The man behind the counter: How he escaped communist China and started a popular local restaurant
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REXBURG — When you walk into the Steak and Kebab Hut in Rexburg, chances are Ying Ng will greet you with a cheerful grin. Most people smile, exchange a polite greeting and order their food.
Ying lets his employee take your order as he gathers ingredients in the kitchen. He’s most likely wearing a white, short sleeve collared shirt and square glasses with a metal frame. A hat sits on his head; the top is a hairnet and the brim is a fedora, which protects the food from his salt and pepper hair. His round face and bright eyes light up as his tan, leathered hands grip the knife and slice vegetables with precision.
Customers may have noticed him, but they know nothing about him. And what they wouldn’t know about the man standing behind the counter is the sacrifices he had made to get there.
At the age of three, Ying Ng fled Guongdong, China to escape a communist takeover.
His father and mother escaped first, taking the oldest and youngest children with them while leaving Ying, the third child, and his older brother in the care of his grandmother. Once his parents reached Hong Kong, they made preparations for the three and five year old children to escape with their 16-year-old aunt.
His aunt was nervous because they arranged to meet with strangers. She didn’t dare eat at dinnertime fearing the men would drug and kidnap them.
“She said, ‘I dare not to eat the food they gave us.’ (So) when I was so hungry and wanted to eat, my aunt forbade me to accept the food,” Ying said.
Many of Ying’s memories of fleeing China came from his aunt’s stories. However, he remembers snippets here and there.
“It was one evening late at night,” Ying said. “Someone was carrying me on their back because I had been ill before that – very ill, I almost died – so I could only remember someone carrying me on his back, walking through the field, carrying a paraffin lamp. It was very dark. Someone kept saying, ‘hurry up, hurry up,’” he recalls.
Many people fled China during and after The Great Leap Forward, a communist revolution between 1958 and early 1962, which killed an estimated 50 million people due to man-made famine. Leaving in secret was a risk many people took.
“The next thing I remember is that we were in a boat,” Ying said. “It’s a few hours journey. In the boat I was kind of waking up and someone said, ‘Get down. Get down. Be quiet.’ If the patrol boat from Hong Kong caught us they would send us back.”
Today the small building sits in a parking lot next to Taco Time. A sign hangs above the windows, which reads, “Steak and Kebab Hut, mouth watering, fresh food made with love.”
It’s true – the food is mouth watering, fresh, made with love and ‘hut’ is the best way to describe the building.
Outside is a small outdoor eating area, often rendered unusable by the chill of Rexburg’s everlasting winter. Inside six small tables placed strategically in the one-room dining area seat close to twenty people.
As you pull the door open, the walkway leads you directly to the ordering counter. The large menu hangs from the wall to the right. Ying informs you there is more information about the dishes in the printed menu below, although most people order the chicken shawarma.
Ying and his family successfully fled to Hong Kong, but they found difficulty in competing for available jobs.
One day Ying’s father came home with two men – missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints. Ying, who was nine at the time, remembers his curiosity stemmed from having a common language with these foreign people.
“We were kind of curious because they speak like we do,” Ying said.
The family took the lessons and Ying’s testimony grew steadily, especially upon hearing Joseph Smith’s first vision. The missionaries baptized Ying’s father, and just a few months later, his father emigrated to work in England. Ying continued to attend church in Hong Kong for two years before being baptized, Ying told The Deseret News.
With faith and good intentions, Ying’s father emigrated to England to find more opportunities for his family. The rest of the family continued living in their humble beginnings in Hong Kong.
“Our house was probably the size of my shed outside. We built it ourselves. It was leaking all over everywhere,” Ying said.
Eleven people lived in a space no larger than a shed with two small rooms and a very small sitting area. Every time it rained, they had to repair the roof.
“A patch here, a patch there, a patch everywhere,” Ying said.
Ying’s grandmother would take him to farms to work in exchange for the opportunity to clean out the fields after harvests and keep any leftover food they found.
Despite this, Ying says life was good. He had a lot of freedom to climb trees, catch fish in the ponds and visit the stream.
“We didn’t know what poverty was like. Only our grandmother knew we didn’t have money to buy this or that. We didn’t know any better,” Ying said.
Meanwhile, Ying’s father had not yet opened a restaurant by the time he arrived in England in 1971. His father and two older brothers worked to save money to bring the rest of the family to England. Ying also worked for a restaurant once he arrived in England to help contribute toward his father’s plan of opening his own restaurant.
That happened and at first, Ying waited tables. But during the long stretches of quiet hours his boredom got the best of him.
“I would walk into the kitchen and say, ‘Can I help with this?’ or ‘Can I help with that?’” Ying recalls.
Usually the cooks pushed him out, but that didn’t stop Ying from coming back again.
“I would see them sometimes cutting something and then they’d get busy doing something else and leave the knife over there. So I’d just pick up the knife and start doing it,” Ying said.
In the end, the cooks gave in and he was the only waiter allowed to stay and assist in the kitchen.
