Under disco lights and near the seated queue of karaoke singers waiting for their turn, I clear Heineken bottles from the bridal party table, flexing my fingers around their sticky green glass necks to drop them into a bin out in the service hallway. “It’s hard work but good pay,” my sister’s friend, Annie Wong, texted earlier in the day. Her family owns Princess Garden, a Chinese restaurant that also caters weddings, mostly Vietnamese and Cambodian, outside their restaurant’s location near Waldo in Kansas City, Missouri.
The job is, as Annie described, hard. And it’s also, surprisingly, great for me. By the end of the evening, I’d be offered a regular job at the restaurant, which I accept while asking how the catering gigs and work at the restaurant might compare. “It’s not too different,” Sueka Chang, Annie’s aunt, says. “Nothing bad like Christmas.” Someone in the family groans it’s too early to talk about Christmas, and they all share a collective wince. What, I think, is the big deal with Christmas?
After working as a chef in Chinese restaurants in New York and in Washington, D.C., Chuen Lock Cheung opened his first U.S. restaurant, Princess Garden, in 1972, moving his family from Hong Kong to Kansas City. In 1981, the restaurant moved from its strip mall location at 75th and Wornall to its current location of 89th and Wornall, where the family bought the property and built the restaurant to their own specifications. Cheung’s eldest child, Robert Chang, started as a manager and then became head chef when his father retired in the mid-1980s. His younger siblings Nancy, Suewan, Sam, and Sueka worked at the restaurant from its inception or started as soon as they were old enough, and they all continue to work at Princess Garden today.
Robert is still head chef, and plates every single entree that’s ordered during his shifts. In the kitchen, his wok is burnished in oil and surrounded by constant high flames until service ends. The food, mostly Northern Chinese, Szechuan, and the American style of those cuisines, is prepared and cooked under the tenets that nothing is made in advance or in bulk (excluding appetizers like dumplings, crab rangoon, and wontons, which are still handmade daily on site). Nearly everything is cooked to order, making the restaurant an outlier against the other Chinese restaurants in the city.
At Princess Garden, there is no restaurant POS. Orders are shouted into the kitchen, where Robert cooks several entrees in minutes while keeping an ear ready for the continuous rounds of orders. His wife, Wendy, works as an assistant, cleaning and preparing ingredients. Sam manages the front of house and is usually the one to cut and serve the Peking duck, always at tableside. His wife, Vivian, manages the deep fryer and helps with additional prep work. Nancy is in charge of carryout, taking the orders by phone and making sure they’re fulfilled and packed correctly; she’s often the first person to greet diners and thank them for coming after they finish their meal.
Suewan and Sueka work as the restaurant’s main servers. Whatever distraction or impediment that may be happening in the kitchen is rarely seen on their faces when they hit the floor, where their attentiveness makes most diners forget they’re often the only two servers working. Suewan’s husband, David, does everything from bartending to dishwashing to fixing plumbing and electricity issues. Sueka’s husband, Sun, works in IT but will frequently come to help when the weekend flux demands it, and can buss a table that would take me two visits in one. If the restaurant has a reservation for a large party or when there’s catering or if it’s a very busy night, their children will come to help. Besides a longtime line cook who assists with stir frying, two dishwashers, and me, the work of Princess Garden is a family enterprise.
When I walked through the restaurant’s double doors for a shift early last December, I noticed a small Christmas tree bearing the weight of candy canes and small carryout cartons. Two thousand napkins folded with bulk paper napkins sat nearby, on emergency reserve. One thousand more new plates had been ordered in anticipation for Christmas Day’s service; so had more forks, more spoons, more glasses. Fifteen hundred ducks were ordered for just Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, nearly 3,000 egg rolls, crab rangoons, and dumplings made. The bar section is usually an area of respite for the family when there’s the odd break, but the days before Christmas, it becomes a storage and organizing area where deliveries stack up and the new dishes rest in their crates.
