He's like a force of nature. Powerful, yet engaging. On a mission, but open to new paths. Always moving. Mike Wong sticks out his hand, introduces himself and insists you have something to eat.

You are now a friend. He uses your name when he makes a point, smiles often and looks over the top of his glasses to see if you are following the stories he loves to tell. Each story strikes one of the themes by which he lives: family, hard work and heart.

Five years after emigrating from China, Wong and his wife, Helen, opened their first Oriental Wok. That was 1977. Now, he and his family oversee each kitchen, work alongside employees and chat with customers at three thriving restaurants in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati. Seating guests or carrying dishes for a server at a busy table, the Wongs are hands-on.

Fort Mitchell is the "mother ship," says daughter Angela Wong Miller, where staff is trained before they head off to the restaurants in Taylor Mill and Hyde Park. "Something I tell my staff when I'm training, 'You have to put your heart in your work,'" she says. She smiles warmly "” a Wong trademark.

"I throw myself into everything I do. I tell my servers that, too," she says in the dining room of the large restaurant on Buttermilk Pike with its small fountains, pagoda-encased private table, an eight-panel mural of a Chinese country bridge surrounded by a profusion of purple flowers. Every table is ready, white cloths pressed, red napkins set just so like small crowns at each place.

Across the River

The year-old Hyde Park Oriental Wok is doing well, says Angela's sister Susannah Wong Burgess.

Under the careful eyes of Susannah and Helen Wong (described by her daughters as the matriarch), the restaurant draws customers from Blue Ash, Mason and Loveland who say they had heard the enthusiastic reviews, but they never crossed the river to give it a taste. "Every day we are meeting new people. It's a fresh start every day; I never think my dad has been doing this 30 years and I can relax," Susannah says.

"We give 100 percent plus," she says, "so we don't disappoint our new customers."

Mike adds, "or old ones."

He says Buttermilk Pike regulars who live in the Regency where the restaurant took over space once used by J's Seafood urged him to bring his signature Sesame Chicken and perfect Shrimp Tempura north. Still, Mike says, "we are the new kids on the block" and have plenty to prove.

But doesn't opening a restaurant while the economy is collapsing take guts?

Mike shrugs. It's no big deal to cross the Ohio River, sink a bundle into opulent redecorating, and open a third Oriental Wok. Not for a guy who crossed the Pacific Ocean to build a future for his family.

"When I was 30 years old, I already had a good life in Hong Kong," Mike says, but he was intent on owning his own business. The movies, magazines images, and big buildings presented enticing images to a man who looking for opportunity. The U.S. was "so exciting "¦ Hawaii, John Wayne "¦ I'm the guy who always challenges myself."

A friend invited him to work in a restaurant in the states and Mike and Helen decided to take the gamble, leaving Helen to care for their two young daughters. It's easy to flash forward to the current success, but not without a nod to the countless hours and personal investment it took to get here.

His daughters have the advanced degrees that speak to the family's commitment to education, but Mike is more of a self-styled Ph.D. in food. He loves it. He loves what goes into the preparation of a perfect dish, and he's always learning. "If I go to lunch and find something I like, I will make it the same night," Mike says. He tracks down the ingredients, adds his touch, and serves it.

When he and Helen travel, restaurants top the "must-see" list. They eat all over the world and bring what they learn, what they like, to their kitchens.

He flips over a placemat, picks up the reporter's pen and begins to tell the story of dinner atop the Eiffel Tower. He draws the tower, the two restaurants, even how many feet high they are located. All the while, he's explaining why they couldn't settle for eating anywhere else in the City of Light except at the top of the Eiffel. Reservations were impossible, the concierge told him. It is a six-month wait. "Try, try," Mike urged him.

On the second try, the Wongs got a table. Not the best view, Mike frowns, but still. The food was great, but Mike has a better story to tell. About the man at the next table. Mike hears him speak English, and that's all the invitation he needs to strike up a conversation. They exchange the obligatory: What do you do? He's a salesman.

Mike laughs, "I tell him I'm a salesman, too. I sell egg rolls."

You can guess the rest. The other diner is from Dayton and is now a regular at the Wok.

Back to the Secret

There is no secret to the success, Mike says. It's quality and customer service. He keeps an eye on everything.

"Every day I walk into kitchen. I look left and right, top to bottom," he says, making sure every vegetable is fresh, the fish are perfect and the preparation is just so. The main thing is the food. The cook has to start with "good quality materials to make good food." Fish is purchased several times a week whole and cut up in the Wong kitchens by their chefs so it meets their standards. It's about attention to detail.

The pork is tenderloin. Only white meat is used in chicken dishes. "It has to be excellent before you start so that when you slice through, it's excellent," Angela explains, or all the preparation and sauces won't make any difference.

The chefs all come with experience but they work with Mike so that what is served in one place is the same quality dish in the other locations.

The family has also started to market its collection of sauces at Remke Markets. Yes, it was customers who suggested that they wanted to use it at home.

So, with the restaurants, the sauce sales and the cooking classes they offer, which always sell out, aren't they worried about spreading themselves too thin?

"It's a family business, a small family business," Mike explains. There are six members now, counting his sons-in-law, so there are enough of them to safeguard quality and keep customers happy. He's had offers to expand, but this size feels right. For now.

So, who is the boss of this family business?

Susannah has a story this time. As a teenager, she shares, she was balking at a task. She remembers rolling her eyes as her dad asked her "Wh'™s the boss?"

She remembers his answer.

"The customer is your boss." â– 

Dianne Gebhardt-French writes about the newsmakers and issues of NKY. Longtime local journalist and former editor of the Kentucky Enquirer, contact her at (513) 297-6209 or
dfrench@cincymagazine.com.