Words by: Kate Zhang
When I walked into the Chinese restaurant opposite Coles in Caulfield Plaza, its owner June Wang greeted me with enthusiasm and asked me what I would like to order.
“Which one do your customers like the most?” I asked Mum Wang, flipping through the menu.
“It’s a difficult question,” she replied. “Everything on my menu is created by my customers. They said to me: ‘I want to have eggplant pot.’ And then I tried to cook some for them to taste. They told me: ‘Oh, it’s delicious!’ Then I add it to the menu. Every dish was created in this way. So, my menu is filled with what my customers like.”
This is the first story she told me. She has endless stories to tell. In her eyes, every dish on the menu means a customer who likes it, and every table in the restaurant means a customer who likes to sit in there.
A couple of customers liked the spicy chicken pot very much. They ordered that pot every time they came, even if Wang had advised them to try something else.
A senior citizen who liked to sit at the corner all day long helped Wang wash the dishes, stacking the plates in a beautiful and complex way, and was very proud of this ‘artwork’.
A man said Wang’s lamb pot tastes exactly the same as his mum’s cooking, even if he is not from China. One day, he brought his mother to the restaurant to try it, and Wang was surprised and happy.
Wang has run the restaurant for more than a decade. She creates bonds with her customers, and makes connections between them, building a big family where everyone helps one another.
She told me the story of a couple who were excellent piano players and used to perform on stage in China. When they came to Australia, they worked as cleaners, but Wang wanted to find them a job that they’d truly like to do and would be good at. She sent messages to the WeChat group of her regular customers to ask if anyone would like their children to learn how to play the piano. Many replied, and someone even provided the couple with accommodation.
In Chinese culture, you can call a female stranger who is roughly your mother’s age ‘auntie’. Wang’s restaurant was called Auntie Wang’s Private Kitchen if translated directly, but since Wang’s customers started to call her ‘Mum Wang’, she realised that she always hoped her cooking could remind her customers of their mum. So, she changed the restaurant’s name to Mum Wang’s Private Kitchen.
Indeed, she is like her customers’ mum. She admitted to me that maybe she doesn’t cook as well as a professional, but she added less salt and oil to make her dishes healthier. She creates a unique sauce made of minced beef and diced vegetables for the students who are not good at cooking or lack healthy eating habits. When she notices that her customers feel uncomfortable, she asks her daughter for help, who may cure them with her knowledge of Chinese medicine.
Wang said maybe she would close the restaurant next year. But, in the limited time left, she wishes her restaurant could always be a warm harbour for her customers to relax, chat, and enjoy the taste of mum’s food.