Interview with Linda Kao_Part 1, December 21, 2021

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Interview with Linda Kao_Part 1, December 21, 2021


Asian Americans
Cooking, American
Cooking, Chinese







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Betsy Brody


Linda Kao

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5.4 Interview with Linda Kao_Part 1, December 21, 2021 2021oh002_di_005 00:50:39 ohdi Digging In di001 How Food, Culture, and Class Shaped Asian Dallas Becoming Texans, Becoming Americans This project is possible thanks to the support of a Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowship. Asian Americans Texas--History Cooking, American Cooking, Chinese Linda Kao Betsy Brody m4a oh_audio_dig_Linda_Kao_1_20211221.m4a 1:|15(2)|25(7)|36(12)|41(9)|45(11)|53(13)|63(3)|70(11)|75(1)|86(1)|100(9)|109(4)|113(7)|130(14)|139(4)|144(8)|162(9)|169(7)|173(6)|182(9)|191(3)|196(1)|204(12)|224(7)|232(14)|240(6)|244(3)|256(5)|265(8)|270(1)|274(4)|294(10)|306(5)|323(9)|329(15)|338(2)|343(2)|351(7)|372(6)|377(1)|380(12)|385(1)|394(15)|403(8)|415(2)|421(3)|428(5)|435(14)|447(4)|454(1) 0 Aviary audio 8 Introduction Asian Americans ; Cooking, American ; Cooking, Chinese ; Texas--History 36 Kao family moves to Texas from Taiwan and opens Royal China in Dallas Buck Kao ; chef ; Chinese restaurant ; Dallas ; hospitality ; Royal China ; Safari ; Taiwan 32.89734890959781, -96.80233741821267 17 893 Creating a menu/Authenticity adventurous ; approachable ; authentic ; authenticity ; bridge ; Chines food ; Chinese restaurant ; exotic ; menu ; palate ; western palate 1010 Celebrities Buck Kao ; Dallas Cowboys ; Korean War ; Martina Navratilova ; Ross Perot ; Royal China 1219 Supporting and mentoring new Chinese restaurants advertising ; Asian community ; Chinese restaurant ; competition ; marketing ; mentor ; Royal China ; support ; word of mouth 1433 George Kao takes over Royal China/Being part of the Preston Hollow community Dalla ; family ; family run restaurant ; George Kao ; neighborhood ; neighbors ; Preston Hollow ; rent ; Royal China 1714 Royal China as a bridge for Chinese culture Asian community ; bridge ; Catholic ; Chinatown ; Chinese Community Center ; Chinese culture ; cooking class ; culture ; Dallas ; educate ; education ; immigrant ; neighborhood ; Richardson 2031 Restaurant reviews/Innovations at Royal China Chinese restaurant ; D Magazine ; menu ; noodle bar ; noodles ; Pearl Rice meatball ; restaurant reviews ; reviews ; Texa Monthly ; tornado ; Yelp 2822 Impact of COVID COVID ; labor shortage ; pandemic ; pivot ; shutdown oh_audio_dig_Linda_Kao_1-20211221.WAV |00:00:08| BRODY This is Betsy Brody. Today is December 21st, 2021. I am interviewing for the first time Ms. Linda Kao. This interview is taking place in my home office in Richardson, Texas. This interview is possible thanks to the support of a Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowship, and it is part of the project entitled &quot ; Digging In: How Food, Culture, and Class Shaped the Story of Asian Dallas. Hi, Linda, thank you for coming for this interview. Let&#039 ; s start out just by me asking where and when were you born? |00:00:46| KAO I was born in Taipei, Taiwan. Let&#039 ; s just say in the late fifties. How about that? |00:00:56| BRODY Perfect. Thank you. Well, how did you get to Texas? When did you arrive? |00:01:02| KAO Well, my, basically my parents...How should I even say that? I arrived with my brothers to, from Taiwan to meet my father, who was already here in 1973. And we arrived about a year later in 74, so, technically, we came, with our parents. |00:01:43| BRODY What was your dad&#039 ; s line of work? |00:01:47| KAO My father was a career diplomat. Well then, the Chinese government, which is the Republic of China and in the early 70s he took retirement and starts exploring ways to move the family to US, where he was an attache in the early fifties. |00:02:29| BRODY So he had decided to move the family to the United States? |00:02:33| KAO That&#039 ; s correct. |00:02:35| BRODY And he came ahead of time. And what, where did he go? |00:02:38| KAO Right. In that time, my father decided to take along two very well known chefs in Taiwan. They wanted to work with my father, exploring the possibility of opening a Chinese restaurant. So they went to West Coast and then East Coast, see all the &quot ; usual suspects,&quot ; but soon they felt they are very saturated with Chinese restaurants. Just by chance, a