Interview with Sook Sook from Oriental Garden
1. Please introduce yourself & where are you originally from. ( We all know him as "Sook Sook" aka "Uncle" from Oriental Garden) Tell us how you came to decide to come to the US.
I am Kwok Chik Koo. I came to the U.S. because my wife was here. Originally I’d left China to go to Hong Kong. My wife left to the U.S. first and she came back to marry me and bring me over. Back then we didn’t think too much into it - we thought America would provide us with a better life. We didn’t think too long-term back then.
2. Did you find Chinatown to be a helpful community upon your arrival to the US?
When I came, I didn’t know English, so of course I looked for work in Chinatown. I learned how to work an iron press at a garment factory. We produced a lot of jeans, so I learned how to do it. I did it for a little bit, and then Oriental Garden opened, so I moved over there. They opened in 1984.
3. Where do you currently work?
I currently work at Oriental Garden as the manager. I started off as a busboy. I was really shy back then. I was constantly dropping things because I was so nervous. When I walked out into the dining area, it felt like everyone was staring at me. I’m no longer nervous. As I’ve gotten older, my skin has gotten thicker.
4. How have the customers over the years changed?
Before, there used to be mostly Chinese customers. Right now, it’s around half Chinese, half non-Chinese.
5. What is the most popular dimsum dish?
There are “four precious” items that everyone who sits down to dimsum orders: ha gao, siu mai, feng jiao, and pai gwut.
6. What is the most popular non-dimsum dish?
Our seafood dishes are popular: Lobster Country style, Shrimp Balls With Mayonnaise. Because our customers have changed over time, the most popular dishes have changed over time too. Our customers want to be healthier now- they want less oil, less fat. Steamed Scallops with Bean Curd and Black Bean Sauce is a popular one. Pork Chop Peking Style is another popular one. Fried chicken with garlic sauce is another one.
7. Any celebrity sightings?
A lot. I myself don’t know a lot of them. Andy Lau has been here. Fei fei. A lot of Hong Kong celebrities. A few American celebrities have been here but I don’t remember their names. A former Cuban president was here. In New York, we’re known to make really good Hong Kong style cuisine. The second richest real estate mogul in China has come. Mayor Bloomberg came (but I wasn't here). Over the years, a lot of celebrities have been here.
8. How do you think Chinatown has changed over the years? For the better or for the worst?
It's changed a lot. There weren't a lot of Chinese restaurants outside of Manhattan's Chinatown when we first opened. But starting in the ‘90’s, a lot of them opened in Flushing and Brooklyn. More and more of them are popping up. Manhattan's Chinatown has gotten a lot quieter. Factories and restaurants prospered at the same time. But factories have since moved back to China since it's cheaper to get stuff made there, and in the last few years, the popular job for immigrants is to become a home caretaker. A lot of former factory workers have now become caretakers.
In the future, I think there will be fewer and fewer restaurant workers as well.
Take our chef, Master Wong. He knows how to make a lot of traditional Chinese dishes. But very few people are entering the profession to learn how to cook Chinese cuisine. How come? In general, people going into cooking are few and far between. But there are also many other reasons.
When Chinese people do restaurants, they work long hours. A French restaurant - they'll work 8 hours. The way Chinese restaurants make money is that they work for a long time. They'll work 11-12 hours. Young people don’t want to go into that.
Chinese restaurants also compete on price. So in people's minds, Chinese food is associated with being cheap. We haven't been able to compete on quality.
So which approach do you think is better?
I'm not necessarily right, but I would prefer to compete on quality.
Competing on price is not sustainable. Ingredients are not getting cheaper. So over time, you have to decrease the quality and quantity of what you give customers. If you discount your dish by $0.20, you'll have to follow that up with giving them 1.5 pieces of chicken instead of 2. Over time you'll diminish the quality.
9. Your daughter Cynthia has created a dimsum-inspired brand called Wonton in a Million (www.wontoninamillion.com) on Etsy. What do you think of it?
I think it'll show more people what dimsum is. There are a lot of dishes that were traditionally served in dimsum that we've stopped serving. The younger crowd don't eat things like pig stomach. We used to make it and it would sit there and go to waste. But in some other parts of NYC where there are more Chinese people, like in Brooklyn, they do have dishes like that. So I think it’s good that more people will be introduced to dimsum.
10. Favorite ice cream flavor?
Sesame. It used to be vanilla. No one used to make sesame. People make such interesting flavors now. There used to only be vanilla, strawberry, chocolate. Did you ever try our durian pastry puff? Our lotus root puff? When we sold the durian puff, it sometimes bothered other guests, even guests at the same table. So we stopped selling it. But there is a lot of creativity in food now.