Despite the restaurant’s history and the long history of Jewish families eating at Chinese restaurants on Christmas, Christmas at Princess Garden is only a 10-year-old tradition. It started when families, mostly Jewish, asked if the restaurant would open for them during the holiday. “I came to America and started working at 19, and now I’m 66,” Robert says. “I’ve seen customers get married, have kids, and then seen those kids bring in their own kids into the restaurant. We’ve fed people through birthdays, weddings, and funerals. Princess Garden is their family gathering restaurant.”
“So it was easy to say yes?” I ask. Robert nods. “I’m very honored they still want to come.”
After three years of opening on Christmas, the number of diners increased beyond the families who originally requested the favor, and the Chang family recognized that Christmas would have to be its own special operation. Now, reservations are required for parties of six or more, and any smaller party is seated on a first-come-first-serve basis; carryout can be ordered in advance but all orders stop at 5 p.m.; orders are written out separately for Robert in the kitchen rather than shouted; nearly all of Cheung’s nine grandchildren will work Christmas Eve and Day because Christmas could not be done without them; and finally, the family accepts that at some moment during service, they can’t staunch the crowd and will get jammed.
“I do a lot more yelling,” Robert says when I ask how he gets through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. “That’s usual.” Robert cooks with no break, and sees both days as an opportunity to see how much he can do. “It’s a good challenge for me. I want to cook perfectly, and I want to know how the dishes come out and how people like it,” he says. “Every time I cook, I’m fighting for time. It’s a kind of fun.”
Sueka, the youngest Chang sibling, feels similarly. “There’s an excitement. I get to see all the families together and people are really nice on Christmas Day. They understand that we’re busy and don’t give us any pressure, but as a server, I still want to do my best job and make them happy.” Sueka takes the larger parties of eight and more on Christmas, and can command a table’s attention for their order with an easy charm. I’ve seen her split a check for a table of 25 without blinking. (There is nothing more Midwestern to me than the expectation and accommodation of a split check.)
Water no ice, water with lemon, hot tea, dropped fork, extra sweet and sour sauce. When I’m working, I often think of Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris and adapt his experiment to help me remember orders while trying to do them efficiently. In his small book, Perec spends three days in the Place Saint-Sulpice simply writing his observations: “A basset hound. A man with a bow tie. An 86 [bus].” Usually this helps me keep engaged and cool in the work, but right now — at noon, Christmas Day 2018 — all I can think is that Perec got to eat a Camembert sandwich after admitting the futility of his experiment.
On this Christmas, the restaurant has staffed up considerably. With Robert and Wendy’s two sons and Annie, the restaurant gains three more waiters to work alongside Suewan and Sueka. Sam and Vivian’s daughter helps her mother at the deep fryer. Annie’s sister, Angela Wong, works as a host and answers the calls for carryout so their mother Nancy can focus on fulfilling them. David seems permanently fixed behind the bar making mai tai after mai tai. Sam moves between greeting the diners to leading them to their table and handling the register. Wendy works in the kitchen with Robert, who still finishes and plates every single entrée. Sueka’s son, Calvin Kot, washes the dishes with a new recruit as an assistant. Suewan’s kids are tasked to help with food running, bussing tables, serving and refilling water, and resetting the tables with another new recruit, J., and me. Throughout the day, family friends volunteer to help out in short bursts.
When I arrive to work, Suewan tells me to place the napkins tucked with two forks and a knife center on the plate. There’s no time to do the usual setting of the utensils to the side of the plates before people are seated. The restaurant’s tables have been reconfigured to accommodate larger parties, and space is prioritized to fit as many diners as possible under code (300 people total), which results in the loss of the table that usually holds the clean plates, napkins with their utensils, and the white paper pre-cut to cover and protect the white tablecloths. Instead, everything is set on or around a cart in the small service hallway, the white paper is rolled into multiple bins, and everything must be bussed immediately into the kitchen.
Despite these adjustments and working around the kitchen’s higher traffic, a familiar routine takes over me: keep an eye on incoming diners, serve water as quickly as possible, refill waters as needed, refill ice from the ice machine, buss the tables, hand off the final receipt and tips directly to the waiter or to the front register if a waiter hasn’t managed it yet, discard the white paper on top of each tablecloth and then replace it with another, and finally, reset the table for everything again. Even the usual punctuations of running out food or additional drinks from the bar or getting an extra sauce or relaying a message to a waiter feels like a normal, busy weekend night … until it doesn’t.