I arrived at noon. The Kebab Hut opens from 11:30 to 2 p.m. for lunch and 5 to 8 p.m. for dinner. The menu is somewhat overwhelming with choices ranging from Persian to Chinese. Ying and Kim still own a business in England, which supplies restaurants with meat cut to order and some specialty food such as Chicken Shawarma and Dona Kebab.
“We supply to a lot of Greek restaurants, Turkish, Persian, English, Thai, Chinese, Indian and we [the chefs] sometimes like to get together because they know me as a chef. So I will walk into their Indian restaurant and cook with them. Sometimes they invite me to cook the thing that they want to learn from me. We are chefs learning from each other,” Ying said.
Ying thought Rexburg could use a little more diversity in its food options so he took recipes from all of these friends to create the vast menu. I order my food and sit down in the corner as his wife prepares the ingredients.
Kim said, “He really does have a flair and a passion for cooking. I’ll prepare the things for him, I’ll wash the dishes, but I have to leave the cooking to him because it’s an art form, isn’t it? And I don’t think I have it.”
Ying continued attending church, even though his family fell away. For Ying, the gospel is more than words; it’s also a feeling. The language barrier did not stop him from sharing that feeling, Ying told the Deseret News.
Ying said, “President Kimball encouraged all young men to go on a mission. And every church material I read – magazine, talks, scriptures – seemed to talk about that it is a commandment to serve a mission. I felt very strongly that I should go in order to keep that commandment.”
Ying was counseled to talk to his father about his intention to serve a mission. When he did, his father was angry, thinking Ying should stay and help in the restaurant. Ying secretly submitted his papers and was called to the England London South Mission.
“On the day that I left, I told him: ‘I’m leaving.’ It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’d never done anything like that in my life, but it was the only way.”
His mission helped him learn English. After two years of service, he returned home to find his father had sold the restaurant and planned to move to America. Ying stayed. Unsure where he would go and what he would, do he filled out an application to Rick’s College in Rexburg, but never submitted it.
Instead, he worked at a warehouse that made Mormon temple clothing, and developed his culinary and business skills. With his new ability to understand English, he offered his time to help other Chinese immigrants raise funds to start and run their own businesses.
While Ying lived in Southport, near Manchester, the church called him to serve as ward mission leader for several months. One day a French missionary and his companion were joking around saying, “Brother Ying, when are you going to get married?”
Ying said, “When I find the right girl.”
The missionary said, “What kind of girl are you looking for?”
Ying said, “Oh, well I like a girl who is faithful in the gospel, plays the violin, loves classical music, etc.”
And then one of the missionaries, Elder Turner, turned around and asked, “How about my sister?”
Unbeknownst to Ying, Turner wrote home that week, telling his family about him. Ying thought it was a joke.
At the time, when missionaries completed their two-year commitments, Ying had formed a tradition of showing the young men around London and then dropping them off at the airport to fly home. It was time for Turner’s companion to go home so the missionary suggested they stay with his family in London after dropping off the companion.
That’s where Ying met his wife, Kim.
“My first impression? Lovely girl. Lovely girl.”
Kim remembers, “I didn’t really want to meet him – this Chinese guy with a strange sounding name. You know I’d never seen him before, but as soon as I saw him I thought, ‘Oh he’s quite nice really.’”
Ying and Kim married on July 4, 1981 in the London LDS Temple. Their five children grew up learning how to work hard as they did their part for the family businesses. Each of the children developed a relationship with Ying that was both ‘boss’ and ‘dad.’
“Dad was always really good about when it was not work time of being dad,” Ying’s middle child, Tim, said. “It was interesting how that could literally switch on and off within an hour. Like – we’re at home watching a movie now. It’s not work time and as soon as it’s work time, he was like a military general.”
Ying also served as the LDS ward’s bishop for the majority of his children’s teen years.
“So he was kind of in charge of every aspect of my life, but he did a good job at that,” Tim said.
The Ying family moved to the United States after their daughter, Ruth, applied to Brigham Young University-Idaho. They opened their first restaurant in 2010 after she encouraged her parents to move to Rexburg.
He whistles along with the mellow spa music as he prepares the food and chats behind the counter with his employees. His laugh is low and slow, a genuine chuckle if I’ve ever heard one. His mouth is always turned upward in a smile. He calls my name – my order is ready. The orange chicken tastes fresh, just like he said it would.
“We use real oranges,” he informed me. It’s served with broccoli, gyoza and an eggroll and will cost you about 10 dollars. I don’t know how, but his broccoli tasted better than any broccoli I’d ever had.
I came back the next night and ordered the chicken shawarma. I figured I had to try the customer favorite, and now I understand how it got that title.
“Even the way my dad cuts the meats makes a huge difference in the experience with each mouthful,” Tim said. “He’s always made very balanced meals, not too meat heavy or too vegetable heavy. Every bite is an experience unto itself.”
As easy as it is to enjoy the food, look up from your plate and take a minute to enjoy the company. You’ll love getting to know the man behind the counter.