Meet regional restaurateur Sandy Chen

“At my very first job, I worked as a waitress at Little Szechuan House in Highland Park, Ill.,” says Sandy Chen, owner of Koi Fine Asian Cuisine & Lounge. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Chen)
Sandy Chen introduces Chicagoans to eight regional Chinese cuisines at Koi Fine Asian Cuisine & Lounge.

All Chinese food is not the same. Just ask Sandy Chen ’90 ATTENDEE, owner of Koi Fine Asian Cuisine & Lounge, Evanston, Ill., who has worked in and managed restaurants in the Chicago area since 1984. Chen grew up in the village of Wen Zhoud in southern China and moved to the U.S. at age 16. After many years working in kitchens on the North Shore and in the city, she ran a couple of restaurants before opening Koi in 2004.

Who taught you how to cook?
I learned my basic cooking skills from my mom and my grandmother. I was trying to make dinner when I was 8 years old.

How did you get started in restaurants?
At my very first job, I worked as a waitress at Little Szechuan House in Highland Park, Ill. I fell in love with the business. After I moved to Chicago, I worked for Tang Dynasty for 15 years. Then I ran my own restaurant in the Lakeview neighborhood: House of Dong Yuang (later renamed Chen’s).

What makes Koi unique?
We introduced a new way of Chinese cooking to the community with The 8 Distinct Regional Chinese Cuisines menu. Our staff is really good at telling customers where the dishes are from—the region, climate, spices, ingredients. We emphasize hospitality.

How do you offer so many items?
Chinese cooking is interesting. The ingredients may be the same—we just use a different spice or cooking technique, and the dish comes out totally different.

Do you still cook?
I spend time in the kitchen working with the chef. He has more Chinese taste buds, but I know both Western and Chinese, so I’ll make little modifications—adjusting the sauce level, the spice level.

What is the food from your region like?
I lived in the Zhe (Zhejiang) Province. When I introduced pork belly to our Western customers, I was not sure they were going to like it—it’s really authentic, and people think pork belly is fat, but the chef braises the pork belly for four hours until all the fat is burned out.