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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.
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 intimate family dining experience. They decided to put their efforts into Japanese restaurants, owning several over the next many years, some still in existence today (Sakura and Ichiban).
Eventually, Cao and Ren decided it was time to retire. Cao wanted to devote more time to painting, both wanted a more relaxed lifestyle. They sold Ichiban (their restaurant at the time) and tried the retirement life. After two years, Cao was bored. “Retirement is boring,” Cao laughs, while Ren, sitting beside him, smiles and shakes her head.
It was around this time that the Cao family experienced The Melting Pot, a chain fondue restaurant. They fell in love. Cao says he started checking the restaurant’s website, hoping one would come to Roanoke. After two years of waiting, Cao decided he would open one himself. “The Melting Pot [type] restaurant is my dream,” says Cao smiling and waxing nostalgic. “It is so neat and cozy. Roanoke needs a restaurant like this.”