At some point, the ice machine stops making ice. We start setting the plates with one fork instead of two because there is a void between the forks being used and the forks being cleaned; there are not enough forks. The crowd waiting in the lobby doesn’t diminish. The lids for the Styrofoam cups used as water glasses for young children won’t fit. Plates, steaming hot from the dishwashers, must be carried in stacks from the kitchen to the cart and dried quickly by hand for service. The kitchen floor, between the dishes being washed at a perpetual pace and the itinerant oil from all the cooking, is more slick. Later, a stack of plates falls and breaks. J., who worked Christmas Eve but somehow doesn’t know where anything is, manages to blithely walk the dining floor with half-filled water pitchers and comments that I’m always busy doing something. I find myself not liking J.
There are no clocks or windows on the dining floor or inside the kitchen, so I have no sense of when this happened, but soon everything begins to swell against my ability to do anything: I can’t walk as quickly. I struggle to memorize the tables’ needs and who their waiter is. Bussing tables feels like more of an undertaking. Everything feels heavy. I have irrational, proprietary feelings for a small tray that goes missing every time I set it down.
I feel like I am being processed through a system of water slides with increasing speed and with all relief points zeroing out into a cascade. One of Suewan’s tables flags me down to double their egg roll order. In my rush to the kitchen, I slip and then slide the full length of the service counter, feeling the entire drag on my back heel. Suewan steadies me to a stop. “Your table wants another order of egg rolls,” I say, stunned and relieved that I didn’t fall. She nods, someone asks if I’m okay, and I snap a quick affirmative. I walk out of the kitchen back to the dining floor where I immediately trip over a man’s leg angled outside of his booth. “I am so sorry,” he says horrified as he quickly tucks his leg under the table. Something like kernel panic hits me. My Perec lists blink and then blank into a blue still.
I keep working until Suewan tells me it’s 7 p.m. and I can go if I want to. I do. As I grab my jacket, Nancy tells me I need to eat, and I tell her I’d rather go home. I say goodnight and, with my legs finding speed again, I leave the restaurant. Or, as Nancy described when Sueka asked where I was, “Nina ran off pissed!”
Later I ask Kot, the youngest cousin at 18, what his mindset is to get through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, particularly when it feels intense: “My mom, my aunts, and uncles, they all did this in their prime and they’re still doing it. I try to think of other things, like hanging out with my friends or my schoolwork, while staying super focused to make sure none of the dirty dishes are stacking and make sure everything is going through hot and clean,” he says. “At some point the only motivation I have is thinking [the family] is what we have to get through this.”
It would be an understatement to say Princess Garden knows that traditions can be created rather than solely inherited. Sam will often say, “With good food, they all come.” What good food means and people’s expectation for authentic Chinese food is both mutable and definitive at the restaurant, depending on who is eating. Robert created the restaurant’s signature entrée, spiced crunchy beef, after observing people wanted sweet and sour dishes with more spice. The egg rolls and dumplings, traditionally made with pork, were changed to be made with beef tenderloin to make them safer treyf for Jewish families; Robert knew that with Kansas City’s cowtown history, most people would prefer beef anyway or not care. International Chinese students come from nearby universities and from states as far as Iowa and Nebraska for the Peking duck and lobster in garlic sauce, frequently accompanied with off-the-menu dishes.
Opening on Christmas is another example of the aunts and uncles’ skill of seeing people the way they want to be seen and welcomed, and then responding to what people want. Carrying the weight of those expectations while enduring the hours and effort it takes is their business.
“At my age now, we’re seeing the third generation of customers come in to eat,” says Angela, 37, who has more time to talk to people as they wait to be seated and can hear stories like a doctor sharing how her grandfather fed him for free throughout medical school. “Christmas is just crazy busy,” she says. “We [the cousins] do it and it’s not our day job so it’s rougher for us, but, for many people, my family is a major part of their holiday tradition. It’s not Christmas for them without us.”