gentleman in Dallas heard that my father is looking at opening Chinese restaurant and he brought along two chefs. So he invited them to come to Dallas and, once arrived here, my father literally fell in love with the city. He felt it&#039 ; s a city with great potential. That was nearly 50 years ago. Now if you&#039 ; re from Dallas back then, Preston Road literally stopped at LBJ. Beyond that, are the ranches, dirt road. So, but my father saw people are wonderful and welcoming. And this location, at Preston and LBJ, was attractive. So, they decided to join ownership. That was in 73. |00:05:20| BRODY 1973. Had he ever been involved in any kind of food related venture before? |00:05:27| KAO No, and my father, I don&#039 ; t think he even knew how to cook. But, obviously, as a world traveler, my dad always full of curiosity. He loves people, and good food, good company. So, and he had to good chefs with him. So he dived right in. |00:06:07| BRODY Sounds like it. So you&#039 ; re talking about his curiosity and his love for good food. What do you think his philosophy of hospitality or restaurant ownership might have been? |00:06:28| KAO Well, I think he&#039 ; s more or less like, &quot ; This is my house. I&#039 ; m opening my doors. I&#039 ; m entertaining, with good food and good company.&quot ; And I think this, it was never about making money. I think just the excitement of surrounded by wonderful people, conversation, and good food was a joy to him. |00:07:11| BRODY So were you there when the restaurant first opened or you came later? |00:07:17| KAO Well, when my father joined the gentleman here, the team or the partnership didn&#039 ; t really fare too well. So both chefs ask my father if he will, now that he has a bit of knowledge in running a restaurant, if he would open a different restaurant. And so that&#039 ; s when my father found the location in Preston Royal. It was an old &quot ; Safari Steakhouse&quot ; here with the Taj Mahal painting in the party room and incense urn by the front door. And it was a lovely space and a very good location my father felt. So they decided to start a new venture there, and my brothers and I arrived the first week of August. Royal China opened the second week. So, I&#039 ; m proud to say &quot ; Yes, I was there.&quot ; |00:09:10| BRODY What was that day like? What do you remember about it? |00:09:14| KAO Well my dad didn&#039 ; t really make a big hoopla. No. There wasn&#039 ; t any soft opening or formal openings. Just open. And I couldn&#039 ; t remember much, but people were coming in, and my father was happy and that&#039 ; s probably all I remember. |00:09:46| BRODY Right? Was it pretty crowded? |00:09:50| KAO No. It&#039 ; s probably a slowly building up because we didn&#039 ; t do much marketing back then. |00:10:03| BRODY Were there many Chinese restaurants in Dallas at that time? |00:10:08| KAO I believe less than, less than ten. |00:10:15| BRODY Right? |00:10:17| KAO Maybe a little bit more than a handful. |00:10:22| BRODY So tell me about growing up with the restaurant. |00:10:29| KAO Well, I had a wonderful time. And I tried to help on the weekend as hostess. And my dad always said, &quot ; You know, we feel like, we have all these friends, a lot of them very quickly become regulars. So we feel like we have a room full of friends coming to see us, all the time.&quot ; And it was just very, I would say a lot of joy. |00:11:18| BRODY A lot of joy. That&#039 ; s really nice. I know you mentioned having a lot of...I know you mentioned having a lot of regulars. What role do you feel that the restaurant played in the community, in the neighborhood? |00:11:50| KAO I feel like it&#039 ; s literally like your neighbor&#039 ; s house. You know, your aunts or uncle and because we, young kids coming in, they call my dad &quot ; Uncle Buck&quot ; and we have people I mean, share their joy of marriage proposals, birthday celebrations, and promotion. We just feel, you know, we are part of the community. We are close friends and family, and we go through that in their joy and sadness and we feel very honored. |00:13:01| BRODY Yeah. People share their special moments with your family. You mentioned that your dad, that people, customers called him &quot ; Uncle Buck&quot ; what was his name? |00:13:12| KAO Well, my dad actually goes by &quot ; Buck.