Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Evergreen Restaurant, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “You need to cook with your heart.”
“We need to make our guests satisfied,” he recalled of his thoughts at that moment. Chef Cai inquired mindfully about the tastes of his new guests’ vegetarian diet, and each dish was then adjusted according to their preferences. “Everyone has different tastes and different requirements, such as not putting green onion, ginger, or garlic; we are happy to accommodate our dishes with our customers’ requests.” The delectable vegetarian dishes impressed the volunteers greatly, and thus, Chef Cai forged a fast friendship with Tzu Chi.
From Guangdong to Chicago
“I am from Taishan, Guangdong,” Chef Cai told the volunteers. “I started to learn cooking as early as the 1980s. I followed a chef from Hong Kong and also learned how to run a restaurant.”
Chef Cai then recalled the time he took to the road to explore the catering industry in greater detail: “I like studying customers and cooking. At that time, Guangdong cuisine was not just following the tastes of southern China. In fact, there were chefs from all over China — north and south. Together, they exchanged cooking methods and learned from each other. Chefs of Cantonese cuisine were open enough to accept the characteristics of various cuisines and rich in tastes.”
After Hong Cai moved to the United States in 1993, he soon found a job at a restaurant thanks to his experience in the catering industry. While working diligently at the restaurant, he also learned more about management. It only seemed natural that when the original owner of Evergreen Restaurant retired, the business would be passed along to him. “In the beginning, I helped the owner in managing the restaurant, and then I did it for myself.” Chef Cai was indeed proud of all they’d accomplished at his restaurant. “Our restaurant has been open for almost 30 years, and the guests love our food because our dishes remain high in quality and taste. Coupled with reasonable prices and good materials, customers have always been very supportive.”
Chef Cai said that the dishes in Evergreen Restaurant not only include cuisines from northern and southern China but American Chinese food as well. “Over the years, the taste of our dishes has changed a lot. We try to cover the tastes of everyone. Some dishes are adapted to the tastes of young people, and there are also light tastes that the elderly like. We have Chinese dishes that Americans love, and we also have very authentic Cantonese dishes that are favored by immigrants from China.”
Respecting the Ingredients
“Many people know that in Cantonese cuisine ingredients are important, but the most important thing is how you use the ingredients.” Chef Cai said honestly that while he is good at making Cantonese cuisine, he feels he has room for growth when it comes to vegetarian dishes. However, he believes the concepts behind cooking tasty food are the same. It has to be done with love and care. “Processing the ingredients to the right degree is the strength of Cantonese cuisine.” Chef Cai told us of the many different cooking methods in Cantonese cuisine. For example, the difference that stewing or simmering can inspire in different ingredients.
A most traditional Cantonese dish that’s also a very popular vegetarian option at Evergreen, the Buddha’s Delight, is an excellent example of this careful consideration making a world of difference when it comes to taste.
“The ingredients are relatively expensive ones, such as winter mushrooms, straw mushrooms, wood ears, etcetera,” explained Chef Cai. “There are also valuable dried mushrooms, plus bamboo shoots or snow fungus. The materials are superior. Whether the dish could be done well depends on the preparation of the materials, and after preparation, the cooking method is basically simmering.” For Chef Cai, simmering involves stir-frying the ingredients and placing them in a ceramic vessel. Then, he adds the broth, boils the ingredients, then turns it to low heat, and allows it to cook for a very specific amount of time. “Vegetarian dishes have a milder taste, and it takes a while when simmering to stimulate the aroma and taste of the ingredients,” said Chef Cai. Stewing, on the other hand, is the method used for Bean Curd with Chinese Vegetables. The fresh tofu must be coated first with potato flour and fried until golden. Then, the broth and seasonings are added. It’s quickly fried over high heat, and then gorgon juice is stirred in. While ingredients simmering on a low fire are cooked until tender, stewing utilizes high heat for a short duration, balancing out crispiness and tenderness so the fried tofu mingles perfectly with the stir-fried Bo-Choy heart.
Many vegetables, such as sweet cauliflower, crisp green beans, and soft pumpkin, can be stir-fried to stimulate their aroma. “Don’t underestimate the stir-fry. It is simple but it’s not easy to control the heat. If it is a vegetarian dish without many seasonings, the heat control would be the key to bring out the taste of vegetables,” Chef Cai explained.
There are many mouth-watering vegetarian desserts available at Evergreen Restaurant as well, like their mango pudding, which is made with fresh mango, their Cantonese rice cakes that are uniquely made into carp-like shapes, and “longevity peaches” wrapped in sweet red bean fillings.
Withstanding the Pandemic
“Our business used to be very good. There were long queues at the door and customers had to wait for a long time before they could eat,” Chef Cai recalled of his business before the pandemic. As the pandemic surged across the nation, however, the booming Evergreen Restaurant was suddenly facing rather precarious circumstances. Business at the restaurants in Chicago’s Chinatown chiefly depends upon family gatherings, friendly reunions, and corporate events. During the pandemic, it’s vital that individuals follow procedures that safeguard public health, especially for our most vulnerable members of the community, and so, public gatherings were put on hold. Chef Cai said that business at Evergreen Restaurant has dropped by at least 70%, and he scarcely brings in customers with even his food deliveries.
“Now the prices of ingredients are rising and business is not good. We dare not increase the price. Coupled with payment for the food delivery companies we cooperate with, we in fact are at a loss. So the customers who know us better will just call us directly to order, and we can deliver food to them.” Chef Cai also expressed worries for the future: “The economy is not good and consumption will be slow. I don’t know what to do with the business next,” he said.
As Chef Cai’s concerns over the restaurant’s future continued to grow, he was contacted once more by Tzu Chi volunteers who love his vegetarian meals and wished to help. They invited him to join the Very Veggie Movement as a partner, which would not only help promote access to vegetarian alternatives but generate greater awareness for his flavorsome foods. Even though business has been difficult, Chef Cai quickly decided to join in, and generously provides discounts on his vegetarian menu items.
“This winter, we probably still have to rely on food delivery,” said Chef Cai. The pandemic continues to grip the world, and Chef Cai is doing all that he can to keep his restaurant going. In a time where mindfully supporting one another is critical, Chef Cai is grateful for the help that Tzu Chi has offered and the gentle awareness the movement brings to communities across the nation.
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