Koi owner Sandy Chen pursues culinary passions from Wenzhou to Evanston


Sammi Boas/Daily Senior Staffer

Sandy Chen at her restaurant Koi Fine Asian Cuisine & Lounge. Chen opened her business in 2004, which serves Chinese and Japanese food.

Saul Pink, Reporter

As a teenager in Wenzhou, China, Sandy Chen would cook steamed vegetables with rice for her three siblings and 16 cousins. Now, as a 53-year-old, she and her team cook for as many as 180 guests each night at Koi Fine Asian Cuisine & Lounge.

Chen’s downtown restaurant has been a fixture on Davis Street since 2004. She also opened Le Sud, a French Mediterranean restaurant in West Lakeview, in 2018. 

Koi’s menu offers Chinese cuisine and an assortment of Japanese dishes, such as sushi and sashimi. Options range from a $4 miso soup to a $42 peking duck.

“Running a restaurant, it’s not really like work to me,” Chen said. “It’s more of my lifestyle.”

A daughter and granddaughter of chefs, Chen immigrated to the United States at 16, settling in Highland Park with her parents, siblings and extended family. She learned English at Highland Park High School, and cites her English as a Second Language teachers as two of her biggest inspirations. 

Chen continued pursuing her culinary passions in the U.S., working as a bus girl at New Diamond, a Highland Park restaurant, in high school. She went on to serve at various Chicago-area restaurants to fund her education at the University of Illinois Chicago.

In 1994, Chen took over a restaurant in Wrigleyville, where she previously worked as a server. She rebranded it into her first restaurant: Chen’s.

Koi operations manager Mary Jones said Chen’s versatility has set her apart in the restaurant business.

“A lot of (restaurant owners are) great back of house, but they’re not as good with interaction with guests, they’re more about the food,” Jones said. “Others are very business savvy but they don’t know a lot about food.”

Jones said Chen’s focus on the guests — and the food — is crucial to Koi’s success. 

Chen divides Koi’s menu into eight different regions of Chinese cuisine to educate guests about the variety of cooking techniques and regional identities that exist in her home country. 

“China is a vast country. It’s so big… we have different cooking techniques in each region, especially back in the old days,” Chen said. “Everything is all naturally sourced in that province. It depends on the weather and climate.”

Chen has also worked through the restaurant business to give back to the community, starting Koi’s Table23 Charity Program in 2010. Guests can make a reservation through Table 23, and 23% of their check will be donated to the guest’s choice of 17 nonprofits. 

“Besides paying our bills, we really want to help the community and give back,” Chen said. “Small, little things will make a big difference.”

Chicago resident Bruce Karbal first walked into Koi more than a decade and a half ago. He has since become such a loyal customer that he even has a menu item named after him — Bruce’s Favorite Maki, a roll stuffed with lobster, red tobiko and avocado.

But the food isn’t the only reason he keeps returning.

“She makes you, as the patron, feel like you’re somebody important and somebody special,” Karbal said. “That’s hard to do in the restaurant business when you see so many people come and go every day.”

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Twitter: @saullpink

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