When Wendy Cheng immigrated from China to America in the 1980s, she came to become an engineer.
No doubt that a young Cheng would be surprised to discover that, 30 years later, she would be the sole owner and culinary mind behind a small, local chain of Asian eateries.
Her business, Red Parrot Asian Bistro, started in Rockville's White Flint Mall in 2001 as an express eatery and has since evolved into a table-service restaurant with prominent locations in Ellicott City and Hanover, and a third coming this month to Baltimore. The eatery offers a true mix of Asian cuisines – drawing on Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Thai recipes – in an upscale and modern dining atmosphere.
Cheng, 57, of Columbia, said she was inspired to start the venture because of her passion for food.
"Being an engineer was boring," Cheng said sitting inside her Ellicott City location, which opened at Turf Valley Towne Square earlier this year. "I am a foodie. I love food."
And although Cheng says she has no formal culinary training, she's not shy about her abilities as a chef.
"I have a talent for food," she said.
To Cheng, food is about more than just eating; it's an experience. She said this belief was instilled in her at a young age, growing up in Hong Kong.
"My mom would prepare meals and would have like 10 or 12 people all sitting together and the food just kept coming up. Everyone enjoyed it," she said.
She also said she derives a lot of her skill and recipes from her grandfather, who she said was constantly cooking when she was growing up in China. She added that the other recipes, like the Japanese, Thai and Korean inspired dishes, are things she's picked up along the way.
"If I try something and I like it, I'll go home and try to cook it," she said.
The business began as a self-financed small chain of express eateries, with locations spattered between Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery counties. Cheng said she sold off the small express eateries after opening her first table-service restaurant in Hanover in 2009. She quickly expanded by adding locations in Arlington, Va., and McHenry Row in Baltimore, but due to location and performance issues, Cheng said she had to close those locations.
Last fall, developer Greenberg Gibbons announced a Red Parrot location would open in its Turf Valley promenade – a development that includes grocer Harris Teeter; Xitomate Mexican restaurant; Facci wood-fire pizza and wine bar; Grill 620 steak and seafood restaurant; and Mimi's Kabob, a family-themed Afghan restaurant.
Cheng said she hopes to open her Baltimore restaurant, her second try in the city, sometime this month. The new Baltimore location will be on North Charles Street, just north of Penn Station.
Cheng said she thinks her success is attributable to the quality of other Asian restaurateurs.
"I don't think where we are there is great Asian food," she said.
She added that one thing she tries to emphasize is freshness: "It has to be fresh because you can taste how fresh it is. ... It doesn't matter how good the chef is if your product is not fresh."
One of the challenges presented to the Ellicott City eatery, she said, is daytime traffic. She said her Hanover location, located on Arundel Mills Boulevard off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, is teeming with lunch visitors, which is a big reason why it is successful.