The Roanoker - January/February 2017 - 59
DINING | NEED A SUBTITLE
Melted & Sauced
The Distinct Pleasures of La Petite Fondue
Ming Cao and his wife, Haiquing Ren, tried hard to retire from their 30 years
together in the restaurant industry. Their failure is our pleasure.
BY SHARI DRAGOVICH | PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN PARK
FOR AS CHIC AS FONDUE (from the French word fondre-to melt)
is today, one might not guess its humble beginnings. During the Middle
Ages in Burgundy, France, it is said that vineyard workers invented
what we know as meat fondue. They set a boiling pot of oil in the
middle of the vineyard so workers could cook pieces of raw meat during
short breaks. In 18th-century Switzerland, cheese fondue developed as
a means for the peasant classes to eat their aging cheeses and stale bread
through winter. During the mid-20th century, Americans decided to
melt chocolate, and voila!, another version of fondue was born.
At La Petite Fondue, diners experience the full gamut of fondue history in a
warm, artful, unhurried setting.
La Petite owner Ming Cao and his wife, Haiquing Ren, have been
restaurateurs together for 30 years. Cao, an oil painting teacher by
trade, came to the United States from China at the age of 36. He began
American life as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant in New York City.
He laughs remembering that time,
"For 10 years I am a teacher. Then I come to America and work as
a dishwasher!" Cao, with his enduring smile, laughs while moving his
hand through the air in a plummeting fashion. But Cao was a quick
learner. Within six months he earned the position of head chef. Within
a year, Ren, also a teacher in China, joined him. They married, moved
to Roanoke and began their joint entrepreneurial restaurant careers.
For decades, Cao and Ren offered Roanokers Asian cuisine in small
family-style settings. They started with Chinese restaurants. However,
when the informal Chinese buffets came to town, the couple couldn't
compete, nor did they care to abandon their commitment to the intiJANUARY/FEBRUARY 2017 | 59