By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
Benny Chen learned the value of hard work and dedication at a young age by watching his mother work overnight shifts in a New York clothing factory. Chen’s father had been severely injured in a car accident and was not able to work, so his mother provided for the family. That family work ethic left a lasting imprint on Chen, one that led him to open two I Noodle Ramen and Dumpling restaurants in St. Johns County; however, his journey began first in Southern China where he was born, but then drastically changed when he moved with his family as a teenager to the United States in 2000. It was not an easy transition to move to New York. “I tried to go to school, but I was always getting in a lot of fights because they did not like Asian people at all in the area where we lived. I looked different. I was trying to learn a new language. It was all very difficult,” said Chen. Instead of school, Chen helped his mom by taking his first job as a waiter at the Great Wall China Buffet, located in Kansas City (a 36-hour bus ride). Chen worked there for eight months. After that job, Chen took a series of jobs that ultimately led to owning a cell phone store. Everything changed when he was robbed at gunpoint in 2007, losing everything in the store. It was at this time that Chen turned his focus back to the restaurant industry, his love of cooking and his desire to learn as many kitchen skills and as much English as he could. He found this on-the-job training at Fushimi in New York. He worked 16 hours a day as a busser, trying to improve his culinary skills. He was quickly promoted to food server, dessert maker and captain of the bussers. He eventually went to work for other restaurants in Manhattan and Long Island with a goal of becoming a manager. Chen accomplished this goal and, during this time, met his wife, Zoe Zhou. Together they run the I Noodle businesses with plans to open more throughout Florida, preserving recipes that Chen can trace back to his grandfather.
Q: How did you and your family end up in Ponte Vedra Beach?
A: I came here to help a friend with what was then Pacific Fusion (now Kamiya 86). I fell in love with Ponte Vedra Beach and knew that I had to move my family to this area. We moved here in the summer of 2015. We knew that we wanted to open a restaurant, and we thought that a ramen, dumpling, poke bowl and boba tea place would be well-received. The boba appeals to a younger market and allows us to introduce these customers to the restaurant.
Q: What was the most challenging part of opening both restaurants?
A: Ensuring the quality of the food we serve. We make everything from scratch. When we opened the Ponte Vedra Beach I Noodle on April 27, 2019, it was just me, Zoe and my now 18-year-old son. We decided to try it out, and, if we had success, then we would open a second location. Then Covid hit. We had to pause for four to five months, and then we got started on our second location off County Road 210 West (opened July 8, 2021). Again, we focused on quality, not quantity, with the food and listening to customer feedback.
Q: What was the hardest item to perfect on the menu?
A: The dough. The water to flour ratio is very difficult to perfect, and the humidity here really makes it hard. I tried 10 – 15 different flours before I found the right one. I learned how to make authentic noodles and dumplings from my uncle who learned from my grandfather in China. The greatest compliment that I can receive is an empty bowl after a meal is eaten at our restaurants.
Q: What type of food do you like to eat when you are not cooking?
A: I like to try all different types of restaurants for the experience and for inspiration. My family loves seafood, but we eat everything. Our favorite restaurant is a seafood place in China. We also enjoy cooking at home a lot. My son (Zikang which means “health”, his English name is Zakary) and daughter (Audrey, 6) both love dumplings.
Q: Do you have a life motto?
A: Family comes first. I am working to create a better life for my children.
Photo courtesy Benny Chen
Benny Chen with his wife, Zoe Zhou.