&quot ; His Chinese name is Shu-Chang. So you imagine it&#039 ; s pretty difficult. But, I think, that &quot ; Buck&quot ; has a warmth. And you know that he just feel like a real Texan. |00:13:42| BRODY A real Texan. |00:13:43| KAO Yes. |00:13:44| BRODY What- and what about your mom? What was your mom&#039 ; s name and what was her role in this family business? |00:13:51| KAO My mom is Shirley, and everything they run, she&#039 ; s been my dad&#039 ; s right hand person. My father, with his personality and his language, and communication skills. So he&#039 ; s always out front. My mom, who knows the area ____ but, she felt the best place for her to help is in the kitchen, supervising and, you know, handling the food preparation. Not cooking, not, just there. |00:14:51| BRODY Right. Did they collaborate together to come up with the menu? What were there, would you say their priorities? |00:14:58| KAO Right. They collaborate with the chefs and come up with a menu. Again, there was I think the usual. People are, well, a lot of people here who are not really familiar with Chinese food. So, yeah, we had egg foo yung, chop suey, eggroll, and then we tried to introduce some of the, how should I say, I don&#039 ; t want to say more &quot ; authentic,&quot ; but, in a way, you know, chop suey and stuff are authentic, they are just not restaurant food. They are home cooking for some families. So my parents tried to introduce better cuisine for people to explore. |00:16:22| BRODY Right. |00:16:23| KAO And enjoy. |00:16:23| BRODY Yeah, and you&#039 ; re right at that point, not many people here in North Texas had had the opportunity to try Chinese food. |00:16:33| KAO And back then, travel is not that common. |00:16:38| BRODY Right, right. So in going out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant really might be people&#039 ; s... |00:16:44| KAO Exotic. |00:16:45| BRODY Yeah, right. What, what were some of the stories that you can remember from the restaurant, notable customers or notable interactions? |00:17:01| KAO Well, I remember there was a very nice gentleman who came in by himself one day. And I wasn&#039 ; t there, but my father told us afterward that you know, when they chatted, they realized they may have met during the Korean War when my father was the, sort of a ___ chief of staff of the unit, a special unit. So they&#039 ; ve became very close friends and they celebrate every occasion with us and we do the same. They were- Charlie Pride was a regular. Both his kids called my dad &quot ; Uncle Buck&quot ; and sometimes came to him with problems. And Martina Navratilova, when she used to live here, she came. Ross Perot. And I remember his signature was larger than life. And the Dallas Cowboys. Oh...the whole team, led by the coach. And then we had several who my dad called &quot ; oilmen&quot ; and they were lovely to my dad, generous to my family. He invited us to there during the holidays, so we have a lot of wonderful family memories of the wonderful people. |00:19:41| BRODY That&#039 ; s a really nice story. It sounds like the restaurant was a place that people came to connect and also your family built a big connection into the life of the city. |00:19:56| KAO Right. I feel my dad was very sincere and authentic, so people were drawn to him and we&#039 ; re just very blessed. |00:20:17| BRODY That&#039 ; s a great story. Over time, more Asian restaurants and more Chinese restaurants appeared in, in this area. Was that, what was that like for your family, having been one of the earliest restaurants? |00:20:35| KAO Well, yes, many, many restaurants came and many, many closed. And Royal China, of course, had its ups and downs, but my family, believe it or not, on the weekend, I always remember fondly, my parents would take us to the new Chinese restaurant and try it out and support them. So I think that&#039 ; s why they look at us as the benevolent, you know, the old Chinese restaurant, I don&#039 ; t know how you call it and whenever we go there, the other Chinese restaurants, rolled out the red carpet for us because we&#039 ; re so supportive and we&#039 ; re so friendly with them. We never tried to beat them by the price. And so I would say we were a very friendly competitor. And, yeah, there are some restaurants that do wonderfully for a period when we weren&#039 ; t so. But, you know you, we just keep on doing what we know best and what we try to serve our customers. |00:22:40| BRODY Sounds like a very supportive community among the restaurant owners that that were in Dallas. And I&#039 ; ve, I&#039 ; ve heard that from other communities as well, that