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20 People to Watch - Yvonne Gu Khan: The dumpling entrepreneur
The daughter of Gu’s Bistro chef Yiquan Gu is bringing her father’s Buford Highway legacy intown
Yvonne Gu Khan, 32, was not formally trained in the field of culinary arts, or business, or anything else that might qualify her to open an eatery in Atlanta’s cutthroat restaurant market. Khan was interested in health care, which led her to earn a nursing degree from Alabama’s Troy State University in 2008. But with chefs for parents — both trained by master chefs in Sichuan, China — working in the restaurant biz was inevitable.
“When I graduated I said, ‘So I guess I’m going to get a nursing license and work now,’” Khan says, laughing. “And my dad said, ‘No, you go work at a restaurant and gain experience. We’re going to open a restaurant.’”
Khan’s father, Yiquan Gu, opened Buford Highway Sichuan restaurant Gu’s Bistro in December 2010. Its popularity among native Chinese and Atlanta eaters made the place a fast favorite. Next year, Khan will oversee the 2015 launch of Gu’s Dumplings, an abbreviated, dumpling-and-street-food-centric version of her father’s Buford Highway restaurant, within Krog Street Market.
When it comes to his elegant, nuanced cooking, Gu does not compromise. In fact, he’s so meticulous that once, while working at a Sichuan restaurant in Seattle, he turned down a man asking to take a photo with the chef because he was too busy cooking lunch. That man was Bill Gates. It’s not likely, Khan says, that her father would let anyone, including her, near his station, even for a lesson.
“When he cooks,” Khan says, “he doesn’t think. If you say, ‘How do you cook this,’ he can close his eyes and cook it in five minutes ... it’s so natural for him.”
Khan’s role is mostly administrative, though she can make a few dumplings and noodle dishes, she says. Her mother, Qiongyao Zhang, also a formally trained chef, was a more willing instructor. Zhang handles all of the dumplings at Gu’s. She, with some help from Khan, has hand-made somewhere in the ballpark of 400,000 dumplings, Khan estimates — about 90 percent of all the dumplings Gu’s has ever sold.
After trying to convince her parents to open a Downtown location for several years, a Krog Street Market stall seemed to be the opportunity they were waiting for.
The 600-foot-stall has just enough room for limited kitchen equipment and an ordering counter. To maintain quality, the Gu crew will make all the sauces and dumplings daily on Buford Highway, then transport them to Krog Street.
In addition to the Bistro’s signature pork dumplings, Gu’s Dumplings will have chicken- and vegetable-filled varieties, too. There will be other Gu’s favorites such as Chengdu cold noodles and kung pao lotus root. Cups of french fry-like dry fried eggplant and perhaps even rotating specials from chef Gu himself will round out Gu’s Dumplings’ 15-or-so-item menu.
A departure from the Bistro, however, will be the stall’s retail component. Khan says they plan to sell spice packs filled with things like citron peppercorns, and portions of Gu’s proprietary dumpling sauce bottled in-house. Khan hopes to have Gu’s Dumplings up and running by early spring. And, depending on the stall’s success, this could be the first step toward a full-fledged Gu’s Bistro location intown.
“I think we are really excited because this is a new concept to Downtown people, and us too. We kind of want to know if in the future there is a chance we’re going to move to Downtown and how people there are going to react to authentic Sichuan foods.”