Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2007 | People

A Taste of the Orient: Lisa Minder Wu

By Judy Polumbaum
Former journalist Lisa Minder Wu found love and an unexpected new career in China.

If some folks might wonder how a gal from Wheeling, West Virginia, got to Iowa, that's nothing compared to how people marvel at the life Lisa Minder Wu leads in China. Behind the career of this reporter-turned-restaurateur in Beijing are journalism, a lifelong fascination with crafts, a knack for the hospitality trades, and, of course, love.

Her graduate studies in journalism at the UI led Minder Wu, 05MA, to jobs at an English-language women's magazine and then a press agency in Beijing. Now she and her husband Wu Yuntao, a former rock musician, run The Orchard, a Western restaurant that also houses a furniture and crafts shop, in the northeast outskirts of Beijing.

Built from the ground up with natural wood, recycled bricks, wrought iron, and other earthy materials, and set amidst apple and pear trees that yield the makings of seasonal juices, pies, and preserves, The Orchard is in its fifth year of business. A U.S. chef versed in Northern California cuisine runs the kitchen, a senior Chinese chef who trained in Western hotels helps supervise another 15 or so cooks, and a solicitous staff of a dozen waits tables.

Diners, many from Beijing's large expatriate community, look out upon a pond surrounded by perennial gardens. Elsewhere on the grounds, herbs and vegetables grow organically in year-round hothouses. Workshops in the local village provide dozens more jobs in the production of furniture, clothing, soaps, candles, and other handmade products.

Minder Wu says her journalism background proved an asset for doing research and handling human relations in her new business. "My experience interviewing taught me to be sensitive not just to what people are saying but how they are saying it," she says. "We want to create a kind of refuge for people, so they feel safe and taken care of. I hate snobby restaurants."

That philosophy has produced a warm and welcoming environment, which, along with satisfying food, reasonable prices, bar service, live music, and accommodations for private parties, generates word of mouth recommendations that obviate the need for advertising. "The first Thanksgiving, I had to beg people to show up," recalls Wu. "Last year, more than 300 people came."