it&#039 ; s helpful to have other people doing the same thing. I know at the beginning, your dad, you said, didn&#039 ; t make a big deal with marketing and so on at the very beginning. Over time, was there a change in that? Did you move to more marketing and advertising? |00:23:10| KAO I don&#039 ; t think we ever did. |00:23:12| BRODY Right? Did you not need to? |00:23:15| KAO Well, I think it&#039 ; s sort of word of mouth? And as I mentioned, I don&#039 ; t think my parents were ever in it for the money. |00:23:28| BRODY Right. |00:23:30| KAO So they didn&#039 ; t feel like that we wanted to take more than we can chew. We just tried our best and word of mouth has served us very well. |00:23:51| BRODY Great. Now you&#039 ; re still in the same location. |00:23:56| KAO Amazes me. |00:23:57| BRODY Right? So was there ever any thought of moving or expanding? |00:24:05| KAO Well, we, as I mentioned earlier, we feel like part of the Preston Hollow community, or Dallas in general. So most of the Chinese restaurants have moved up north. We stay where we are because we feel our neighbors, our families and friends are there. And yes, the rent keeps on going up. |00:24:49| BRODY Yes, it&#039 ; s a nice area for sure. So being part of that neighborhood for such a long time and the restaurant being run by your family the whole time, you must have multiple generations of the same families coming. Tell me what that&#039 ; s like and how that feels for you. |00:25:11| KAO Well, but my older brother, I always tell him he&#039 ; s the number one son. So when he came to United States, he immediately joined my father. He was a tremendous help. George was very smart. I mean, he is very smart. And he picks it up in no time. George probably was and still is the best chef we ever have. Oh. He&#039 ; s brilliant and he&#039 ; s fast. And so when my father had a stroke in January 1996. Literally overnight, because my father worked until he had his stroke. Overnight, my brother took over. And my mother was still around and, but he and his wife basically shouldered the responsibility and just continue on. So, and as you know, they are doing very well. They definitely made my parents, very proud. |00:27:09| BRODY Oh, that&#039 ; s really nice. |00:27:13| KAO And we often helped out if we were called upon. |00:27:24| BRODY That&#039 ; s great. Well, it&#039 ; s definitely a family, a family affair. So your dad, having been a diplomat before, he traveled around and was comfortable talking to all sorts of people. How did that impact the way that he operated the restaurant? |00:27:46| KAO Well, I think he, because he&#039 ; s so knowledgeable, he&#039 ; s well travelled, well read. And, so, he can talk to literally anyone about anything. And his wishes is humble, and I think he really made everybody at home. Even if, even if they didn&#039 ; t like the food, they liked my dad. |00:28:31| BRODY Sounds really nice. So kind of switching gears. A lot of restaurants that are serving food from other countries are often a place where people from that part of the world like to go to have a taste of home. Do you think Royal China was that kind of a hub for the Chinese community? |00:28:56| KAO Well, I think, yeah, Royal China is more of a bridge for Chinese culture and the local community. But on the other hand, because we arrived in Dallas in such early years when there is a not many Chinese, especially Chinese immigrants. So, my family, also served sort of as a, I guess a foster home____. And my father hired many Chinese students who needed money to continue. education, helped a lot of them with their green card application. And my mother has always been so, such a promoter for Chinese culture. So, my parents along with several families and leaders in the community, started a Chinese Community Center and my mother who was a lifelong Catholic, also helped to start and build the first Chinese Catholic Church. |00:31:03| BRODY What was the name of the church? |00:31:11| KAO Church of the Sacred Heart. |00:31:11| BRODY OK, well, that&#039 ; s so that&#039 ; s really interesting. So your, your parents and a group of other local Chinese leaders banded together to form the Chinese Community Center. Do you remember what year that was? Or roughly? |00:31:29| KAO I think the 80s. |00:31:31| BRODY In the 80s? Where was it? |00:31:35| KAO It&#039 ; s in the, right in the Chinatown? In Richardson. Off Greenville between Beltline and Arapaho. |00:31:48| BRODY What were, what was