Sumiao Chen arrived in Boston from Xiangtan in China’s Hunan province in the early 1990s to work in medicine. Now, she’s a pharmaceutical researcher at Novartis by day and a restaurateur by night. She opened Sumiao Hunan Kitchen in 2017 to bring a new type of regional Chinese cuisine to Kendall Square: rabbit with ginger and garlic; pork tripe and green peppers; and la rou, or Hunan bacon, served with ginger, garlic, and chilies. To honor the upcoming Chinese New Year — also the year of the dog — the restaurant will donate 10 percent of sales from la rou dishes throughout February to the Boston Animal Rescue Collaborative.
What’s the first restaurant you ate at in Boston? In 1992, my husband was a visiting scholar at Harvard. I arrived from Beijing, he picked me up at the airport, and I had my first meal in Chinatown, at East Ocean City. I ordered lobster. In my hometown, you never see lobster!
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? Mostly I’m challenged by human resources, by finding the right people to fit into my organization. I think that, in the restaurant business, a lot of people treat the job as temporary. It’s not like working in pharmaceuticals [where] you take the job for a lifetime.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? It has changed a lot! I think now, there is more variety — there is more authentic food. Honestly, it was Italian restaurants, or a steakhouse, or fast food. Now we see all different types of local restaurants instead of just big chains.
What other restaurants do you visit? I like to eat in Kendall Square. I look for lunch and dinner places. I enjoy Pagu, Little Donkey, and The Smoke Shop. The owner-chefs, they’re so passionate about restaurants and the food, and you can tell.
What’s your earliest memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? I never thought I’d be involved in it! After 10 years in Boston, I had a couple of friends who owned restaurants and wanted me to invest: Feng Shui in Cohasset, Chelmsford, Tyngsborough, and Waltham. And, personally, I enjoy cooking a lot. I decided that I needed to understand the food culture better. I got a certificate at Le Cordon Bleu to learn more about culinary arts and management.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? It was a Chinese restaurant in Lexington; I really don’t want to say which one. The service was so bad. There was just no attitude of them wanting to serve you.
How could Boston become a better food city? There are so many students, international students, looking for different types of food. Also, I have worked in Kendall for 25 years, and I can [see] the demand from international professions. We need people like myself who are passionate about food to bring authentic food into this area. With the industry growing, we need to think less about just copying. If a concept is good, then people copy it. I think we need more independent thinkers to think about: When I open a restaurant, what am I bringing to the area? It’s not just the food; it’s the culture. I use the restaurant as a window to show people what’s happening on the other side of the world.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Open-minded. They have an international background, in different professions, and expect very different things than in other areas. Our clientele is educated. And they’ve had lots of experiences in different parts of the world.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Too much fast casual; too much thinking about health-consciousness to the point that the product loses its taste.
What are you reading? I’m a scientist, so I read a lot of scientific papers. I’m working in pharmaceuticals in the metabolic disease area. I’m reading papers to understand how to bring health-consciousness into the restaurant business without losing the good taste of food. I’m working with the Joslin Diabetes Center, with nutritionists there, to create a diabetes-friendly menu.
How’s your commute? I live in Bedford and have a condo in Kendall Square. Sometimes I go home to Bedford, with my family, and sometimes I’m overnight in Kendall Square in case I need to go early to the restaurant.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? I had Indian food on Newbury Street. It was something that looks like a paste, a pickle paste. It was very strange. It messed me up!
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? A restaurant that combines entertainment and events in one place, like karaoke.
‘I use the restaurant as a window to show people what’s happening on the other side of the world.’
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Clio. I miss it a lot. It brought experimental menus to Boston.
Who was your most memorable customer? I had a customer who is a film producer at Yale. His parents live in Boston, and [they] enjoyed the restaurant and told their son to come to enjoy our food. He came all the way from Connecticut. He talked to me and gave me lots of compliments. He’d worked in Hunan, my hometown, before. He speaks my language and said it was one of the best foods he’d had in the whole world. He said he was so appreciative that he could experience the same type of food in Boston. He gave me encouragement. He became a friend. He tried to understand my hometown culture.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? I’d eat in Chinatown! It’s a symbol. They work hard, and their food is very original. East Ocean City is still my favorite. It’s Cantonese. They have a pan-seared scrambled egg with seafood. It’s one of my favorite dishes.Interview was edited and condensed. Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.