lona luo of lona's lil eats photo by virginia harold

The tenacity of Lona's Lil Eats' Lona Luo

How Lona Luo went from cooking in a rural Chinese village to owning a James Beard-nominated restaurant

When Lona Luo found out she was nominated for Best Chef: Midwest by the James Beard Foundation, she was nonplussed. “I didn’t know what it was,” she admitted. Instead of jumping on the phone to call family and friends, Luo spent the day as usual, working in the kitchen at her restaurant, Lona’s Lil Eats, in Fox Park.

Luo is first and foremost a chef; accolades, obviously, are not why she’s in it. At 40, she’s spent most of her life cooking, beginning when she was just 6, helping her mother in their rural Chinese village of Manhen. When she got older, Luo cooked for village events like weddings and housewarmings. She didn’t think of cooking as a way to make a living – it was a way of life.

“We care about what we’re eating,” Luo said of the people in her village. “We don’t care about the way we’re dressed or where we live. We care about food. When you go to someone’s house, they don’t ask, ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘Where do you come from?’ They ask, ‘Have you eaten?’”

Given Manhen’s location in the Yunnan province of southern China (near Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand), this food fixation makes sense. The area is a crossroads of cuisines, and the cultural cross-pollination finds expression in many small restaurants in Manhen. “Every restaurant in my hometown has amazing food,” Luo said. “Anywhere you go, you won’t be disappointed.”

At 18, Luo finished high school, and since her parents could no longer afford to send her to school, she decided to head to Kunming, the largest city in Yunnan. Kunming is a popular travel destination, especially for Japanese tourists who enjoy the golf courses there.

“My mom wanted me to stay [in Manhen] and marry someone,” Luo said. But that prospect didn’t exactly fire her up. After she left, Luo’s mother didn’t speak to her for three years, fearing she would fall prey to the temptations of the big city.

a photograph of lona luo’s mother in her home village of manhen, china // photo by virginia harold

Instead, Luo found a place in the culinary world of Kunming and spent 10 years there. She worked as a server, then as a front-of-house supervisor at the Miyako restaurant inside the Harbor Plaza Kunming hotel, which became a pivotal place for both her career and personal life. It’s where Luo learned Japanese and Japanese cooking techniques and where she met her husband, Pierce Powers. He was hired to tutor the restaurant staff in English, but soon his conversations with Luo covered more than grammar.

A few years after the birth of their daughter, Jane, the couple moved to Powers’ hometown of St. Louis in 2006. Luo used what she learned at Miyako working at several Japanese restaurants around town – most notably Nobu’s in University City. Despite her cooking prowess, Luo stayed in the front of the house where the money was better. But she began writing prospective menus and dreaming about opening a small place of her own one day.

Tired of working for others, Luo and Powers took the plunge and started a food stand at Soulard Farmers Market in 2008. Lona’s Lil Eats began with a small menu spotlighting Luo’s now-famous hearty rice paper wraps and quickly gained a following, especially among vegans and vegetarians. 

In 2014, the couple opened their brick-and-mortar location in Fox Park while still operating the stand on Saturdays for the first year. The two were passionate about founding a business where all workers are on equal footing and are fairly compensated. “Everyone gets a living wage, and the full-time employees get insurance,” she said.

The Lona’s menu slowly evolved with the restaurant, expanding and combining Luo’s many culinary influences. The eggplant, bamboo stew and noodle soup are reminiscent of dishes she made growing up. Her region also has strong curing traditions (since refrigeration is still a rarity in some places), and these make an appearance on Lona’s menu by way of Manhen-style pickles. The dumplings and sesame sauce are inspired by the cuisine of the Hui people, a Muslim minority in southwestern China, while the Lona-Q sauce features Japanese flavors. To keep her dishes as authentic as possible, Lona pays big money for her brother to mail spices from her old village in China.

lona luo // photo by virginia harold

In the early days, Luo was at the restaurant seven days a week, often wearing her son, Daniel, in a sling as she worked the floor. Once he started walking, Daniel sometimes played host, asking guests, “How is everything?” Now, Luo has a bit more work-life balance. She’s careful to have a couple days at home, working at the restaurant five days a week, and she frequently cooks for her family – everything from village favorites to sushi to pizza.

Despite her success, Luo still spends her days behind the stove cooking and tending her sauces instead of on the computer or the phone. She’s still the only one who prepares Lona’s signature sauces. Meat tenderizers and MSG, items Luo considers cutting corners, have no place in her kitchen. Microwaves? Not a chance. She’s not the type to be still for any length of time, leaving most of the behind-the-scenes business details to Powers. “I’m from a village,” Luo said. “We do physical things.”

Eventually, Luo will probably open another Lona’s location. But the opportunity has to be right, and she has to do it on her own terms.

“I don’t just want to jump in,” Luo said. “If I do it, I’m serious. I don’t really care about a huge amount of money. I care about the community. I’m really most happy when I’m cooking and creating food.”

Matt Sorrell is staff writer at Sauce Magazine.