your understanding of what the goals of creating the Chinese community center were? |00:31:56| KAO Well, I think its an amazing place and Chinese can gather, ask for assistance, can socialize and later on, we provide classes and different activities. And there&#039 ; s a small library on site. |00:32:26| BRODY All right. What kind of classes were offered there? |00:32:31| KAO Nowadays. ESL. Computer. Chinese painting. Calligraphy. And think even Zumba. |00:32:47| BRODY Zumba?! |00:32:47| KAO Yeah. Chinese tai chi and I&#039 ; m sure there are other classes I forget, but the also do Chinese youth summer camp, leadership camp. |00:33:07| BRODY Great. Were there any cooking classes? |00:33:10| KAO No, the center doesn&#039 ; t have the kitchen facility. |00:33:17| BRODY Right. |00:33:20| KAO But, my parents, my mother with my dad as the translator, they taught cooking classes at Richland College. |00:33:37| BRODY Did they really? Chinese cooking classes at Richland College? That&#039 ; s great, I bet their students loved that. |00:33:47| KAO Yes. |00:33:51| BRODY So when we&#039 ; re thinking about restaurants and the role that they play in the life of a of a city, people talk about what types of foods are served. And you know, there&#039 ; s a, you know, a culture of reviews, restaurant reviews. How has Royal China fared in the sort of the public judgments on the restaurant? |00:34:21| KAO Well, I&#039 ; m proud to say we are consistently top 10. Not just Chinese restaurants but the restaurants in Dallas, and by prestigious magazines, such as Conde Nast, D Magazine, Texas Monthly, Good Eats, Yelp and so on. So, we are very honored, but we&#039 ; re still trying to improve. And, you know, introducing more interesting, authentic, Chinese dishes. |00:35:23| BRODY For example, well, what are some new innovations at the restaurant? |00:35:28| KAO Well, I think, you know, since about ten years ago, I believe we&#039 ; re the first restaurant to introduce noodle bars. And since then, many restaurants followed suit. Now, with my sister-in-law, April and she&#039 ; s always trying to, look at the new menu, the dishes. She&#039 ; s introducing some regional food, like Taiwanese and from northern China, southern China into the menu. So, like ______, probably makes no difference, but a lot of different and interesting regional menu, they are now included in the menu. And I know that she rotates them. But, I&#039 ; m also very pleased that my mom&#039 ; s favorite, her, one of her specialties from her hometown of Hubei, the Pearl Meatball, is a staple on the menu. |00:37:13| BRODY Can you tell me about that dish? What is it like? |00:37:15| KAO Yeah, Pearl Meatball basically, it&#039 ; s a big meatball. But, juicy and savory, but covered with rice, and we steam it. So,when you bite into it, you have the juiciness of the meatball and then you have the soft, the texture of the steamed, the sweet rice that all blended in, in your mouth. |00:38:04| BRODY Sounds wonderful? Did you grow up eating those? |00:38:07| KAO I did. |00:38:07| BRODY Yeah. |00:38:08| KAO Yeah. |00:38:08| BRODY Were they always on the menu? |00:38:11| KAO It was introduced when we opened the noodle bar. |00:38:15| BRODY OK, so as part of that, the innovations. So there have been some changes. It sounds like in both the menu and sort of the layout of the restaurant. Can you tell me more about over the years the key changes that that the restaurant experienced? |00:38:36| KAO Well, I would say Preston Royal went through a huge change. And when we first opened doors...well you have to know Preston Royal to know what I&#039 ; m talking about, that shopping center didn&#039 ; t look like what it is now. And so the, with different ownership of the shopping center and then continue to operate, and the restaurant have to keep up with it. And we gone through a couple of fires next door. And we are forced to close because of the smoke damage. And we have gone through now, two tornadoes. About 35 years ago, a tornado also destroyed Preston Royal. And now, the biggest change is the I believe in 2009 when the shopping center went through another upgrade. And so at that time, the shopping center, was thinking of asking us to move out. So that was a very difficult time. And my father has already passed away and we are looking at, in the neighborhood, if there&#039 ; s another suitable location, but, we negotiated, and my brother, well, literally took a leap of faith and invests a lot of money in the renovation of the restaurant. And that&#039 ; s when we brought in the noodle bar and everything. And I think that was a very smart move and a very bold move. But, proved to be the right move. |00:42:09| BRODY So the noodle bar got added, the menu got changed, and there was a complete renovation. What&#039 ; s it like now? What does it feel like when you&#039 ; re in the restaurant? |00:42:22| KAO Well, it&#039 ; s always hustling and bustling. And a lot of times, when I stop by my brother pulls me aside,&quot ; Mr. So-and-So is here. You know, he&#039 ; s asking about you. Or, So-and-So is there is. You know, they&#039 ; re asking about you.