Keguang Zhao prepares one of Cozy Wok’s vegetarian specialties at the restaurant’s kitchen in Oakland.
While most small businesses struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic, Dan and Keguang Zhao saw the challenge as an opportunity rather than a dead-end. The sociable father-son duo took a leap of faith in October of 2020 when they opened Cozy Wok, an all-vegetarian Chinese restaurant. Starting their business out of a small shared kitchen in Oakland, they tackled the daunting task of working with the shelter-in-place laws. The result was a mouth-watering, takeout-only menu that allows customers to enjoy their vegetarian egg rolls while staying cozy and COVID-19-free at home.
Cozy Wok is unique in that it has an all-vegetarian menu, something that co-founder Dan realized the Bay Area was missing. “Since I moved out to Oakland for work, it must have been four or five years ago, I realized that there was not really that type of cuisine up here. I saw this as a great chance to introduce people in the Bay Area to the type of food that I grew up eating in [Los Angeles],” he said.
Dan was raised by Keguang, a professional chef who has worked in vegetarian Chinese restaurants for the last ten years. “At first, I was a little bit skeptical. But when I tried the food, I realized that it was actually really good. You don’t miss out on any of the flavors by being vegetarian or vegan,” said Dan.
As for Keguang, vegetarian Chinese food has played an instrumental role in his career. “I started cooking professionally in 1979, but it was only about ten years ago that I started cooking vegetarian Chinese food. I’ve worked at three different vegetarian Chinese restaurants in [Los Angeles],” Keguang said.
Each dish on the Cozy Wok menu is creative and means something to the Zhao family. “My dad’s favorite dish is probably the hot and sour soup. He just loves soup as a person in general. He’s very much about having soup with meals, so I know he’s very proud of that dish,” said Dan.
While most of the cooking is done by Keguang, Dan enjoys helping prep the sweet and spicy braised eggplant, a signature and popular dish featuring diced eggplants braised in a delicious sauce. The founders stated that the dishes they created are meant to feature the appetite of the area. “It’s important to adapt the menu to local tastes. In [Los Angeles], the majority of people who eat vegetarian Chinese food are Chinese and Vietnamese customers, so we had to adapt the menu to fit the customer base in Oakland,” said Keguang.
As an environmental science major, Dan understands the immense amount of greenhouse gases that result from factory farming. Unfortunately, all of the meat served in restaurants and found at grocery stores is from factory farms. Providing a delicious and environmentally friendly option was one of Dan’s goals when co-founding the restaurant. “That’s part of the reason why I wanted to create this type of vegetarian food and cuisine, to make it easier for people to be able to make tweaks to their lifestyle,” said Dan.
In addition to being environmentally friendly, the menu also reflects the long history of vegetarian food in China, originating from Buddhist monks in the late Han dynasty. In many communities, meat is a luxury, and not all can afford to eat it everyday. As a result, traditions of vegetarian Chinese food blossomed. “Back in the Han dynasty, with the advent of Buddhism in China, vegetarianism was very popular. For a long time, vegetarianism was deeply associated with religion. Buddhists believe in achieving harmony with nature, including animals,” said Dan.
Buddhists created many different types of soy-based, meat-like products that are still used today, and the flavorful orange peel ‘chicken’ on Cozy Wok’s menu is a perfect example of this. “At Cozy Wok, we follow the Buddhist traditions, but we are also trying to invent modern versions of Chinese dishes,” said Dan.
Going into business with one’s father is not a path many would choose to take. However, Dan found that he wanted to see more of his father. For him and Keguang, working together has been a blessing, not a curse. “I think as you get older, you realize that you really don’t get that much time spent with your parents as an adult. I look at my friends, and almost none of them really keep in touch with their parents that much,” Dan reflected.
While the father-son working dynamic is not always free of problems, Dan finds this time to be valuable. “There [are] gonna be challenges because it’s family. I’m sure you understand. But at the end of the day, I think it’s really nice to be able to spend more time with my parents as they’re getting older,” he explained.
Another effect of working with family is that Cozy Wok is run very differently from chain restaurants. Every decision is personal and made by the owners. Dan said that although Cozy Wok could do more to grow the business, — such as work longer hours — he and his father decided together that these changes were not right for them. “It’s not just about running the business, but about what we want to do together as a family,” Dan said.
Dan also explained that running a family-owned restaurant allows people to focus their decisions more on morals and personal beliefs. For example, Dan is very passionate about using takeout containers made from sustainable materials. “I think family restaurants are very important because it’s important in general for people to start a business, and run a business, based on what they believe to be true or right about the world,” he said. For Cozy Wok, it’s providing high-quality, delicious vegetarian Chinese food, and doing their best to make a positive impact on the environment.
Once in-person dining makes a comeback, Cozy Wok plans to move out of their current shared kitchen to a new space with potential for seating customers. “One of the things I miss from having a physical restaurant is being able to interact with customers. … I feel more in touch with the community when you’re able to see the people who are eating your food and visiting restaurants,” said Dan.
Order from Cozy Wok online, or call (510) 488-3585.