When she was in her twenties, Carol Cheung recalled, she wasn't sure that she wanted to go into the family business. Her grandparents had owned a soybean farm and a restaurant, where they'd serve the tofu made from the legumes they harvested.
Eddy Cheung, her father, had gotten a degree in food science and then worked his way up in New York City's Chinatown as a dishwasher and busboy before moving to the kitchen.
"He found to run a successful business he would have to learn from the bottom up," Carol said. "And he saved up enough money to move to Toronto and open up a small takeout place."
He'd go on to open a string of restaurants there and, later, in Chicago. By that time, his daughter had decided to join him.
"It was not something I saw myself doing," she said. "But it was such a part of me, and I just fell in love with it. It just became me, what I wanted to do. The enthusiasm he had, just sharing his food with people. It was something I inherited from him."
In 2016, after running the Phoenix in Chinatown for 20 years, the pair opened Jade Court in University Village. It was named after Eddy’s first sit-down eatery back in Canada.
"He wanted to name it Jade Court so we could come full circle," Carol said. " (He said), 'It was the first restaurant I opened, and now I'm (almost) 70, so it's probably the last restaurant I open.' "
Last summer, Eddy Cheung died of a heart attack at the age of 69. Carol closed the restaurant indefinitely in the aftermath — though always, she said, with an eye toward reopening. Now, she's resurrecting Jade Court in Hyde Park, with plans to open the new Harper Court location in the first week of November.
She said the move to the neighborhood came as a result of longstanding connections with customers first made at the Phoenix.
“We moved here in ‘96 from Canada to open the Phoenix. And we had that for 20 years, and, you know, over the course of 20 years you get to know a lot of people,” she said. “A few of those customers that we had gotten to know really well were affiliated with the university, and everybody was always, ‘We need something like you guys in Hyde Park, we don’t have a restaurant like this in Hyde Park.’
“That kind of planted a little seed there. After my father passed away and we closed Jade Court on Racine, I started thinking,” she continued. “I was not super familiar with Hyde Park. After doing a little bit of research, and contacting people at the university, I liked it. I felt like it would be a good area to reopen.”
Eddy and Carol opened the original Jade Court in the first place because they felt the market in Chinatown, where the Phoenix was, had become “oversaturated,” as she put it. That line of thinking about how to differentiate the restaurant will continue in the new location.
“We are still going to do a very traditional Chinese menu, but presented in a more streamlined and modern way. In Chinatown, it’s very typical you get a menu that’s like 30 pages long,” she said. “We’ve been working for the last month on a way to make it easier for people to look at without sacrificing the very traditional Chinese food. We’re not dumbing down the food.”
Those traditional foods include staples like Peking duck and steamed whole fish, prepared by a kitchen staff that has largely stayed the same since the Phoenix opened more than 20 years ago. But one of the joys of Jade Court, as Phil Vettel pointed out in his 2018 review for the Tribune, is being able to walk in and get a recommendation from the staff about what to eat that day — Cheung said that won’t change.
“Just ask if you’re interested in trying new things. We’d love to introduce new food to people,” she said.
The restaurant will hold about 70 seats, as well as a bar serving tiki cocktails. Cheung said she is not sure yet whether there will be outdoor seating. The interior, she added, will evoke some elements of a more traditional Chinese restaurant, though add to them in new ways — like a color scheme that’s red, gold and deep purple.
“I wanted to modernize it a little bit and make it very sleek and very attractive, but at the same time not so modern that it felt cold.”
There will also be family-owned artwork on the walls, sets of Chinese calligraphy gifted to Cheung’s father by a famous Hong Kong artist each time he opened a new restaurant in Toronto.
“He was one of our regular customers. His family would have all their gatherings at my father's old restaurants, and they were like family to us,” she said.
“He would write these big, elaborate well-wishes for my father and give them to him to put in the restaurant or at home, and my father brought them with him from Toronto to here. Now I brought them to the new Jade Court.”