he put the rest onto a plate for me, and said You will eat this now, I cannot serve it.
There was fried rice, egg foo young, mini egg rolls, chop suey, and moo goo gai pan. He covered it all with Anne's sauce for the egg foo young and made me sit down to eat. I was pregnant, and I wanted to protest. First of all I didn't "like" chinese food (Of course I had never eaten real chinese food). But I did not like gravy or sauce of any kind. Still, I was being punished. So I ate.
Danny was not punishing me. I never tasted anything so good in my life. He knew I had never tasted the food, and as such had no respect for it. He knew my knowledge of chinese food was limited to canned goods. He wanted me to know how good the food was, so that I would never be near the food with anything that could contaminate it. It was the most important lesson of my life, I think.
When you have respect for yourself, or your job, or the work someone has done, you will not do anything to harm it. Danny taught me the meaning of respect. You respect the things you love and adore. For Anne and Danny, they adored their family. Danny's mother had owned a Chinese restaurant in Cleveland. It was Danny's adoration for his family and his mother that made him open this one in Austintown, Ohio. Out of respect for the tradition his mother had started, he wanted to raise his children the way his mother raised him.
That wasn't Real Chinese Food
Some time later, the family had cause for Celebration. Danny's mother came to visit and many family members also. They closed the restaurant and had the wait staff work to serve. All of the tables were pushed together in the center of the dining room. The guests all sat around the table laughing and toasting each other. The table was laid out with an array of food such as I had never seen.
I had to ask what everything was, because, while I had by this time learned the entire menu, I didn't know what any of the food was, except the rice. I asked Danny why they did not put any of these fabulous dishes on the menu.
He said " You Americans don't know anything about Chinese food. You only know Chun King. Chun King is made by an American. If I put this on the menu, no one would come here to eat!"
"This is Traditional Chinese Family Celebration. This is a traditional Chinese Family. This is Traditional Chinese Food. You probably would not like it."
I chuckled at his comment because of the way I had treated the food in the beginning. I had always said, "No thank you, I'm not hungry." I was not rude and did not want to insult them. I didn't know they knew I was too scared to eat the food until I had tried it.
And that delicious Chinese food that I had eaten from the buffet, was not 'Real' Chinese food, according to Danny Hom. That was just the version we Americans would eat.
Their Celebration ran long into the night. The Homs finally sent the staff home and stayed in the restaurant. As I got in the car, I wished I could stay too. I wanted to belong to this family. I wanted to take part in their celebration. I wondered what I was missing, what the segregation of the time was doing to us all.
When I left there to become a wife and mother, I was told I could always come back. Of course my husband wouldn't let me because Danny was always trying to marry me off to some single Asian or Korean man who came in to eat. I would say I am already taken. He would say "That man will not make you happy, but this one will." I wonder...
I stopped by once when I visited Ohio again. They were still there, though Danny had retired from his work for the Post Office and was now in the restaurant full time. Anne came out still looking the same, as if she had not aged a day. They said they were going to work a couple of more years and then retire to Florida. Their children were not going to take over the restaurant. They were not interested in tradition. "Everything is changing," Danny said. I said "I'll miss the food."
Anne promised me the recipe for that egg foo young gravy when she retired, but I was not in Ohio when they closed the restaurant.
One day I walked into a Chinese Take-out place in Lantana, Florida. I could not believe it but there was that fragrance from so long ago. The aroma I had been looking for.
I went to the counter and talked to the owner, I was picking up an order. "Are you Cantonese? I asked. She nodded and said "How did you know?" I asked about the smell, and explained I had been looking for that flavor for years. I told her briefly that Anne had promised me that recipe, and that I had it all figured out except one ingredient. "It's Saffron" she said with a smile. We discussed the ingredients that I had figured out on my own, and she said I was right, all that was missing was the saffron. She also offered me a job. Unfortunately, at the time I could not afford to take it.
I wonder if she is still there. Perhaps I will go this weekend and see. I need a job now. And it's almost Chinese New Year!
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