When Dan Zhao was a kid growing up in Los Angeles County, his father Keguang Zhao, a professional chef, never wanted him to follow the same career path. Now, the two are in Oakland running a restaurant together — Cozy Wok, a Chinese vegetarian takeout spot in Jingletown.
By the time Dan, now 31, approached his father earlier this year with the idea to open up a restaurant, Keguang, 59, was ready. He’d been working as a professional chef since 1979. But when the pandemic hit, he was laid off from his restaurant job in Los Angeles, prompting his son to suggest going into business together. “He was excited about this idea from the beginning,” Dan said. “Since he started working on this project, it’s given him a lot more purpose in life.”
Cozy Wok, which opened its doors on Oct. 30, is based at Jingletown Eats, an East Oakland “ghost kitchen” — a cooking space set up for takeout only restaurants — that is also home to other restaurants like Alloko Garden, which specializes in food from Ivory Coast.
When Keguang agreed to make the move up north to help his son open the restaurant, it was with the expectation that he’d be cooking a style of Chinese cuisine he had experience with: vegetarian.
“When I was in high school,” recalled Dan, “he came back home one day and said he got this job cooking at a Chinese vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles.” At the time, Dan was skeptical. The idea of Chinese vegetarian food seemed foreign to him. He changed his mind though, after tasting his dad’s dishes. “I was pleasantly surprised and thought this was really good, even though I wasn’t a chef back then.”
The memory of his dad’s vegetarian Chinese food stayed with Dan, even while his own career took him in a different direction. He studied environmental science in college and eventually found work in the tech industry. He moved to Oakland for the first time in 2013, then returned four years later after stints working in Boston and back home in Los Angeles. He’s continued to hold down a tech job, even while opening the restaurant.
Dan handles the business’s branding, social media and other duties while his father prepares all the vegetarian meals, like braised eggplant and orange chicken, using Beyond Meat, a plant-based meat substitute. To this writer, the texture of Cozy Wok’s orange “chicken” was indistinguishable from a typical non-vegetarian version of the dish, and had a nice balance of citrusy sweetness and tang. The braised eggplant had a good spicy flavor and a melt-in-your-mouth texture. The spring rolls were also a tasty treat.
Vegetarian and vegan Chinese food is not new to Oakland — establishments like downtown’s Nature Vegetarian Restaurant paved the way for newcomers like Cozy Wok. And the tradition of preparing plant-based meals in China goes back a lot further than that, said Dan.
“The whole idea of vegetarian Chinese cuisine originated in the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) as a Buddhist tradition,” he said. To this day, he noted, vegetarian meals are common for many Chinese. “Back when my dad was growing up in China, meat was a luxury — it was something you ate once a month, not every day.”
Now at Cozy Wok, Keguang takes a Buddhist approach to preparing meals, avoiding aromatic alliums like garlic, leeks, and onions; keeping food light and emphasizing the natural flavor of the main vegetables and other ingredients.
Cooking in this way was initially a struggle for Keguang, said Dan. “That was the biggest hurdle for him because garlic and onions are pretty fundamental to Chinese food. The hardest part was thinking how to make a dish taste good without these components.”
When deciding on the menu, the father and son had to reconcile how many items to include. While Keguang was inclined to want more dishes, Dan was focused on what would be most effective from a digital marketing standpoint.
“For Chinese people, when they go into a restaurant, they want to feel like they can order anything in the world. It’s part of the feeling of abundance,” Dan said. “As a young person who’s not familiar with Chinese cuisine, that can feel daunting. That’s something I’m talking to him about and saying, ‘Let’s limit the amount of items and make your life easier because that’s what young people want as well.’”
Family bonds strengthened through cooking
Keguang grew up in the northeastern city of Shenyang. As a child, he remembers eating salty and savory bites like suan cai, a traditional Chinese pickled cabbage that families in Shenyang eat with most meals.
After graduating from high school in the 1970s, Keguang attended a culinary trade school in China. Just a decade prior, private kitchens had been illegal in the country and some Chinese citizens were forced to eat in free communal canteens, a short-lived (1958-1962) dining system promoted by the Chinese government.
“There weren’t a lot of restaurants in China at the time and culinary school was a new concept, so I saw it as an opportunity,” Keguang said. He graduated in 1979 and also met his wife and Dan’s mother, Ying Shen, at the school. She too had a career in the food business, as a pastry chef, until about 10 years ago.
Dan said there’s irony in the fact that he’s opening a restaurant now with his father. “When I was growing up he would tell me, ‘I’m doing this for you so that you never have to work in a restaurant.’”
Even now, the elder Zhao views the restaurant as a short-term business opportunity for his son. “Every generation should find their own career. I became a chef because of the conditions at the time. Being a chef is very difficult so I don’t want him to stay in this line of work,” said Keguang.
For Dan, the collaboration with his father is more than just a good business decision. “Prior to the restaurant, he was living in L.A. and we would maybe talk four or five times a year. Since opening the restaurant, we’ve been talking every day. It’s been a good experience hanging out there and learning more about him,” he said.
Dan, who described himself as a rebellious teenager, said he didn’t have a close relationship with his parents during those years. “They were very strict and also they were very busy. When I was going to school I would come home to an empty house because they were always working,” he said.
That relationship started to change when Dan was in college. He began teaching himself how to cook Chinese food with cookbooks and would call his mom to ask about different techniques, which created a bond between the two of them.
Dan is cherishing the process of running a business with his dad, and sees the restaurant as a way for his parents to sustain themselves financially during the pandemic. “I still have my old job and so my primary goal is to make sure we make enough money that my parents can have a decent life.”
Cozy Wok is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday to Sunday; closed on Tuesdays for takeout and delivery.