Growing up, George Zheng dreamed of pursuing a career as a lawyer. “I certainly never thought about becoming a restauranteur,” he says.
But thanks in part to a college potluck, you won’t find Zheng delivering closing arguments. Instead the chef and owner of the Lotus Leaf in Eden Prairie spends his days in the kitchen, perfecting slow cooked delicacies with a Thai and Japanese influence and working to perfect the restaurant’s one-page menu.
Zheng grew up in Mankato, but has called the Twin Cities home for most of his life. It was during his college years at the University of Minnesota that his interest in cooking unexpectedly surfaced. “As a student living on my own, I had to cook for myself in order to save money,” he says, “and through that process I discovered the immense joy that cooking afforded me.”
Zheng recalls the first time he cooked for others, causing the pleasure he felt preparing dishes for himself to evolve into a passion that would drive a successful career in the restaurant industry. The catalyst was a student-sponsored potluck that required each participant to bring food for all the guests to share. He made a curried noodle dish in his apartment’s tiny kitchen and bought it to the event.
Although he had a class and was unable to stay for the party, a friend who later returned his serving dish told him the curried noodles were gone in less than five minutes and were the hit of the potluck. Zheng was gratified, he says, that people “actually enjoyed eating the food I cooked,” and believes it was this experience that sparked his interested in devoting his life to cooking.
Harkening back to that college potluck, today Zheng says he feels joy and gratitude when his guests at Lotus Leaf enjoy their meals, and he makes it a personal goal to ensure that plates are licked clean. In fact, he often checks in the kitchen to see if customers finish every bite. “If there’s a lot of food left over and they don’t take the leftovers home, then I feel like I haven’t done my job correctly,” he says.
In the years between his college days cooking for classmates and his current role at Lotus Leaf, Zheng considers himself fortunate to have worked in “some really high quality kitchens in the Twin Cities.”
These kitchens include the once critically-acclaimed True Thai Restaurant in Minneapolis and Masu Sushi & Robata, the popular Japanese restaurant developed by local celebrity chef Tim McKee, with locations in Northeast Minneapolis and the Mall of America.
He credits the chefs at these restaurants with enhancing his skill and influencing his style. “The vast majority of my cooking experience has been Thai and Japanese, and that could explain why there’s a pork belly ramen (a traditional Japanese dish) on my Thai-dominant menu at Lotus Leaf,” he says.
Whatever the cuisine, quality is Zheng’s first priority. In an effort to provide his customers with the best possible options, Zheng says his general philosophy is to “focus on doing a limited number of things extremely well versus doing many things simply for the sake of having many things.”
This is reflected in the restaurant’s short and sweet menu. “Our menu is one page, and we give a lot of thought and consideration to each and every item we serve,” Zheng says.
Along with choosing locally sourced foods whenever possible, Zheng says that at the moment he especially enjoys slow cooking. To his customers, he recommends the grass fed brisket that he braises for six hours for his Massaman curry or the bone marrow broth that he boils for upwards of 20 hours for his ramen broth. “For me,” he says, “there’s something inherently special about eating something that takes forever to cook.”
The small and high-quality menu is packed full of passion and a true enjoyment for cooking. If you go, just be sure to clean your plate.