I met Ellen Zhao as early as a year ago, but we only really got to know each other in recent months. Life is strangely serendipitous sometimes – it feels as if you meet people that you need to meet at certain points in your life. The two of us turned out to be quite similar minded. Zhao once told me that “the stomach carries the heart,” and I thought it was a cute saying but meaningless jibberish. Nowadays, I’ve begun to understand the tightly knit relationship between humans and food. It’s both a physical and psychological experience. The relationship between us and the world is interconnected as well, an internal and external exchange. Recently, I met up with her again to better understand her thoughts on the connection between us humans and food, and some of the concepts behind her private kitchen, Yue Shi.
Neocha: You say that everyone has memories that are some way or another tied with food. Can you tell us about a certain taste that is locked in your own memory?
Ellen: It’s definitely Chinese-style cabbage and tofu stew. It reminds me of when I was a child and still living with my grandparents. My grandfather was a diligent and pragmatic craftsman who rose with the sun and rested when it set. My grandmother would pick a cabbage from the garden and boil it together with grandfather’s homemade tofu. Occasionally my grandmother would cook this dish with meat (because it was my grandfather’s favorite), and occasionally, my grandfather would add shrimp (because that’s what my grandmother enjoyed). It was the perfect meal, gathering over a bubbling stove, the air heavy with sorghum wine and the smell of fresh homemade cabbage and tofu stew wafting in the air.
Neocha: What does the process of preparing a meal mean to you?
Ellen: Cooking for me is like having a conversation with the world around me. There are so many possibilities and I’m inspired from the very moment that I start to buy my ingredients. The preparation process allows me to get in touch with my ingredients. With every stroke of my knife, we fall into a deeper understanding. When bringing a dish together, there are endless possibilities: sautéing, frying, steaming, and stewing. The whole process is a test of skill and endurance. A minute too long on the flame could be the difference between a dish being over overcooked. The moment when everything comes together in the pan isn’t actually the most exciting moment. Instead, it’s the waiting that excites me. For me, the defining moment is when each flavor comes together to create a complete dish; it’s an honest and sincere moment. When the meal is over, even the clean up is like meditation; it’s a time to reflect on the meal and consider whether it was cooked to its fullest potential. This allows me to add layers and emotions into my flavors.
Neocha: Once you started cooking from your private kitchen, how has your understanding of food changed?
Ellen: Everything that I make is seasonal – there is no fixed menu. My dishes are also dependent on the tastes, preferences and dietary needs of guests. I believe that my customers also have to respect food. I used to think that food was a very personal thing but then I realized that without the right company to share it with, it becomes much less meaningful. Whenever I see diners enjoy the entire experience with their friends, it moves me. No matter how hard I work in the kitchen, whenever I witness this moment, I feel that it is worth it.
Neocha: How would you describe the relationship between people and food?
Ellen: I believe the relationship between people and food is like a mirror; you truly are what you eat.
Neocha: How does your restaurant name, Yue Shi, tie in with your food philosophy?
Ellen: Many people think that Yue Shi has something to do with Vietnamese cuisine because the Chinese word yue is similar to the Chinese word meaning Vietnamese. But it is more to do with the fact that my Chinese name has the character yue in it. My father had decided on this name even before I was born in hopes that I would be able to overcome any setbacks and difficulties in life. When you dismantle the Chinese characters for Yue Shi, the individual strokes carry the meaning of being people-orientated and coming from the heart. Making food should not be a hastily rushed process; it should be done with diligence and care in order to create your own unique flavor.
Neocha: In life, people are sure to encounter moments that make them rethink their perspective on life. What have you come across?
Ellen: You encounters high and lows in life, and it’ll come at you with unexpected surprises. Some people say that theater imitates life, but I find that it’s more accurate to say life imitates theater. The pressure and inevitabilities of life come like torrential rain at times. I recall one week when I barely got any sleep. One night during this week, around four or five in the morning, I still couldn’t fall sleep; I went running by the river instead. As the sun rose, I noticed, to my surprise, that everything looked monochromatic – I lost my ability to see color. The world was replaced by an unsettling black and white. All the colors turned to gray. Becoming colorblind, I learned to see things from a completely different perspective, and I realized how beautiful the world could be. But as time passed, I realized that the world is just the way it is and the only true change is just a matter of personal perspective.
Neocha: What do you see happening in the future for you?
Ellen: Regardless of where and when, I want to always stay true to my passion for food and food culture. Even though I am just one person, I just hope to always stay true to this.
Neocha: In this moment, what do you feel like eating?
Ellen: A red bean ice pop.