&quot ; So, I still feel like it&#039 ; s my home. So, we have a very hard time to be separate. I think it&#039 ; s part of my identity, part of my DNA. And whenever I can, I feel the presence...Oh my...of my parents. |00:43:29| BRODY Oh, that&#039 ; s beautiful, that&#039 ; s beautiful. Being in the same location and run by the family, I can see how that would be the case. It&#039 ; s a lovely story and lovely to have those memories in that space. |00:43:44| KAO And I think our family has always been very close. But the restaurant, because we all feel like so vested emotionally. Ties to the restaurant. So, even with passing of our parents, the brothers and I, forever, we still feel like a unit, you know? |00:44:26| BRODY It&#039 ; s a close family. |00:44:27| KAO Right? |00:44:32| BRODY So if you were thinking about going back in time and giving your, your family advice or some words of encouragement, something that you wanted to convey to them from knowing everything that you know now, what would that advice be? What lessons or reflections do you have on having this life tied so closely with Royal China? |00:45:04| KAO Well, I&#039 ; m not sure if I could give any advice. I feel my parents were doing the best they could, and the purpose for them to move us to US was for us, for the children to have a better life better education. So, we are fortunate that the restaurant was this beautiful vehicle that brought us to where we are today. And, you know, my parents, they were in their thirties and forties when they started the restaurant, so I think they did really well, you know. And their kids, I would say, they are very proud of us because this is what they wanted for us. And the restaurant, was the means to achieve the goal. And we are so grateful. |00:46:52| BRODY Yeah. That made it possible for a lot of things to happen. Thank you for sharing that. Now, of course, you mentioned the tornado, and that was a big challenge for many, many people and many restaurants in Dallas. Also, COVID has really impacted restaurants. Can you talk a little bit about the way that the pandemic affected Royal China? |00:47:21| KAO Well, I think then, you know, obviously we had to close. And like all the restaurants, we pivot to delivery, curbside pickup. And then also, I&#039 ; m proud to say we&#039 ; re the first restaurant, where we recognized there was one case in house that, one of the staff, we let the public know and we immediately, closed down for two weeks. And because we did that, I think there have been a, a lot of leading restaurant in town, actually followed suit. We weren&#039 ; t covering up. We are transparent because we are part of the community. When your health is our health. |00:48:49| BRODY Right. |00:48:50| KAO Yeah. |00:48:51| BRODY It&#039 ; s a good example and a good lesson as well. Also, another thing that have, has affected restaurants in not just Dallas, but all over the country, possibly all over the world, as a result of COVID, is the labor shortage labor and supply chain issues. How have those affected your family? |00:49:21| KAO We are very fortunate that a lot of them- staff- they returned to work. And also we have some next generation that like my son and my daughter, chip in when they can. My other nephew. So and George and April were there. And so I think in terms of the labor shortage, we are trying very hard to make sure we are not. |00:50:36| BRODY I am going to turn off the recording for a moment. All rights to the interviews, including but not restricted to legal title, copyrights and literary property rights, have been transferred to the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. audio Interviews may be reproduced with permission from the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. 0




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