Chef Johnny Shi of Dragon Cafe and Yamato Sushi Train & GrillNov 01, 2022 08:12AM ● By David Zorko
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Johnny Shi delights in paving the intersection between food and people. During his travels from the kitchen to the front of the house, he searches for this interaction. Dragon Cafe, which opened twenty years ago, is where Shi is frequently found smiling as he oversees the stir fry or brings out a securely fastened to-go order. You might also catch him at Yamato Sushi Train & Grill, where guests pluck morsels from a perpetually rolling conveyor belt.
Shi’s journey to Nebraska began about 7,200 miles away, in the Fujian province of China in the city of Fuzhou, which he called home until his parents moved the family to New York his 7th-grade year in 1995. After middle school, a move to Erie, Pennsylvania, for high school connected him with his uncle, Foon-chi Cheng. Shi said he considers his uncle, who influenced his rigorous approach to food and taught him how to hold a knife, “the family tie to restaurants.”
After school was done for the day, “my uncle would pick me up and then go to the restaurant China Moon and I would help out. So I slowly learned everything. I learned how to cut chicken, how to take the bones out from the chicken—that’s how I started. Learning how to cook fried rice, doing the fryer… I was 13.” During summer break, the young Shi assisted his mother at Sunrise, the family’s Long Island, New York, restaurant.
This early experience with family and food prepared him for a life in the kitchen.
Sunrise, for example, cultivated his multitasking skills. “You had to answer the phone, you had to pack the food, then you also had to watch the fryer… they had those BBQ ribs... so I had to watch that, too. I basically had to be in four different positions,” the chef recounted. In addition to this physical multitasking, there were also psychological challenges. Customers were sometimes unkind to him over issues with orders, as he worked with them in English while communicating with the kitchen in his native language.
In 2001, a friend of Shi’s mother ran a restaurant called Little Dragon in the Midwest, and a cross-country move landed the family in Ottawa, Kansas. Shi said, “I’ve never been to a small town like that. It was a pretty big difference for me.” His role there involved a similar blend of front-and back-of-house work lasting until 2002 when a newspaper ad presented an opportunity: a restaurant for sale. Several hours away, in La Vista, was the family’s soon-to-be business, Dragon Cafe.
Shi’s mother and uncle purchased the restaurant, and with it came recipes and sauces. “Chinese food here in the United States like Broccoli Beef and General Tso’s Chicken—they are all prepared about the same way,” Shi explained. “It’s just the sauce that’s a little bit different.”
Employee Tony Lee has worked with Shi for about 11 years, and while he learned wok skills from the Dragon Cafe’s cooks, he said, “Sushi-wise, I learned it from Johnny.” He also relayed that Shi can cook every item on the restaurant’s menu, which tops well over 100 dishes.
Knowing how the food reacts to the cooking process is one way Shi keeps an eye on excellence. Lee shared, “Sauce-wise if there is something wrong, I go tell him. He’ll fix it right away.” For example, when preparing broccoli beef to-go, Shi explained that cooks need to account for travel time. “You need to make the sauce thicker because broccoli always has water come out later. If you don’t put enough cornstarch, the customer will get broccoli in water.”
In 2011 Shi saw an opportunity to expand his restaurant by learning a new skill. He traveled back to New York to Bayridge Sushi in Brooklyn for a stage (as a stagiaire), the restaurant industry’s unpaid training tradition. "You don’t pay for the school, but they don’t pay you either,” he explained. Fortunately, Shi was a quick study. “Earn your honors and they will put you in the sushi bar,” he said. “Some people, it takes about a month for the owner to teach you how to cut the salmon. It took me about a week. I worked hard and then the owner looked at me like, ‘Oh, this guy really wants to learn.’”
That hard work paid off with the opening of Yamato Sushi Train & Grill near Aksarben Village in 2017. Sushi lends itself to Shi’s creative nature. “I like to create,” he said. “You can create from your own mind, and later on, you have your own style.”