Ep. 23: Lina Goh & John Ng of Zen Box Izakaya - The Accountant & The Architect

Photo Credit: "The Restaurant Project"

Photo Credit: "The Restaurant Project"

Lina Goh and John Ng, who run Zen Box Izakaya, the only Japanese-style pub of its kind in Minnesota, met many years ago in an online chat room long before Tinder was but a twinkle in many a lonely single’s eye.  A long-distance romance blossomed into a move from San Francisco to Minnesota where they opened Zen Box Japanese Eatery, a quick lunch service spot in the iconic Minneapolis Skyway.  At the time, they specialized in Bentos (Japanese-style single-portion meals; "Lunch Boxes") and have since shifted their focus towards traditional Izakaya fare (think small, shareable plates) as well as Chef John’s specialty: Ramen.

This episode is chockful of info as Lina and John shared not only their insights into starting restaurants but also their backgrounds as non-Japanese lovers of food trying to establish a misunderstood cuisine in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and how they’ve applied their accounting/architecture background to their business.  

We talk about:
* How they conducted their initial research in opening their restaurants,
* Designing menus that balanced the traditionally Japanese and the local Minnesotan palate,
* Their approach to learning and education,
* Their much lauded community work with the Minnesota Restaurant Association and the St. Paul College - Culinary Arts
* The importance of a limitless patience, a strong work ethic, and the Underdog Mindset

Even if you aren’t interested in practicing the fine art of ramen or think Japanese food is defined by your local deli’s sushi counter, this episode has a lot to teach in terms of business ideas and more importantly, their wisdom on the beauty of taking chances, falling in love with your work, and the process of learning rather than being married to an outcome.  Tanoshinde kudasai…please enjoy my conversation with Lina and John.


4:00 - The Zen Box Origins...or "A Chatroom Romance"
11:00 - The Pre-Restaurant Gigs: Lina in Accounting & Chef John in Architecture
14:00 - Moving to MN and opening Zen Box Japanese Eatery
     *Doing their research and the necessity of a Business Plan
23:00 - Transitioning from Bentos to Ramen
25:15 - Designing a Menu: respecting tradition, fitting local palates
27:15 - What drew Lina and Chef John to the Japanese culture
31:30 - How to contribute to a (cultural) conversation and tradition respectfully
     *The influence of Chef John's Hong Kong heritage
     *The importance of ingredients and technique
35:15 - Educating the consumer: Using social media, storytelling, and being on the floor
     *The importance of being genuine
     *"Just Try It!"
42:00 - Their approach to Learning and Trying
47:15 - On Community Service and the importance of Speaking Up
     *Lina as a Board Member of the MRA (Minnesota Restaurant Association) & Chef John's work with the St. Paul College - Culinary Arts
52:45 - Skills missing from Food Industry education today: Patience and Work Ethic/Persistence
     *The Process vs. The Outcome
     *The necessity of Failure
58:45 - On celebrating the timelessness of "ethnic" / Asian Cuisine 

Rapid Fire with Lina
Most Influential Person: Lina's dad for Business, Chef John for Cooking
3 Ingredients That Describe Lina: Natto, Egg, Beef
Resource for the Common Person: Articles on Self-reflection and Empathy (LifeHack and PositivityBlog to name a few)
If Lina's Life Story was Written in One Sentence: "Help others become who they want to be"

Rapid Fire with Chef John
Most Influential Person: Tadao Ando (former Boxer turned Architect) for Architecture, Everyone Else for Cooking
Best Cooking Tool Ever Purchased: Moribashi (stainless steel chopsticks for plating)
3 Ingredients That Describe Chef John: Dried Fish, Any Vegetable, Rice
Resource for the Common Person: Thoughtful Crime Thrillers (...they teach you how to be detail-oriented!)
If Chef John's Life Story was Written in One Sentence: "Be An Underdog"

Food Referenced:
Natto - Fermented Soybeans
Tonkatsu - Breaded Deep-fried Pork Cutlet
Ebi Fry - Breaded Deep-fried Shrimp
Chicken Kara-age - Fried Chicken
Motsuni - Beef or Pork Offal, usually stewed
Katsudon - Rice bowl topped with Tonkatsu, Egg, Vegetables, and Condiments
Chinese Five Spice - Spice mix of Chinese origins that includes: Star Anise, Cloves, Chinese Cinnamon, Sichuan Pepper, and Fennel Seeds
Tantanmen - Type of Ramen with Chinese origins usually flavored with Sesame and Chilis
Sakuraniku - Horse Meat.  Can be enjoyed as Sashimi
Jidori - High quality chicken often described as the "Kobe Beef of Chicken".  Can be enjoyed as Sashimi (and that's saying something considering you'd probably get sick if you tried to do that with any regular chicken)
Tamago - Egg, in this case, grilled into an omelette.  Watch the "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" scene with Daisuke Nakazawa (now owner of Sushi Nakazawa in New York City) referenced HERE

Other References:
Minneapolis Skyway
Ryokan - Traditional Japanese Inn
Kaiseki - Traditional Japanese multi-course dinner
Bento - Japanese-style Lunch Boxes / single-portion meals

Follow the Story...
: info@ZenBoxIzakaya.com / LGoh@ZenBoxIzakaya.com
Website: ZenBox.com
Facebook: Zen Box Izakaya
Twitter: @ZenBoxIzakaya
Instagram: @RamenKimono (Lina) + @RamenArchitect (Chef John) + @ZenBoxIzakaya (Restaurant)