Chen remains undaunted while opening her second Lafayette restaurant.
When I first met Chef Yuki Chen, owner of Colorado Wok and the newly opened Yuki Pizza & Wings in Lafayette, she was pleasant, cheerful, and fairly stressed from a staff callout. But like any restaurant owner, she found a way to make it all work out. Then she sat down to talk with us, took pictures, fed us veggie pizza and marvelous lemon pepper dry rub wings,a highlight that I’ll be back for.
I came a second time on a weekday mid-afternoon to try more menu items during a less busy time. There wasn’t anyone in the restaurant, but Yuki was just about to have staff dinner. She greeted me, asked for my order, and made sure I got what I needed. While I enjoyed rich but light broths and tender marinated chicken, I watched her eat with her staff. I saw a clearly, tight-knit group that didn’t talk much. They ate in comfortable silence between bites. One of them read a newspaper.
I feel like I learned a lot about Chen in those two encounters. First was that she approaches the sometimes daunting effort of running a restaurant by holding to her values of hard work and hospitality. She also told me that after years of working in others’ restaurants, she wants to cook food that’s served fresh, not prepped and frozen like leftovers. One of the biggest challenges she had in the first year of opening was to learn to estimate just exactly how much she’d need. “We don’t want to put too much out and then there’s leftovers, and it won’t be fresh for the next day. That’s the tricky part. Making the most fresh we can,” Chen said.
Her hard work is not surprising when you know her life story. Raised by farmer parents, Chen came to the U.S. in 2004 from China because she wanted more opportunity. “When I first got off the airplane in Denver, I felt like it was supposed to be a lot of buildings and crowded like Los Angeles and New York City. The area around the airport was wide open. Like I was going back to the farm in China,” she said.
At first, Chen was especially challenged by needing to learn English while still earning money. “Every morning I spent two hours to get to school. Woke at six to take a bus to start class at eight. In three months I earned my driver’s license. Then I could continue to learn English and work.”
Eventually, she worked in restaurants where she met her husband. While she’s integrally involved in establishing and developing the restaurant as well as cooking, her husband spends a lot of his time keeping the kitchen running smoothly.
Since she took over Colorado Wok several years ago, she’s changed all the recipes and the cooking style. She’s been incorporating feedback from customers when she can.“As we’ve been changing, every month gets better and better.” Like a lot of restaurant owners, she doesn’t get a lot of time off, working from eight in the morning until midnight. This kind of hard work kept her going during tough times endured by all restaurants in 2020 due to the pandemic.“People still came in for pickup. We were ok. We never shut down for Covid.”
Although Chen made the pandemic sound like it was smooth sailing, a beloved area pizza restaurant, just next to Colorado Wok wasn’t so fortunate and closed during the pandemic. She talked to the landlord about the space and transformed it into her pizza and wings restaurant where she, once again, showed a passion for hard work and recipe development.
“Our food provider offered help from a pizza chef they worked with, and the landlord gave me access to test out working with the ovens that were already in the space,” said Chen.”I worked with the chef for a week, and they taught me everything, from learning to [making] toppings and ingredients including working with options for flour.”
And now that both places are running, Chen’s life is busier than ever. That ability to pivot and balance and respond to the unexpected is part of what I saw when I first met her — part of what seems to help her business thrive and what might help her expand in the future serving quality meals to East County diners.