Thursday, August 14, 2014

Zip in and go at Ziingo

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
August 14, 2014

Chances are good that if you ask someone what Kalamazoo-area restaurants are their favorite, Chinn Chinn will be on that list. Its owner and chef John Tsui talks with Zinta Aistars about his career in the restaurant business and his latest venture, Ziingo. 

It’s Monday morning, the one day during the week that the Asian bistro, Chinn Chinn, at 52885 N. Main Street in Mattawan, about 15 miles west of Kalamazoo, is closed. It’s so early that the last wispy shadows of dawn have yet to be swept away, streets are nearly empty, and so is the parking lot of the small strip mall where Chinn Chinn reigns supreme. Inside, however, there is brisk movement. John Tsui, chef and owner of the bistro, has been here since 5:30 a.m., as he is every single morning.

Tsui takes a moment to pour a coffee and give final instructions to a delivery man. "Monday is my day to catch up with inventory," he says. He smiles when asked how many hours he spends at the restaurant and lets the question hang in the air unanswered. He does admit to being at the restaurant until 8 or 9 p.m. most other nights, but who’s counting? 

Long-time residents of greater Kalamazoo may recall another large and always bustling restaurant on South Westnedge Avenue from the 1980s into the early 2000s, near the Interstate 94 overpass, Peking Palace. It’s gone now, replaced by an auto parts store and another restaurant, but Peking Palace was what brought Tsui’s family over the long road from California to southwest Michigan. 

Born in Seoul, South Korea, John Tsui says his father must have had some idea about immigrating eventually to the United States, as Tsui was educated in American schools. "My parents fled to Korea from the Mainland," he says. "My father was in textiles and often traveled to New York City." 

When it came time to immigrate to the United States, however, the Tsui family chose the Los Angeles area of California, where John Tsui grew up. 

"We moved to Kalamazoo in 1981, when my father partnered up with a childhood friend in Lansing to open Peking Palace in Kalamazoo," Tsui says. 

The place had long been vacant, but with extended family helping out as kitchen and wait staff, the restaurant quickly became a success. Tsui honed his own culinary skills in the restaurant’s kitchen. When his father passed away in 1988, he helped keep the restaurant going, although "the restaurant was so big, and the building so old, that all the profit went into keeping up the building."

In 2003, it was time to close the doors.       

"A developer came in and gave us, as they say, an offer too good to refuse," Tsui says. That, and the family needed some time to take a deep breath. Tsui said he and wife Michelle took a year off to travel around Michigan and savor the foods of other Asian restaurants. He was already working on his next idea. 

"I wanted to see what others were doing," he says. "All food is basically the same. You have your meat, vegetable, a hot pot and seasoning. I wanted to make food from my own culture, but not so traditional or old school. I had a mish-mash of ideas."

Chinn Chinn opened in 2004, and it didn’t take long for the lines to form. No secret, Tsui shrugs. "It’s a combination of everything: food, people, service. No one person makes a success. In December it will be our tenth anniversary, and we’ll throw a big party for staff."

Tsui gives credit to his staff, and there are 49 of them, including his aunt Amy and his mother, who returned to the kitchen after that year off, saying they couldn’t stand to stay home and do nothing. Their images decorate the walls of Chinn Chinn, outside and in. 

He also believes in sitting down together to enjoy a staff dinner, everyone at the table after business hours are done and the doors are shut. At Chinn Chinn, staff sit down to a shared meal every night.

"It gives everyone a chance to just talk. Not about what went on at Table 7, but what’s going on in their own lives. Sharing food, it’s an intimate moment. We eat together, we play together, we work together." 

Tsui admits, "Usually there’s a lot of turnover in restaurant staff. But we have people who have worked here since the beginning. Some who left for other jobs have come back."

Tsui is bringing in five staff members, which also include his two daughters, as partners in his next venture, Ziingo, to open in late September at 3830 W. Centre Street in Portage’s Woodbridge Shopping Village. The idea arose from a need to expand on his take-out business, leaving Chinn Chinn for the sit-down dinner.

"We get a lot of customers here from Portage," Tsui says. "I want to capture that market in their own neighborhood, make it more convenient. The menu will be based on what we have at Chinn Chinn, but the food will be deconstructed. The customer picks up a bowl, picks the meat, the sauces and the seasoned vegetables. Every meal will be unique."

Tsui makes a point of working with other businesses nearby. He points to a chalkboard of specials, naming ...


Chinn Chinn in Mattawan, Michigan 

No comments:

Post a Comment