Owner & Manager, Imperial Garden
What was your first job?
Working in the Social Science Graduate Library at the UW. It was just a student job when I was at the University.
How did you wind up in the restaurant business?
While I was at the University I started working for the original owner (of Imperial Garden) at Grand Pagoda on the Beltline as a waitress and bartender. When he opened Imperial Garden in 1981 I started working here as a manager and bartender, it was kind of a small deal then. I decided to stay in Madison and Henry Chen and his family became good friends. When we opened the east side restaurant in 1984 I spent a lot of time there when it first opened, then I came back here. In 2003 when Henry retired I went into a partnership with our head chef, Ken Yan, so now he and I co-own the restaurant. So, I don't have a real background in restaurant management, [laughs], I majored in English Literature and Art History.
You are pretty involved in Madison Originals (a local independent restaurant owners association). Can you tell me a little about that?
Well, we [Imperial Garden] were among one of the founding members of Madison Originals. Through Madison Originals we try to be as supportive of each other when we're doing projects on a local level. They are all really nice people.
I appreciate the fact that most local people are very supportive of independent restaurants, and restaurants like us that have been here for a long time--they want to make sure that we succeed, and they appreciate what we have to offer. It's one of the reasons we became a part of Madison Originals. It wasn't to fight the corporate restaurants but to emphasize what a special thing we have. It's dying in a lot of cities but we still have a vibrant local independent scene. When you ask people around here for a restaurant recommendation, they'll often start with local places. It's special here to know the people that come in.
What has changed the most since you began in 1981, and what do you see for the future?
I think the most exciting thing is to see how Middleton has grown, I think, in a positive way. That they've been able to encompass fairly significant development, with corporations coming, and restaurants, and yet still be able to maintain the small-town feeling, and certainly small town friendliness where people really care about each other. Whenever I talk to people who are visiting here, or maybe talking about a new restaurant, their feedback is always positive, and it's just such a great example of Midwestern hospitality.
What is a typical day like for you?
[Laughs] Typical is kind of an oddball thing in the restaurant business, they are rare. Every day is a new adventure. But really, a typical day is arriving and checking the details, making sure we have everything ready to go. Looking ahead to the parties and reservations, fielding calls about parties that are planned for tonight or tomorrow or next year. Addressing staffing issues, but we have a very solid staff here; I have a lot of people here who've been here 15 years plus, and the chefs have been here forever, so I don't have the concerns other restaurants might have.
What is the most fun part of your job?
The people-- the people that I work with and the people that I see every day, the people we've known forever and the new people that have just moved here and are excited to find their special place. It's always nice to share with them other places that I think are special, too. In this business, I've learned that everybody is interesting and valuable and it goes beyond politics, and personal interest and income. If you're in a position where you meet and talk to all kinds of people, you have the opportunity to learn a lot from them. That's a lesson you can learn in this kind of business, that there's something valuable in everybody.
What's the most challenging?
Keeping it fresh without destroying what makes it special. On a busy night, it's making sure we keep everybody smiling.
Tell me about you. What are your hobbies?
I like to eat in other restaurants - I love to eat and to try all different kinds of food, and I love to cook, though I don't have time to do it very often. I love to have dinners with friends--big dinners with lots of friends is the most fun thing. I like to kayak. I like to lay in my hammock and read a good book. I like to travel, I've enjoyed going to China and Japan. I also enjoy staying close to home and spending a night in Elkhart Lake.
Any closing thoughts?
I would just like to say how grateful we are for the support we get from Middleton and the people nearby.