Elaine Hsieh, 53, started life as a physician. Now she runs West Cambridge’s EHChocolatier with business partner Catharine Sweeney; they’ll celebrate their one-year anniversary in that location next month. (They first opened in Somerville in 2010.) Hsieh prefers selling sweets to diagnosing patients.
“People are so much happier meeting me and talking to me! When you’re a doctor, at parties, everyone wants to show you their rash. Someone asked me about a scalp abscess. Now they want to talk to me about chocolate, and they light up!” she says.
What’s the first restaurant that you ever visited in Boston?
Oh my gosh. Pho Pasteur in Chinatown. It was 7 a.m., and I ordered a large bowl of the all-meat, all-body-part pho. It was the first time I’d ever had it, and the first time I’d ever had Sriracha. I had just come off an overnight shift, and my friend said, ‘Oh, we should eat here!’ For breakfast? They’re open? It was fantastic; it was great. I had been a physician, and I was coming off an ER shift. I was doing my residency at Boston City Hospital, and our whole rotation went.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here?
Human resources. Staffing. When we started 10 years ago, it was not too difficult to find people who were interested in doing the work and staying awhile, and the wage was something we could manage as a small business. I completely understand staff’s position. It has become so expensive to live in Boston, they have to live somewhere else, and they have to make a reasonable wage. We pay a reasonable wage, but it’s hard for us. I want to do the right thing, but as a business owner, it’s really tough and takes a large percentage of my revenue. And I have so much turnover, and the type of work we do requires more training than bakery or pastry. It takes people six months to a year to be competent. By the time we finish doing that, they move. They go somewhere else. That’s the thing I‘d love to fix. I want them to have a sustainable wage, but it also means I need customers to support my business.
What other restaurants do you visit?
We don’t go out that often, but when we do, ramen is big for us. We usually go find someplace to eat ramen or some noodle-type place. We might try some new places, but we end up going back to Sapporo. I’ve been in Cambridge since the 1980s. We went to Sapporo before ramen was a thing! I’m sad; now I have to stand in line to get my noodles.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think, ‘I want to work in restaurants?’
Oh boy. You know, my parents are from mainland China, and my mom is an amazing cook. I would say all my best memories growing up had to do with food. It was an event, like Chinese food can be. . . . I remember clearly in elementary school, my next-door neighbor would come over and make Jell-O parfait, use an Easy Bake oven, make soups. I wasn’t thinking I’d have a food business, but it’s something I enjoyed doing ever since I was little. In doing what I do now, it wasn’t something that came out of the blue.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had?
My pet peeve is attitude, especially if you go to what’s considered the latest, hippest restaurant. I find that sometimes the attitude of the staff is what bothers me the most. Having worked on the food side, I get that things happen. I’m empathetic if you don’t quite get the thing you ordered. I don’t care how good your food is; part of why I spend my hard-earned money is to have a nice experience. It’s the attitude and the staffing.
How could the Boston food scene improve?
Honestly, I can’t think of anything. I moved in the 1980s. There was no food! I was a college student, and I lived in the Allston-Brighton area, which is now so happening. I take my daughter to a place to get Asian desserts called C Fruit Life, and as I sit there, I’m stunned that I’m eating lychee jellies with red bean. I can’t believe I’m eating this here in Boston. When I went to school, there was literally the Pour House and some other place. It was the worst! I’m looking out the window, and every storefront is Mexican, Brazilian, Vietnamese. Oh my god, where were you guys in the 1980s? I have no criticism. It’s phenomenal compared to the 1980s. Every year it gets better.
How has the restaurant scene changed since you first arrived in Boston?
AmazIng! I don’t have time to eat all these noodles! The thing that makes me a little sad, and this harkens back to the staffing troubles, is knowing how much it costs. I have a tiny store, and we self-funded it. I know how much it costs, and it’s not a fancy store. I know how much it costs for people to put on these beautiful restaurants, and when they close in a year or two, my heart breaks. You hear about it more now. Now, all these older places with great food closed, and all these newer places have closed. I’m sad about that. I don’t know what it would take to sustain businesses like that, but I know someone has put their heart, love, and money into it. It kills me.
Name three adjectives for your customers.
They all love chocolate, they are very appreciative that we make everything on-site, and they’re super-friendly.
What’s the most overdone trend right now?
The whole sourcing thing. I totally understand people want to know where their food is coming from, but you look at a menu, and the tiniest thing comes from this tiny place from this tiny region — and it still makes it onto the menu! You can’t figure out what you’re eating; there’s so much text in the description.
What type of restaurant is Boston missing?
We really are missing a great New York deli, like Katz’s in New York City. I feel like we really are missing a big, old-fashioned New York-style deli where you could just get whatever: pastrami, chopped liver.
What are you reading?
Nothing! I am reading nothing at this point. I tend to read books that my kids are reading in class. My son has a history class, and I was reading "The Boy Soldier.” It’s a memoir, and he grew up having to be a soldier at a young age. Since then, he’s come to the US and gone to college. My husband saw him speak, and he has an amazing life story. I just started that.
How’s your commute?
Oh my gosh. It’s great now. We used to be in Somerville. Now, I’m a seven-minute walk from my shop. I’m in West Cambridge.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again?
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant?
Hungry Mother. I was really sad when they closed.
Who was your most memorable customer?
I have so many nice customers! I feel like we’re so lucky. This one woman, Edna, she’s been with us since the very beginning. She must be in her 70s. We chit-chat about her life, her volunteer work, and then she wasn’t around for a bit. She hadn’t come in for a while. A long time for her. We were concerned, and she just had been sick or something for a bit. Another is a dental hygienist who works at the office right around the corner. She comes in multiple times per week. She sends us customers whose cleaning she does. They say, 'I just got my teeth cleaned and my hygienist sent me.’ Really! She’s fantastic. She has her whole dental office coming here!
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be?
Spicy miso ramen with extra egg and double noodles at Sapporo. And since everyone would know it’s my last meal, I wouldn’t have to stand in line. And I’d go to Kung Fu Tea in Davis Square, and I’d have the taro slushie with whole red beans and bubble tea. Because it’s my last meal, it’d be a big one! And a place in Quincy called YoCha. They have this dessert; I don’t even remember the name. It’s phenomenal — a mash-up of matcha tea, ice cream, red beans, lychee jelly, coconut milk. It’s everything I love about Asian desserts smushed into this ice cream soup!
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.