Ming's Restaurant - The Fire

by Ralph J. Chin


The location of this story was the corner of Clinton Place and Lyons Avenue in the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey. My family owned a Chinese restaurant called Ming’s in the late 50’s to the mid-60’s when the restaurant had the distinction of being the go to place for Chinese food in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Flush with success, we were all proud of how the restaurant had quickly grown from a little mom and pop store front to a large restaurant that occupied an entire city corner. It was a testament to the cooking expertise of my Grandmother and her companion, Bucky Wong. Of course, some credit must also be given to the hard-working employees of the restaurant for this growth. After all, no one achieves this kind of success on their own. At the time, I was still too young to work in the restaurant but my older cousins were waiters and my Uncle Coolidge occasionally cooked in the kitchen to help out during the immensely busy weekends. Then, suddenly, all this success came to an abrupt halt when a fire broke out in the kitchen during the night and threatened to permanently close restaurant. I think the fire occurred in 1961 but no one in the family remembers for sure.

It was late and everyone in our house was asleep when the phone rang in the kitchen early in the morning. It woke my Mother up from a deep sleep and the caller turned out to be one of my Uncles with some bad news. His family lived in an apartment that was behind the family restaurant and he told my Mother the fire department was currently fighting a fire in the restaurant. Now Dad’s house was a three-story house with his brother’s family on the third floor, his sister’s family on the second floor and we were on the first floor. One by one, each family was woken and told the same news. Uncle Coolidge said he wasn’t sure how the fire started or where it was located but he knew that Grandma and Bucky were okay. This was the family’s primary concern because they occupied one of the apartments that was located above the various store fronts in the building but luckily their apartment was not directly above the restaurant.

When my parents woke me, I was still in a sleepy fog but they were alert, dressed and ready to go over to the restaurant to see how badly the fire had damaged it. My Mother told me what had happened but it didn’t register, I was still sleepy. My Dad left immediately left while my Mother stay with my sister and I until we were ready to leave the house. The restaurant was only two blocks away and as I became fully awake, I was puzzled as to why my Dad rushed over to the restaurant and left us home with Mom. I know it was family but Dad’s lively hood didn’t depend upon the restaurant. He was an experienced mechanical draftsman and held a position in a large company drawing aircraft assemblies. So why was he going over to the restaurant at this godforsaken hour? The only people it really affected was my Grandmother, Bucky, my Uncle Charles and the other full time workers at the restaurant. I guess my Dad wanted to be sure his Mother and Bucky were okay along with the other members of our family.

When I was finally dressed my Mother, sister and I joined the rest of the family outside of the restaurant at about 3am in the morning but the fire was already out. The fire men were putting their equipment back on their trucks and there was a small crowd of people standing around wondering how badly the restaurant was damaged. I was told the fire story in bits and pieces and as I understood it, the fire started in the kitchen but it didn’t get big enough to spread out into the dining room or threaten the upstairs apartments. The firemen were calling it a grease fire and it was quickly put out.

I remember seeing the kitchen from the back door and it was a mess. Black soot covered the walls, the ceilings and all the kitchen equipment. Luckily all the kitchen equipment was made of stainless steel and all it needed was a major cleaning! The floor however, was a complete mess! The wood grates that were put down in front of the cooking stations to ensure the cook’s footing during the hectic rush hour had survived for a number of years but the spilt oil had soaked in its pores and the fire destroyed them along with the vinyl tiles that were actually covering the floor. The entire floor would definitely have to be replaced before Ming’s could reopen again. There was a lot of smoke and soot damage but other than that, the restaurant was in pretty good shape considering what had just happened! My Uncle Coolidge had essentially save the restaurant from catastrophic damage by quickly recognizing that something was wrong and calling the fire department promptly. I was too young to know if Grandma had insurance on the business and I don’t remember how long the restaurant was closed but I do remember going over there on the weekend and seeing my Uncle Charles putting a new plywood floor in the walk-in refrigerator that was in the kitchen. I also heard the new kitchen floor was an epoxy based material that was poured on and the seamless results were impressive. I can only imagine how much work it took to remove all the equipment and clean and prep the floor so the new floor could be poured. In addition, every single piece of kitchen equipment had to be cleaned and finally be brought back into the kitchen once the floor was cured. At the time, all this kind of work just boggled my mind. When all the repairs were done, the kitchen sparkled. There were no tiles or any type of removable material on the floor and it looked like it was one solid piece of material. The best feature turned out to be that it was easy to clean!

After the fire, the kitchen was kept spotless although we still had gas fired stoves that sent huge flames out to heat the thirty-inch diameter woks at each station. I may be mistaken but I remember seeing the oil in the woks catch on fire as it spattered when the woks were lifted them to check the flames beneath them. These small fires were always put out quickly by placing a small cover over the wok. One was kept at each station.

Of course, the food ingredients would sizzle as they were thrown into the hot woks to fast cook. I can still hear the cook’s shuffling the food around with their stainless-steel spatulas that looked like flat shovels with bamboo handles. Some cooks used two spatulas to turn the food as it was cooking but this was only when they had finished adding all the necessary ingredients to make the dish. On occasion, I would watch them hold the food to the side of the wok to let the oil drain from it and then scoop the entire meal onto a plate or dish and whisk it onto a heated stainless-steel shelf for the waiters to pick up. One thing that amazed me as I was watched the cooks was how they cracked three eggs with one hand and put other ingredients in with their other hand. My hands were much smaller back then but even today, though I can hold three large eggs in one hand, I still can’t crack them without dropping or damaging the other eggs and then shift to the next egg. Of course, this technique comes with practice and I really haven’t had a reason to master it but in a busy restaurant, I guess speed was of the essence and this was one of their techniques to speed thing up.

Eventually the restaurant was reopened to the public and we were immediately swamped with customers who had missed their primary source of non-kosher Chinese food! Of course, we had no conversations with their rabbis so their secret was safe with us!


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