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Diversity in Dining: Café Asia

Restaurant honored for hiring practices

Sean Yu, owner of Café Asia, first came to the United States from Hong Kong as a young boy and right away, he said, he was awe struck by America’s kaleidoscope of nationalities, races and cultures.

“I had never been anywhere outside of Hong Kong by that time and I had only seen Chinese people as a child,” he said, pausing to sip from a warm cup of green tea. “It was just something I had never been exposed to. That, I remember clearly.”

The son of a diplomat, Yu got his start in the restaurant business at the age of 16, working in a kitchen. Now the owner of two trendy establishments — one on Wilson Boulevard in Rosslyn and another on I Street in Washington, D.C. — Yu has incorporated his respect for diversity into his management practices. The result is a bustling kitchen where many different languages are heard over the clinking of knives and the sizzle of the stoves. Along with its ultra-modern décor — colored, ambient lights, minimalist wooden furnishings and cool, metallic surfaces — Yu said the café’s policy of non-discrimination is in keeping with the times and reflective of his diverse clientele.

“The moment you walk in, you can see all the different kinds of people we have working here,” Yu said. “And we don’t discriminate, not on color, religion, sexual orientation, not on anything. And that’s mostly because, as for the variety of people in this area, we have it all. It isn’t just one particular crowd.”

Yu is no stranger to breaking new ground and embracing new ways with his restaurant. Since opening Café Asia in 1992, he sought to fashion it into a place that transcends the stereotypes he sees surrounding Asian food and fine dining. Hiring people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, he said, is part of that desire.

“There’s a stereotype when you talk about Chinese or just Asian restaurants, the maroon table cloths and the lamps, and it doesn’t have to be that anymore,” Yu said. “This is modern. I don’t know why that stereotype exists but I want people to understand this is different.”

The managers at Yu’s two restaurants hire his staff, but to ensure diversity he has created a standing non-discrimination policy through his partner, Bill Ihrke, an attorney who deals largely in employment law.

“I didn’t start dating him because of that but it is always nice to get free legal advice,” Yu said with a smile.

And diversity has brought strength to Café Asia’s staff. Working together, waiters, bartenders and cooks, get a chance to find common ground and to learn from each other.

“It lets you get to know so many people from different countries and makes it a better place to work,” said Linda Orliana, manager of the Rosslyn restaurant.

Orliana came to the United States from Indonesia and began working at Café Asia in 1999. She has remained ever since because, she said, the array of people she works with at the café creates a stimulating environment.

“Once you work with somebody who is Indonesian, for example, you get to know how we do things and how hard we work,” she said. “You learn the same thing about the people here from other countries and you respect them for it.”

When hiring new staff, Orliana said she looks for people of different backgrounds to add to the restaurant’s patchwork.

“We hire mostly in the summertime when you see more kids who come around from other places looking for work,” she said. “A lot of them are students and they come from all different places. But, the most important thing we want to see when we interview you is if you smile. That’s what I look for above everything else. You have to look happy.”

Diversity also means new perspectives on how to get the job done. According to Bartender Chuen Yan, interacting with people from all over the world each day generates new solutions, ideas and a sense of teamwork.

“I find it helpful,” he said. “You get a lot of input from different people on how we’re doing. And as a worker here, every day is something spontaneous. It’s almost like performing in a show. It’s never the same and we’re always working together to handle all of things that can happen in a night.”

According to Yu, the diversity of Café Asia’s staff also brings a greater sense of fulfillment to the work they do together.

“I like to set goals for the restaurants, for the people who work here,” he said. “There are new challenges every day but we work together and it feels good when together we reach the targets that we set.”