Jade Court founder Eddy Cheung left his daughter a well-worn, blue spiral-bound notebook with recipes written in Chinese before he died in 2019, and Carol Cheung still refers to those recipes. She also has her own plans for the Cantonese restaurant and has begun writing down recipes in her own notebook. Jade Court started as her father’s story, but as she debuted the Hyde Park location during the middle of the pandemic, Carol Cheung says it’s time to work in new recipes and tell her own story.
Since her father died two years ago, Carol Cheung was forced to move the restaurant from University Village over to Hyde Park, finding space near another college campus, inside the University of Chicago’s Harper Court. The pandemic further complicated the restaurant’s ability to get to know its new community. When Carol Cheung opened the restaurant in November, Harper Court, anchored by a mostly vacant Hyatt hotel, resembled a ghost town. Restaurants, like Jolly Pumpkin, went into hibernation. Others, like Aloha Poke Co. and Vanille, closed altogether. Jade Court would add a pick-up window as its dining room wasn’t ready for customers — state officials suspended indoor dining two weeks before the opening.
But as COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, Carol Cheung is ready to serve Hyde Park some of the best Chinese food in the city. She’s even developed a series of tropical cocktails — Mai Tais have be always been popular at American Chinese restaurants. Though Carol Cheung will hand her customers a small paper menu, the limited offerings don’t do justice to the culinary possibilities that her chef, Guo Dong Mei, could be preparing on a particular day. Carol Cheung enjoys exploring neighborhood grocers. She visits five Chinatown markets daily and what she brings back won’t be listed. Former Tribune critic Phil Vettel suggested that customers ask “what the kitchen is up to” and that’s a phrase that Carol Cheung and husband Adrian have embraced.
Eddy Cheung moved his family from Toronto in 1996 after a visit to Chicago. He believed he could fill a niche for Hong Kong-style dim sum and opened Phoenix Restaurant in Chinatown: “He wanted to teach people that Chinese food doesn’t have to be what you think it is,” Carol Cheung says. The family sold Phoenix after more than two decades running the neighborhood dim sum institution. Staff, like chef Dong Mei, followed the Cheungs to Jade Court. Carol’s mother, Denny, also had a hand in the menu, bringing in Malaysian touches.
As immigrants familiarized America with different types of Chinese food, it seems Cantonese cuisine, one of the first types of Chinese food popularized in the U.S., has become unfairly relegated as boring. And that’s something that annoys Cheung. She wants to show customers that there’s a vibrancy with Cantonese food. Those stereotypes about quality are, in part, what pushes her on her regular visits to the market, to find quality ingredients. Even as beef prices surge, Cheung says she knows it’s tempting to buy lower grade meat, but that’s one change her father would never accept.
Carol Cheung is adding recipes that would raise her father’s eyebrows. For example, her father didn’t enjoy Sichuan peppercorns and was spice sensitive. He detested cumin and found lamb too gamey. America’s tastes for Chinese food have changed since the 1970s and Carol Cheung is incorporating these ingredients and flavors. There’s also a complicated caveat of “eating clean,” a phrase that can leave racist connotations when it comes to Asian food. For Cheung, this means cutting down sweeter flavors as customers want to limit sugar. It can mean using potato starch instead of cornstarch as a thickening agent.
Carol Cheung’s charm helps customers navigate the menu (she has a more elaborate one for customers including a section devoted to egg foo young; just ask). She’s trying to keep her family’s legacy afloat, dealing with labor shortages. But she’s committed to making it work in Hyde Park.
“Nobody is going to care as much as yourself,” she says. “I mean, I enjoy the industry, I enjoy the restaurant business, I enjoy interacting with my customers.”