A Conversation With John Ng and Lina Goh of Zen Box Izakaya

For this Gazillion Voices podcast, I took a short trip over to Zen Box Izakaya, one of my favorite local restaurants, and had a nice conversation with John Ng (Owner and Executive Chef) and Lina Goh (General Manager) to talk about the history of their two restaurants, thoughts on the local food scene, ramen on a stick, and perspectives on the concept of food as a gateway to culture.

~ Kevin Haebeom Vollmers

About John Ng and Lina Goh (via Zen Box Izakaya)

Executive Chef / Owner: John Ng
If John Ng’s architectural skills embodied the level of passion, creativity, and attention to detail that he brings to bear in the kitchen, then the world lost a great architect. John chose to follow his passion for cooking, a passion he learned at the foot of his mother and grandmother. It was where he was taught that even a grain of rice tastes better when shared with family and friends, which is something he values as being as precious as gold.

Like great architecture and design, John believes that your food and dining experience should also have the ability to transport you somewhere else. The two eateries he co-founded in Minneapolis with his wife Lina Goh, Zen Box Japanese Eatery and Zen Box Izakaya, are designed to take you right to Japan to experience authentic Japanese food. It’s the kind of food that puts smiles on the faces of newcomers and feels like a comfortable piece of home!

Growing up in San Francisco, John worked his way up from busboy to executive chef and names Chef Koji Okada as one of his mentors. He learned that food should be simple, original, and dynamic. He also developed his mantra for working in kitchens—”Be bold but be patient as well!”

General Manager: Lina Goh
Lina Goh has always been a people person. Whether it was selling shoes or serving food, she has always wanted to connect to people and have them connect with each other. She found out quickly in life that food was the “glue” that held all of us together. “We all have fond memories of food,” she says. “It can give us a feeling of contentment.” From growing up and living in Singapore and New Zealand to now living and working in the Twin Cities, she realized that those food memories are a huge tie to our home, wherever that may be. That led her to want to open restaurants with her husband, John.

Lina’s preparation for operating a restaurant came from working in management at different companies. It was a path where she formed her style and belief that every position in her restaurant is valuable and that the managers need to work just as hard as the dishwasher to make sure they operate as a team.

Her team considers her as being quirky and sometimes goofy, something she attributes to a lack of sleep. She laughs when people tell her that it must be so “glamorous” being a restaurant owner, as she quickly explains that while it has always been her dream, it has taken hard work to get there.

Her idea of a dream vacation would be to eat her way across Japan exploring all of the variations of the ingredients they use to make their food, but she’s really just as happy with a nice rib eye steak on the grill because she believes that “Good food should never be pretentious!”