Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Veggie House, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “It’s never been more important to promote vegetarianism.”
As COVID-19 rapidly spread from coast to coast, it seemed no one was exempt from the pandemic’s ability to turn one’s world upside down — and those working in the food industry have certainly been feeling the crunch. For newly-opened restaurants, having poured so much of one’s loving efforts into such an endeavor, conditions appeared rather glum.
Nevertheless, these troubles could not stop Zoe Zhao, who aspired to open the first fully vegetarian restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown.
Zoe was committed to her decision, sure that there was never a more appropriate time to become a vegetarian than the present. Thus, when she received an invitation from a Tzu Chi volunteer named Ma Le to join the Very Veggie Movement, Zoe happily accepted, saying, “Of course, I have to join.”
A Vegetarian Restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown
Passing under the large red torii, proclaiming “The world community is equally shared by all,” and strolling through Chicago’s Chinatown, the dazzling shop signs from Sichuan, Cantonese, and Shanghai-style eateries, quickly captivate one’s attention. However, among the myriad storefronts, it is tough to find a restaurant that exclusively specializes in vegetarian or vegan foods.
“There are many vegetarian friends around me,” said Zoe. “They can’t find the vegetarian foods they want when they eat in Chinatown. Some vegetarian dishes put eggs in, and some add oyster sauce. It becomes a bit dangerous to eat in Chinatown for vegetarians [and vegans].”
Zoe Zhao, the owner of Veggie House, recalled why she wanted to open a vegetarian restaurant, explaining, “At the time, my partner and I also considered whether to open a dessert shop or a sweet water shop. Later, my partner came up with the idea of opening a vegetarian restaurant. I immediately said, ‘Okay, let’s do it!’ Our Chinatown really needs a vegetarian restaurant. I see more and more people around me that are becoming vegetarian. And my partner said that vegetarianism is also very popular in Taiwan, and there are many delicious vegetarian restaurants.”
Since childhood, Zoe Zhao — who is originally from Guangdong — had observed the adults around her eating vegetarian foods on the first and fifteenth day of the Lunar Calendar, and understood that eating vegetarian is not only beneficial for the environment, but for individual health as well. Zoe’s family members and friends who aren’t vegetarians will regularly eat vegetarian foods as a way of balancing their diet and calming their digestive systems.
Zoe also spoke about how popular seafood is among Cantonese cuisine, but she’s also heard that consuming too much seafood can contribute to developing high cholesterol, trigger gout flare-ups, and other health-related issues. More seniors in Guangdong, too, she says, have gradually begun to eat more vegetables, and have become more conscious of their personal health. Although Zoe is not exclusively vegetarian, herself, she has planted the seeds of conscious, mindful eating habits in her life.
Serving Guests With All Your Heart
In order to provide patrons with vegetarian dishes that are both gratifying and healthy, Zoe invited the experienced chef, John Zhao, to join Veggie House as well. Chef Zhao has worked in five-star hotels in Guangdong and Jiangnan, China, for more than 20 years, and has worked for The Peninsula Chicago for eight years. Chef Zhao has formulated his own unique cooking style, distinguished by seasoning that is light yet pleasing, rich in layers, and his dishes are visually delicate, elegant, and colorful.
Together, Chef Zhao and Zoe have designed several innovative dishes for the restaurant. Here are just a few delightful dishes that the menu has to offer:
Crispy Turmeric Oyster Mushrooms
Chewy eryngii mushrooms are chopped into bite-sized portions and fried until delightfully crispy. Enveloped in the attractive aroma of turmeric powder and curry powder, the dish is mouth-watering, indeed.
Veggie House Dumplings
Fresh dumplings are made daily, and paired accordingly with brightly-colored seasonal vegetables — pumpkin, spinach, beetroot, and purple cauliflower.
Mashed White Yams
Nutritious yams are steamed until soft, carefully seasoned, and ground until smooth. Accompanied by a sweet and sour blueberry sauce uniquely formulated by the chef, the dish is both creamy and a delight to the tastebuds.
Other dishes include spaghetti with spinach, seamlessly uniting Chinese and Western cuisines, and Orange Tofu. The list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning some of Veggie House’s scrumptious desserts, however, like their vegan ice cream, and New York cheesecake.
To make a good vegetarian dish, the ingredients must be fresh. According to Zoe, Chef Zhao goes to the market on a daily basis to select ingredients and confirm that they’re as fresh as possible. Secondly, she says, seasoning is also an extremely important element to each of their dishes. After years of experience, Chef Zhao has assembled his own collection of secret seasonings. Through the combination of sauce and vegetables, Chef Zhao invites customers to embark on an entirely new experience.
“Of course, the most important thing is to take care of every customer,” said Zoe. “We mark whether milk or eggs are used on the menu to provide peace of mind for vegan customers, and we will also mark for gluten. In short, we must work hard to take care of the needs of every guest.”
Promoting Vegetarianism in the Pandemic
Zoe and her partner started the restaurant’s renovations in October of last year before the pandemic. It was projected to open in February of this year, but because of the crisis, businesses located in Chicago’s Chinatown were severely hit. “The business was slowing down in February. I thought, ‘let’s hold on the project to wait and see,’ but I didn’t expect a more terrible outbreak in the United States to follow.”
Recalling the past few months, Zoe spoke a bit more about struggling with whether or not to open Veggie House: “The new restaurant can’t get any subsidies, and the landlord also can’t offer a price reduction. The rent has been paid; I have to open. But I also considered that there will be few guests in the pandemic.”
Zoe’s restaurant dares not hire employees, and mainly depends on family members to help. Each day, she makes sure that everyone working in the restaurant is healthy. The tables and chairs are immediately disinfected after dining, and they are fully disinfected twice daily in the afternoon and after dinner. Guests are required to wear masks in accordance with health regulations, and seating arrangements also uphold social distancing measures.
Zoe said that no matter how tired she is, she needs the restaurant to do well. “After the COVID-19 outbreak, many people said that it was because Chinese people ate wildlife. I want to tell everyone that we Chinese have a very good tradition of eating vegetarian food, and our vegetarian dishes are delicious with many innovative ideas.”
While Zoe was striving to conquer the difficulties of opening a new restaurant amid the pandemic and working hard to promote vegetarianism, she met Yue Ma, a Tzu Chi volunteer who is committed to raising awareness for Tzu Chi’s vegetarian mission. Yue Ma recommended that Zoe join the Very Veggie Movement, and the two quickly hit it off.
Zoe was happy to join as a partner of the movement, hoping to encourage more of her customers to eat mindfully through the Very Veggie Movement while also raising awareness for Veggie House’s delectable dishes.
Indeed, within a short period after opening, many customers have already recognized Zoe’s efforts at Veggie House. Zoe said that pressure in the new restaurant can be very high, as she is busy until 11 PM every evening. The thing that sparks the most satisfaction for her after a long day, however, is when she arrives home to read reviews from her guests online. Some praise the dishes, and some offer their heartfelt thanks for opening a vegetarian restaurant in Chinatown.
“It gives me motivation again,” Zoe said, and expressed hopes of perhaps opening a new branch next year. “I hope to open a bigger restaurant in Pacific Square. I heard that there are many vegetarians there. I will do my best so that more people can taste the deliciousness of vegetarian dishes, and appreciate the benefits of vegetarian food.”
Learn more about the Very Veggie Movement and join us by transforming your diet into a vegetarian one, or take part as a partner of the movement!