Thursday, March 21

RVA Eats: Meet Mary Lee, Co-Owner of Peter Chang China Cafe

Photos by Nicole Lang
Throughout the spring, Nicole Lang will be blogging for us about her adopted hometown of Richmond, Virginia (aka RVA). We've chosen Richmond as the site for this year's Summer Foodways Symposium, which will take place from June 20–23. (Tickets for this event will go on sale in early April; we'll be sure to keep you up to date on the details.)

I’m sure that at least a few SFA blog readers have heard the tale of Peter Chang, King of Sichuan in the South. For years he moved almost constantly (D.C., Charlottesville, Atlanta), and it was next-to-impossible to know if his restaurant would still be there the next time you were craving his food. Here in Richmond, we are lucky to have him, and we know it. What we may not know is how lucky we are to have Mary Lee, who in no small part helps to execute the Chang magic.

Mary Lee is one of three business partners in the Peter Chang Virginia Restaurant Group. She can be seen at Peter Chang China Cafe, always smiling and laughing and talking to guests. She knows every detail of the dishes that come out of the kitchen as easily as if she prepared them herself. Mary is the face of the restaurant in Richmond and is also closely involved with Chang's newer establishments in Williamsburg and Charlottesville.

Pork belly bao (bun) with tofu skin at Peter Chang Café
For the past nine years, Mary, who is from Hong Kong, and her husband, Gen, a retired chef, have run restaurants as far away as California and as nearby as Charlottesville. “My husband worked all over the country, in many types of restaurants before I realized that I was good at it, too. I'm very good with people. I love them. I enjoy teaching others about Sichuan cuisine,” she says. 

Mary’s cheerful nature is evident as I ask her about the hectic business of running a restaurant and any difficulties she’s had in this role. “Staff training is a challenge, as serving can be a transient job, but I am able to find and keep good staff. That is my biggest challenge. I used to be a teacher, so I think that helps.”

Scallops with baby bok choy at Peter Chang Café

“In the past, it was harder to be a female restaurant manager. I wasn't working in a Chinese restaurant then, and sometimes customers did not speak well to me because I was Chinese, or because I was a woman—I'm not sure which.”

Her good experiences have far outweighed the bad. “I enjoy teaching through my work at Peter Chang. It's a simple place that we opened with little expense, but everything has meaning. The butterflies that hang from the ceiling represent the hundreds of types of butterflies found in Sichuan. Same with the orchids. The prints on the walls are nature scenes from old China. She tells me she thrives on meeting new and unique people everyday in the restaurants and adds, “I love my staff and my customers. We are family.”

When I ask Mary what she would tell any young women aspiring to work in the restaurant industry, she is both succinct and sage: “Get ready to work long hours and wear comfortable shoes. Enjoy it, because it is a lifestyle commitment. And be prepared for anything to happen.”