How Zen Box Izakaya came to be
In 1996 an architectural student in San Francisco (John Ng) met a financial student (Lina Goh) in New Zealand in an online chat-room. A long-distance relationship maintained through emails, postcards, and a first meeting in San Francisco in 1997 finally resulted in the two getting married in 1999. Being apart for so long has created a dynamic that has allowed them to work in complement. Each bringing both of their skill sets and strengths together, they work as a team.
At the behest of friends and family, in 2004 they found the community and support to open their first restaurant focusing on bento in downtown Minneapolis’ financial district.
With the expansion and opening of Zen Box Izakaya as their latest location in 2012, John and Lina have since realized their dream to share the many complexities and nuances of Japanese cuisine and ramen with their loyal fans and guests.
Both in and out of the kitchen, architecture has always been John’s outlook and aesthetic. While the bento serves as a constant study in harmony and structure, his passion is ignited in ramen.
Chef Ng’s style, both, works and is indeed his own style, because of a firm understanding of the importance of structure, yet the drive to challenge and redefine that same structure. In creating a new space, the architect must consider every space that has come before. Ramen, too, is indebted to and steeped in the same tradition. Every facet of design is an extension of his own self, from his restaurant spaces to his signature ramen; it is from this platform that Chef Ng begins a new creation. Each bowl of ramen is the consideration of all possibilities – this is the style of the Ramen Architect.
Executive Chef / Owner: John Ng
Chef John Ng (@ramenarchitect), Executive Chef and Co-Owner of Zen Box Izakaya. Born in Hong Kong, raised in San Francisco and mentored by Chef Koji Okada at Ramen Club and Kaimuki Grill in the Bay Area, Chef Ng received training in traditional Japanese cooking and ramen making for seven years while obtaining his Bachelor of Architecture degree at the California College of Arts. Along with an established Japanese culinary pedigree, Chef Ng’s Chinese heritage provides a greater understanding and knowledge of a wide variety of Asian ingredients and cooking styles. With a passion for cooking that transcends culture, his unique approach, utilizing and adapting fresh, local ingredients has developed to create a style of ramen unique to the region.
Ever forward-thinking, opportunity for Chef Ng is fueled by endeavor. Most recently in 2016 he competed in the Cochon555 event in its second year held in Minneapolis. In 2015, Ng worked side-by-side with chefs in NYC and Nashville as part of fundraisers and feature events.
Back home in Minneapolis, Chef Ng is the brain child behind Zen Box’s annual ‘Ramen Attack’ festival in the Twin Cities. A charitable event benefiting Minnesota’s own ‘Children Cancer Research Fund’, Ramen Attack is the fulfillment of Ng’s goal to unite chefs from around the globe through collaboration to create and share what he loves most.
Between travelling to Japan regularly, collaborations with other chefs and local producers, and over a decade of experience as a chef-owner in the Twin Cities, Chef Ng has fixed his status as a ramen guru. When not in the kitchen, Ng can be found teaching workshops and seminars, as well as a member on several boards and committees, both academic and competitive.
General Manager: Lina Goh
Lina Goh has always been a people person. Whether it was selling shoes or serving food, she has always wanted to connect to people and have them connect with each other. She found out quickly in life that food was the "glue" that held all of us together. "We all have fond memories of food," she says, "It can give us a feeling of contentment." From growing up and living in Singapore and New Zealand to now living and working in the Twin Cities, she realized that those food memories are a huge tie to our home, wherever that may be. That led her to want to open restaurants with her husband, John.
Lina's preparation for operating a restaurant came from working in management at different companies. It was a path where she formed her style and belief that every position in her restaurant is valuable and that the managers need to work just as hard as the dishwasher to make sure they operate as a team.
Her team considers her as being quirky and sometimes goofy, something she attributes to a lack of sleep. She laughs when people tell her that it must be so "glamorous" being a restaurant owner, as she quickly explains that while it has always been her dream, it has taken hard work to get there.
Her idea of a dream vacation would be to eat her way across Japan exploring all of the variations of the ingredients they use to make their food, but she's really just as happy with a nice rib eye steak on the grill because she believes: "Good food should never be pretentious!