15-Brian Ruliffson 10/7/08 Third Time’s The Charm Michael Chau locked up the big double doors of the restaurant in Louisiana, which he now no longer owns, and walked away. It was the last time he was ever going to be in such a bad location. He had got an offer for a new place in Austin. Of course, the same exact thing had happened six months before when he closed up his old restaurant, Lim Ting. He had owned Lim Ting for three long years, but the location wasn’t good enough either. So when he got an offer to move from Austin to Louisiana to open up a new restaurant, he took it. Now, after only six months he was moving back to Austin to buy another place. The Chinese man who owned the restaurant, Peter Chang, had had the restaurant for about seven years, so it seemed to Michael to be a good place to finally settle down. The only thing that Peter wanted was that the name of the restaurant be kept the same, Tien Jin.
Chef Michael Chau has now owned Tien Jin for fifteen successful years with his wife Joanna. They are both good chefs, both waiters and both parents. Michael graduated college with a degree in business and that training has helped him with his restaurants. The open hours on weekdays are from eleven to two and from five to nine-thirty, and on weekends they go all the way from twelve to nine-thirty. They use the wooden bar for the cashier’s counter for when
people order take out, otherwise the bar is unused. Michael has many framed articles on the wall that have been written by journalists. He only complains about one. It’s not on the wall, though.
“Photographer take lousy picture, only half of my face!” said Michael.
They have two sons, Alex and Kevin. Both have helped with the restaurant ever since they could answer a telephone and take a customer’s request. Alex is now in college after graduating from the LBJ Magnet Program a year before it changed to LASA. Kevin is in sixth grade and is attending the magnet program at Kealing.
“Tien Jin Chinese Restaurant, may I take your order,” Kevin says into the phone while he takes out a sheet of carbon paper and a note pad.
If Kevin isn’t in his room at the restaurant playing computer games then he is sitting next to the big red front doors and doing his homework at the spare table with the white table cloth, always with his back facing the incoming people. Michael doesn’t want his son to get into the business of restaurants though.
“Really hard,” Michael says, “don’t think about it. It’s not worth it.”
In the mornings, Michael gets up, goes to work and starts making rice, boiling chicken broth, mixing sauces. By eleven, he is ready to open up for the buffet. In the kitchen, he has to cook and bring out the food that is running low outside in the buffet and he also has to take the orders of
the people who don’t want to eat from the buffet. Once two o’clock arrives, the doors lock and the brooms, mops, sponges come out. For three hours they clean everything: utensils, dishes, glasses, napkins, floors, tables, table cloths, and stoves. This is all done by the waiters in their white restaurant uniforms and their black aprons, Michael and Joanna in theirs. The waiters’ ages will range from eighteen to forty and they make an hourly wage of two dollars and fifteen cents.
“They make the rest up on tips…it’s a hard job,” Michael says.
Each waiter will usually be there for only a few months and then he or she will leave. Then the next waiter will come, and then go.
People often ask what the chef recommends and depending on who the person is he will change his answer. If they are white Americans he will recommend the sesame chicken or the General Tso’s chicken or the beef with Chinese vegetables—something you could get anywhere in Austin, something that isn’t too exotic. If they are Chinese or Taiwanese or some other Mandarin- or Cantonese-speaking family he rarely has to recommend a dish for them, they just read the Chinese menu. But if they do ask for a recommendation he will name his favorite dishes: steamed fish, Chinese broccoli, pipa tofu, duck with scallions, and so on.
Lengthy conversations often go on between him and the customers. They are most of the time in Mandarin Chinese. His wife does this too. He refers to all of his customers by their first names and acts like he has known them for a long time, and they always act the same way towards him.
“We try to remember them,” he laughs. “It’s always good business to call someone by name… The customers are friends; they are more friends than customers.”
The restaurant is artistically filled with decorations: red lanterns on the white ceiling, and bronze Buddha statues on the corner of the bar and next to the fish tank, eightfoot long paintings on the walls. One painting is of the scenery of China’s mountainous country side and one is a bronze “pop-out” sculpture of a very famous bridge in China. There are artificial flowers and plants everywhere: on the bar, on the short portable wall that runs through the middle of the room, and all around the fish tank. They are all bought and brought back from China, but he doesn’t visit any more.
“We get all our food from whole sale…in bulk,” Michael says.
The food ships from Dallas; the chicken and beef from Genesis Bulk & Natural Foods Company and the seafood, which is shipped to Dallas from the coast, from Sea Food Supply. The food comes raw and unprepared; so that Michael can prepare the dishes however he wants. Most of his recipes come from a cook book but there are house specials like the pipa tofu and the duck with scallion. His most expensive and least ordered dish is lobster; it’s not even on the menu, but by special request he will make it.
Michael was inspired to start cooking by his mother—not because she was a good cook but because she was a bad one. It was when he first tasted good food that he decided that he wanted to cook.
“I wanted to learn to make good food, not just food on the table,” Michael says.
When the place is clean and no one is there to eat; the waiters all start to fold napkins and the restaurant is silent, except for the sound of classical Chinese CDs and the occasional sip from Michael’s beer glass. Once the clock reads nine thirty he turns off the lights and walks out and locks the doors.