After an almost 4-decade break, Halifax restaurant staff reunites to serve again

Thirty-five years after saying goodbye, there they were again, sitting across from one another at a Halifax McDonald’s like no time had passed. 

It was a job interview of sorts, but Pi Yeng Chen, who everyone knows as Yen, already knew she was giving the woman across from her the job.

Still, the co-owner of Chenpapa had just one question for Cathy Jones: “Yen said, ‘Well you still know how to make egg rolls?'” Jones laughed and said, “Yes, I do.”

Chen and her husband, Yi Chiao Chen, hired Jones in the early 1980s to work at their very first restaurant in Halifax. Back then, Chen and Jones were both young moms and new to working in the restaurant business so they leaned on each other.

When the restaurant closed less than two years later, the two lost touch for nearly four decades, but in 2017 they reunited and have been working side-by-side ever since. 

Jones is now 63 and Chen is 67.

“Cathy said, ‘Oh I got older, I have so many problems.’ I said, ‘Cathy, it’s OK. I’m older too,'” recalled Chen. “We are working slow, doesn’t matter … still everybody’s together.”

Yi Chiao Chen and Yen Chen are the owners of Chenpapa at the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market. (Connie Tsang)

The Chens immigrated to Halifax from Taiwan in 1976. 

The couple opened a convenience store in the south end soon after arriving, working long hours and taking turns being home with their two young kids.

“We had to work 12 hours a day. We scared always,” Chen said, adding they were robbed five or six times.

She was held up at gunpoint and the couple realized they needed a change. 

When a friend suggested making Chinese food, Chen was skeptical. She had no experience in a kitchen and had to visit another food court to discover what Canadian Chinese food even was.

WATCH Learn how Yen and Cathy met

Yen Chen and Cathy Jones met in Halifax in the 1980s when they were both young moms working hard to support their families. Nearly four decades later, they picked up their friendship right where it left off. (Briana Corr Scott for CBC) 3:21

“So I went there to look for sweet and sour chicken, egg rolls, spring roll,” she said. “I never see [them] before, never. Even in Taiwan, I never see that kind of food.”

The Chens opened their first restaurant in the food court of what used to be the West End Mall, which is now the Mumford Professional Centre. Chen remembers serving customers white sweet and sour sauce until someone told her it should be neon red.

She was reluctant, but eventually picked up some food colouring. 

Jones and Chen aren’t just colleagues and friends. They’re family, they say. (Robert Short/CBC)

Chen and her husband decided they needed to hire someone who could help prepare food and who could also speak English with customers. 

That’s when Jones saw an ad in the newspaper and applied. She was 23 and raising her two-year-old son on her own. 

Together, Chen and Jones learned to cook as Chen’s two kids played with homemade play dough in a small room at the back of the restaurant.

The Chens opened their first restaurant in what used to be called the West End Mall. (Submitted by Pay Chen)

“We always show her how to peel onions, how to cut vegetable,” Chen said. “Even me, I still learn too. So we learn together. She’s a very good cook.”

For the first time in Canada, Chen said her family was making money. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

“It was a really popular restaurant. I remember one day, like during the Christmas season, we served over 1,200 people during one lunch hour,” Jones said.

But it didn’t last. The restaurant was forced to close less than two years later when the mall was renovated to make room for The Bay. The Chen’s business had a shorter lease than some of the other food court restaurants so they were told they had to move out.

Everyone cried on the last day, Jones said.

Cathy Jones was 23 when she started working with the Chens. (Submitted by Cathy Jones)

“We just worked together all so well and, you know, we were more like family than employee/employer or anything like that,” she said.

Chen didn’t hear from Jones for the next several decades, until her daughter, Pay Chen, took to Facebook in the spring of 2017, looking for someone to work at the family’s current business, Chenpapa in the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market.

Yen Chen and Yi Chiao Chen immigrated to Halifax from Taiwan in 1976. (Submitted by Pay Chen)

Soon after posting the job, Pay Chen got an email from Jones, who said she remembered her parents fondly and would love to work for them again.

“I’m thankful that I met them all those years ago, and I got to work for them, and at the end, I’m glad that I got to go back there again. It’s really meant a lot to me,” Jones said. 

Watching the Chenpapa team on a busy Saturday morning at the market is like watching an old married couple, said Pay Chen.

Pay Chen, now a food writer and broadcaster in Toronto, was used to hanging around her parents businesses. ‘I’ve never had to work as hard as my parents did,’ she said. (Submitted by Pay Chen)

Chen and Jones can anticipate what the other needs and speak in a kind of code only they can understand. Even now, during COVID-19 when the market has been closed, they call one another often to check in.

“It’s not that they’ve worked together for decades, it’s that they worked together decades ago during a period of their life when they were probably so tired and stressed and worried as young parents,” Pay Chen said.

“And now decades later, their kids are grown. Their kids are OK. That’s what parents hope for.”