Q&A: Joanna Hu, Kungfu Kitchen

Born in China’s Shandong Province, Joanna Hu did her first degree there before moving to Wales to study a BA there as an exchange student. She then did a Masters at Warwick University, where she met her future husband Steven. She spent ten years working in telecoms and then food, progressing from sales executive to head of sales, but never gave up on the dream of running her own business. At the end of 2018, her family moved to Reading to start their adventure, opening Kungfu Kitchen on Christchurch Green offering authentic regional Chinese food.

Eighteen months later, Kungfu Kitchen is a firm favourite in Reading and many of its dishes – salt and pepper tofu, lamb with cumin, fish fragrant pork and sweet and sour aubergines to name but a few – have attained iconic status. Joanna and Steven have kept Kungfu Kitchen trading during lockdown, delivering across Reading, while homeschooling their two children and carrying out improvements to the restaurant: Steven may be Reading’s most recognised (and most knackered!) delivery man.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
I miss people eating in our restaurant. We have such fun together – they become friends and even family for us. I believe eating in a restaurant is about more than food and service, it’s also a meeting of souls. 

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The people! People in Reading are so much friendlier and I love the community they have made. I can one hundred per cent say that I don’t regret giving everything up to move to Reading. There have been some difficult moments, but overall we feel so appreciated and so lucky to have met so many lovely people. The world is so big and life is not forever, so I feel fortunate to have found this place. We love Reading.  

What’s your earliest memory of food?
I come from the seaside, from Rizhao City (it means sunshine) in Shandong Province, and in Rizhao you eat seafood all the time, even for breakfast. When I was a little kid, we ate huge prawns and crabs, just simply boiled or steamed. The natural flavour is just the best. I wish I could take you all to China and to my hometown to see and feel the real China, Chinese culture and Chinese people. 

What’s the one dish on your menu you feel most passionate about?
Hotpot isn’t on our normal menu, but I always wanted to make it more widely eaten. It’s like a fondue. You have a hot pot full of flavoured broth (several of them, actually, spicy or mild) simmering on the table in front of you and you cook raw ingredients in the pot as you go along – whether that’s thinly sliced meat, tofu, seafood or vegetables. You don’t have it with rice or noodles, you eat with with a dipping sauce with plenty of sesame and garlic.

It’s a great way to eat because the meals go on for a long time, with all of you sitting around the pot talking and eating. It’s such a comfortable, sociable, relaxed experience with friends, family or even colleagues. And having lots of different broths and ingredients means it’s very easy for everybody – carnivores, vegetarians and vegans – to eat together.

How do you relax?
Reading books and journals and watching funny programmes online. But when lockdown finishes, I’ll go back to the leisure centre to join the cycling program: it’s my favourite sport.  

What is your favourite smell?
I love all the smells that come out of our restaurant kitchen every day. I’m very lucky – I get to smell it all the time without putting on weight! 

What made you decide to move to Reading and open a restaurant here?
Let’s start with why I wanted to open a restaurant. When I came to the UK in 2003 to study I found out that what people think of as Chinese food isn’t authentic, and that the China in people’s minds is nothing like the real China and real Chinese culture. So I always had a dream of opening my own authentic Chinese restaurant. I’ve always believed that food and love are the same thing – and then I met Steven, my Mr Right, and an English chef. Is that fate or a coincidence? God knows, but I knew I was the luckiest woman in the world for sure. He takes care of me, looks after me and spoils me.

So why Reading? Being head of sales for twelve years I travelled a lot in the UK and I always had my eye on opportunities to start my own business and places where I could open a restaurant. When I identified a site in Reading, Steven and I sat down and had the big conversation – he believes in me more than I believe in myself – and he said that if I was sure about this one, we should go ahead. So I resigned my job in sales and we took on this site and it was settled. I think working in food was my destiny.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
It was definitely eating fish in a restaurant in my home town. The owner of the restaurant worked on the fishing boats during the day and then cooked it in the evening – a huge, fresh fish cooked simply for a couple of hours. It was just so delicious.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
I had to do a big motivational speech to cheer my team up at work, but the thought of doing it made me so nervous that when the time came, I forgot most of the words. It probably wasn’t as motivational as I’d hoped! 

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
Being honest, although I love Reading I miss the food in Birmingham. They have the most authentic South Asian food: Ladypool Road in particular has many amazing restaurants.

You and Steven make a fantastic team. What’s the secret of your success?
To be fair it helps that we have a really good head chef leading the kitchen! Steven and I manage the rest of it together: he is great at operations and logistics (and paperwork!) I do customer service. We divide the responsibilities between us but also monitor and encourage each other. We had our teething troubles, but I think we’re getting stronger and stronger as a unit. We have the same goal: to provide the most authentic quality Chinese cuisine and the best unique service that we can. And we care about each other, and our customers. We want people to feel at home, like they have family looking after them. Problems are always easier to solve over a really good meal, and strangers are just friends we’re yet to meet.

How did you and Steven meet?
I think I was meant to meet Steven! When I got the offer to do a masters degree at Warwick I told my father I didn’t want any financial support (I’m very proud) and that I would do part time jobs to support myself. Warwick University has one of the biggest conference centres in Europe and they needed hundreds of part-time employees so, along with my Chinese friends, I worked there. 

I usually worked as a PA to management but one day on my lunch break I heard that there was a really handsome chef that all the girls were fighting to work with. I found that hard to believe, but my curiosity got the better of me so I went to have a look. And oh my goodness, he really was that handsome: that’s when I started to believe in love at first sight.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
All our customers, who have found a place for our restaurant in their hearts and given our food a chance.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
It is not a film, it’s a TV series: Friends. I even wanted to name my children after the characters, but Steven vetoed all of them apart from Rachel and then I had two boys. I’ll just have to ask my sons to look for girlfriends called Rachel. 

What is the most important lesson life has taught you? 
Lots of them! There’s no shortcut to success: Rome wasn’t built in a day. You have to focus on quality or your business won’t succeed. You have to find talented people. You can’t always control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond. And don’t ever quit. 

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Surprisingly, I don’t normally eat crisps (although I’ve tried many types). If I had to choose, it would be original Pringles. They’re crisps, right?  

Where is your happy place?
By the seaside, with a fine sandy beach and not many people around. Sitting on the beach reading books, running and playing with my kids, and then cooking the seafood we’ve caught ourselves. That’s the life I long for.

I’ve eaten at Kungfu Kitchen and had the fear of God struck into me by your karaoke machine. What song would you sing at karaoke?
Wow, good question! I actually have a really good singing voice and came third in a singing competition back at university in China. I’ve hardly sung at all since I came to the UK, because my life has completely changed. I arrived in the UK in 2003 the week before Chinese New Year, homesick and eager to explore this new world, but because I felt my English wasn’t good enough I lost confidence in singing English songs and, eventually, Chinese songs too. And now I’m so busy I hardly get time to stop. But to answer your question, the song I like the most is My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion. I’ll sing for all my customers, one day.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
I love seafood, cooked naturally and simply, like it is back in Shandong. Shellfish especially, just boiled or steamed.

Describe yourself in three words.
Kind. Straightforward. Funny. 

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