When Lona Luo thinks back on her earliest cooking memories, she’s filled not with the typical nostalgia you usually get from an accomplished chef, but instead, a mix of feelings – many unpleasant – that she credits with making her the person she is today.
“I grew up having such a tough life,” Luo recalls. “When I was young, cooking was not an art to me; it was a duty. When I was under ten, I complained that I didn’t like cooking because I would see all of my friends having fun outside getting muddy and playing in the river, but I couldn’t because I had a responsibility to my family. I had no way to escape that part of my life, because I had to answer to my mom. I used to have an attitude with her, and we would get into a lot of arguments, but now I thank her, because without her, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
Today, Luo is an accomplished chef, a successful restaurateur, a James Beard Foundation award nominee and beloved throughout the St. Louis metro for her Fox Park restaurant, Lona’s Lil Eats. However, her path to culinary greatness was long, winding and not ever certain, save for her unrelenting determination to make a better life for herself. Growing up as an ethnic minority in a remote village in southwestern China, Luo was not even sure she’d be able to finish middle school, let alone leave her home to pursue opportunities in a larger city. By the age of six, she was already taking care of her younger siblings and cousins, traveling with them to a boarding school that was several miles away from their village. There, she was responsible for feeding her young family members, which included waking up early every morning to build a fire, then doing her best to ensure that they had something to fill their stomachs from whatever she could get her hands on.
Luo’s responsibility to her family continued throughout her childhood, yet instead of growing increasingly resentful of her role, she grew to embrace it. She started to feel that she had a knack for cooking and developed an appreciation for how an ingredient that might look and taste unappealing could be transformed into something delicious. She carried that nascent passion with her when she left her village to attend high school in a small town and eventually realized that food might be her path to create a life for herself after she graduated and landed a gig in a Japanese restaurant.
“After high school, I knew I didn’t want to go back to the village, because I wanted to change my life and my parents’ lives,” Luo says. “I went to another small town, which was very challenging for a village person, because it was so much bigger, and I didn’t even speak Chinese. I had no skills; all I knew how to do was cook or work on a farm. I thought I might go into construction, but I found a waitressing job at a Japanese restaurant. I almost didn’t get it, because the woman looked me up and down and thought I knew nothing and had no experience. But I argued with her and she decided to give me a three-day trial.”
Luo’s tenure at the restaurant was so difficult, it bordered on abusive. Still, she never gave up and was eventually able to move on to a high-end Japanese restaurant where she rose up to the rank of supervisor. The job would not only get her away from her former employer; it would change her life. There, she met her husband, Pierce Powers, who had a contract with the restaurant to teach English to its employees. The two began dating, got married, had a daughter, and relocated to St. Louis to begin their life together.
It wasn’t easy. When Luo moved to St. Louis, she spoke very little English and took on work in restaurants while Powers helped make ends meet as a delivery driver for Imo’s Pizza. Eventually, he got a job as a social worker with the state of Missouri, and the pair also launched a business selling handbags at the Soulard Farmers Market on weekends, which helped begin to turn their fortunes around.
Luo dreamed of running a food business of her own, and she and Powers got that opportunity when the stall across from their handbag operation came available. Though several other vendors were vying for the space, the market manager took a chance on Luo and Powers, greenlighting their food business: Lona’s Lil Eats. At first, the pair sold beef and chicken kebabs, as well as a few Thai wraps, but they eventually expanded their menu to include more dishes from Luo’s culinary tradition. Though the first few years of their business were lean, their popularity increased as word of Luo’s cooking spread throughout the market. Emboldened by the reception, Luo realized that she was on her way to achieving her restaurant dreams and needed to take the next step.
“I wanted to do a restaurant, but Pierce was worried that it would be very difficult,” Luo says. “I felt no fear; we had nothing to lose because we had nothing anyway. I wasn’t scared and I kept asking him. He was nervous, but I told him that this is a game we already started, so we have to just do it.”
Luo and Powers opened the brick and mortar storefront of Lona’s Lil Eats in 2014 and have never looked back. Though the first several months were slow, their business picked up and has only increased ever since.
Luo believes the secret to the restaurant’s success is the way it makes people feel. Though her food is intensely flavorful and satisfying, Luo uses healthful ingredients in her dishes and serves them at an affordable price in a relaxed environment that doesn’t intimidate diners. Even the menu notes that it’s “dedicated to inclusion,” with options for vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, diabetic-friendly and paleo choices, with the goal of “helping every person find their place” at Lona’s. While inclusion for different dietary needs and preferences is growing in the restaurant industry, the focus on it is even more powerful coming from someone who has worked hard to gain her footing, first in the U.S. and then in its culinary scene.
And now, when Luo walks through the dining room and sees the looks on her customers’ faces as they are enjoying her food, she knows she’s found her place.
Recalling the difficulties of her childhood, Luo can now see that calling has always been there, even if it was at first overshadowed by her initial struggles. She looks back on how far she has come since those days cooking for her family over an open fire in her small village and cannot help but be filled with gratitude. Having achieved so much success – both at the local and national levels – Luo understands that she was able to become the chef she is today because she had to fight for every piece of it. Her road may not have been easy, but it’s one she’s glad that she had the chance to walk down.
“I am very thankful that even though I had a hard childhood and didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to, I grew into a strong, independent woman,” Luo says. “I feel so much appreciation for all that I have been through and never regret it. Without this life, I would have turned out to be a different person. I used to have so much anger back in the day, and I cannot change that I was angry, but I can’t focus on it right now. It’s made me better and made my expectations higher.
“Without any of that, I wouldn’t be Lona. I wouldn’t be me, and I wouldn’t be here. It’s been a gift.”
Join the Story
Visit Lona’s Lil Eats for their menu and hours.
Interested in reading stories of other immigrants who’ve made St. Louis their home? Check out our stories on:
- Welcome Neighbor STL
- Patrick and Spencer Clapp of Coffeestamp
- Angela Zeng of Karuna Beverages
- Collective Thread
- Susan Gobbo of International Spouses Meetup Group
- Nick and Irfan Sinovic of Vega Transport