We had the good fortune of connecting with Penelope Wong and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Penelope, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
My whole career has been about taking risks. Although I’m always fearful of taking risks, I do it because I know that accomplishment cannot exist without taking risks. I risked failure the first time I applied to work in a professional kitchen, knowing that my experience was limited to growing up in my family’s owned restaurants, but I took that risk as a single mother as a means to raise my son. When I left my role of executive chef after 20 years, I risked stability and job security as I had nothing else lined up. I left with the intent of discovering a better work-life balance for my family and I. decided to start a business with my husband; we risked everything. Both of us were unemployed at the time with only savings to live off of and to start a business with. We risked everything knowing that we had no other choice but to succeed.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I started cooking at a very young age. Most of my fondest childhood memories revolve around food and learning from my family. I learned a multitude of cuisines from both aspects of my Chinese and Thai heritage. My family owned a small Chinese restaurant for over 25 years; I started helping out at the age of 12. Initially, I started helping my mother in the front of the house; it didn’t take long for me to eventually work my way into the kitchen to help my father with prep in between lunch and dinner services. My father taught me how to butcher a whole chicken by the age of 13, and soon I was learning my way through all of the stations in the kitchen. By the age of 16, I was able to run the kitchen on my own. My mother passed away when I was 16, it wasn’t long after that my father decided to sell the restaurant. I went on to college to study psychology with the intent of continuing on to gain my masters to eventually become a criminal psychologist. Inevitably, life happened and I became a single mother at the early age of 22, one month after gaining my bachelors degree. Desperate to find a job to support my son, I applied for a job as a banquet server at a private golf and country club. After interviewing with the F&B Director, she decided to pass my resume onto the Chef. After interviewing with him, I accepted a position as an entry level pantry line cook. This was one of the scariest moments of my life, entering into a professional kitchen for the first time in my life. It was a very difficult transition for me being the only female in the kitchen. Thinking back on the harassment and abuse I endured absolutely disgusts me. But I always spoke up and spoke out; I needed this job and I needed this job to be tolerable. Eventually, after learning my way through each station in the kitchen, I became sous chef after just two years. Within the next two years after that, I acted as interim chef twice before accepting the role of Executive Chef. I was the youngest and the first female Executive Chef in the clubs history. Over the next several years, I worked to build my brand amongst the private membership. The only cuisine I was familiar with was the cuisine I grew up loving; and so I infused the club’s mainstream contemporary American cuisine with as much ethnicity as I could get away with. Fortunately, the members were willing and open to the new concept and embraced my menu ideas with excitement. Eventually, we underwent a multi million dollar clubhouse renovation and I was involved in the design of my brand new kitchens and restaurants. I built an entirely new team to open our new concepts, and within the first year of reopening, I increased our F&B revenues by 100%. I began expanding my network by becoming involved with nationwide private club and chef conferences, participating in many of these conferences as a chef presenter and panelist, sharing the strategies that had proven successful at our club. Additionally, I was also a contributing writer and blogger for a private club publication. After spending 20 years at the private club, I had achieved all that I had set out to achieve. I decided it was time to move on to find my next challenge. Initially, my challenge was to find a better work-life balance to allow more time with my family. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I only knew I had to remain in the industry. After resigning from the club, and after taking a few months of down time, my husband and I decided to start our own business. The premise of our business revolved around a particular dish that I first made a couple of years prior to my resignation. The first time I made it for my husband, he said, “How can we sell these?” The dish, chili wontons, actually came to fruition a couple of years prior while I was traveling. I was on the other side of the country, attending a conference, when the idea for the dish came to mind. My sous and I were working on a new menu roll out and we needed one more item for the small plate section. I had texted my sous this idea that I had and her response was, “I know what you want.” By the time I had returned from my trip, we had all of the details of the dish worked out and we were already well on our way to a test batch. The dish was so successful it remained on our menu for more than 10 months as one of our most popular items. My husband, Rob, and I had discussed several different ideas as to how to get this dish out into the public arena of Denver. We finally settled on the idea of a food truck and quickly began our research on how to get started. After realizing the significance in cost of having a food truck built out for us, we delved into the thought of building it out ourselves. Fortunately, I have a family member who was instrumental in helping us get started. Being very mechanically inclined, he and Rob began working on an old freight truck that we had purchased to transform it into our new food truck. This became the riskiest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Both my husband and I were working on buidling out this business full time. Neither of us had income coming in, funding for this project came from every last cent I had put away into a safety net. Things had gotten pretty dire for us, and it got to the point where I was telling myself everyday, “you have no choice but to succeed.” After several months and delays, we finally had a food truck built out. Since starting our business in August of 2019, it has been a complete roller coaster. I wanted to roll out into the Denver public arena as a chef because for the last 20 years, I had been limited to feeding a very small percentage of Denver. I wanted to share the flavors of my childhood with more. We started out with our signature item, the chili wonton, and supplemented the menu with other hand made, from scratch dumplings and wontons. Since then, we’ve incorporated traditional noodle and rice dishes as well; many that bring fond childhood memories of meals that my grandmother would cook. We had absolutely no idea we would be welcomed into the Denver food scene with such fervor. With limited funds and very limited IT experience, all of our marketing and PR has been done via social media. Our social media following began growing quickly, sky rocketing into the thousands with each sold out service. The biggest lesson in all of this has been relentlessness and constant learning. Since gaining my small business license, I haven’t stopped. Even through all of the turmoil with Covid, we haven’t stopped. Adaptation has taken on a whole new meaning, and adaptation has become a daily practice. Adaptation is what continues to make our small business community stronger each day. But the most important thing about our brand, is that the integrity has always been there. We started with the idea of hand made, from scratch dumplings and wontons, using real ingredients and real technique in my dishes, never forgetting the story of my childhood. Our team consists of three. Myself, Rob, and my sous chef, NgocAnh Nguyen, who was instrumental in the development of our signature dish and who is still to this day, instrumental in the day to day operations of the three of us cranking out thousands of wontons and dumplings on a weekly basis.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I have a list of small, local, hole in the wall places in Denver that are always my go-tos for anyone visiting our city. Most of them are small, family owned Chinese restaurants that remind me of my familys restaurant growing up. But the food is very nostalgic to me, and I always want my out of town friends and family to experience a little bit of my childhood. Each of these places have their one special dish that I visit for, whether it’s Dim Sum, Chinese BBQ, Chinese pastries, the best Szechuan dishes, the best Bubble Tea, etc… I always stick to locally owned businesses as well. Our city has such a plethora of talented individuals who work their asses off and are insanely talented at what they do. Hong Kong BBQ Star Kitchen Szechuan Tasty House Celestial Bakery Tea Street Denver Annette’s (farm to table – not Asian, but one of my favorite restaurants in Denver for a damn good meal, every time)
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
The support and encouragement I’ve received from my family is never ending. From the very beginning, their support and help along the way to allow me to achieve everything I’ve achieved is incredible. Everything I know about cuisine and the importance of maintaining the integrity of cuisine comes from my family. The support I’ve received from my network of professional chefs who are great friends have helped to refine everything I’ve learned from cooking with my family. I grew up learning to cook in my familys kitchens, but have learned refinement in the professional kitchens I’ve built my career in. I’ve built my cuisine on these two very important aspects. When it comes to encouragement, I look up to so many of our female leaders in this male-dominated industry, and I continue to do my part in mentoring other young women to let them know that they have a place in this industry.
Instagram: @penelopewong @yuanwonton
Morgan Thomas (photo of me w/ tongs and pan)