After moving to Manitoba from China seven years ago, XiaoFei Zuo literally followed his nose to a new career he hopes will one day make him the next Ray Kroc.
In 2011, on the recommendation of a friend who’d told him of “a real nice college” in Canada, Zuo left an unsatisfying office job in Tianjin, China, to seek out new training opportunities half a world away at Red River College in Winnipeg.
Seven years later, Zuo, 32, is the owner of Dancing Noodle restaurant at 1393-A Pembina Highway. He’s also recognized as one of the only chefs in the city trained in the traditional art of noodle pulling.
But more on that later. First, what about that nose?
Back in 2011, Zuo was taking English lessons at RRC’s Language Training Centre near The Forks. He often ate lunch in the food court area, which is where he made a discovery that would change his life.
“We would go there and it just smelled so good, so I followed that smell and I found Tall Grass Prairie Bakery,” he recalls. “At that time, I made a decision to be a baker. They had an open kitchen there and I could stand and watch what they do. I like to work by hand, I don’t like just sitting and writing or something like that. I wanted to learn to bake.”
Zuo enrolled in RRC’s year-long Baking and Patisserie program, where he would arrive 90 minutes early most mornings so he could fit in extra practice.
“At Red River, I learned so many new things I never saw before,” he says. “I learned to make croissants, pies, desserts, bread. In China, most families don’t have ovens, we only have the stove, so we don’t bake at all. Here, I bake all the time and I keep learning.”
Zuo completed the program’s co-op education portion at Tall Grass’ Wolseley bakery, where — following graduation — he had the opportunity to fill in for the night baker, who was off work because of sleep issues. When the regular baker returned a month later, Zuo moved on to Stella’s Bakery on Sherbrook Street, where he baked bread for the restaurant chain’s half dozen Winnipeg locations.
“It was hard, but you can only learn a lot when you work hard,” he says. “I just kept doing bread all the time… and I got a feeling for the dough. You make the bread, you have to make the dough first. That’s the best experience I got from Stella’s and Tall Grass.”
After a subsequent stint as a baker with Diversity Food Services at the University of Winnipeg, Zuo returned to China for an extended vacation. There he came upon a restaurant where a cook was making hand-pulled noodles.
“It looked amazing,” he says.
Working with a mound of prepared dough, the noodle maker stretches the dough and folds it back and forth from one hand to the other, doubling and redoubling the raw noodles until the desired thickness is reached.
Zuo enrolled in a two-month long noodle pulling course and then spent four months working for free at a restaurant, in return for the opportunity to refine his noodle-pulling skills.
“The dough is real picky,” he explains. “You have to keep pulling it, but if you pull it too many times, you can’t use it anymore… You have to keep practicing to make it faster and faster.”
Zuo returned to Winnipeg in 2014, and continued to practice noodle pulling several hours a day at home while scouting for a restaurant location.
Six months later, he opened Dancing Noodle with a staff of two. Today, Zuo’s team has grown to six and he has a growing legion of dedicated diners.
In April, Zuo will share his noodle-pulling expertise through a series of workshops delivered through RRC’s School of Continuing Education. He says he doesn’t mind if the workshops result in more restaurant owners practicing the art.
“I just want more and more people to know this way of making noodles,” he says. “In China, we have lots of new things which here have never been seen before. This is just one of them.”
Oh, and what was that about McDonald’s icon Ray Kroc? Zuo says there’s nothing stopping him from becoming the next franchise success story.
“If McDonald’s can have burgers all over the world, why can’t I do the same with noodles?” he says. “That’s my dream.”
— Profile by Dean Pritchard (Creative Communications, 1994)