Every Chinese school child learns Xu Zhi Mo’s 1928 poem, On Leaving Cambridge. Capturing the beauty and romance of Cambridge, it provided a draw to LingLing Peng from her home in Taiwan, as it still does for the scores of Chinese tourists that visit our city every year. LingLing was looking for a place to “play and learn” and inspired by the poem, Cambridge seemed a natural choice.
Studying English at The Studio School on Station Road in 1991, LingLing would often have lunch in the little ‘old-fashioned’ café on the corner, not thinking that 10 years later she would be the owner. Back in the early 90s Cambridge was a poor destination for food lovers, with national food chains prevalent but few innovative independent restaurants and cafés providing any local character. LingLing enjoyed the idiosyncrasy of this little place.
LingLing and Franck met through a mutual friend and with their shared love of food they set up in partnership with a friend, L’Amandier on Burleigh Street in 1994 (now Cote de France) and sold it four years later. Eager for their own place, in 1999 they took a quarter share of the premises above The Bun Shop (now The Cambridge Brew House) where they could create their own menus. As fate would have it, the little café on Station Road became available in 2000. So, taking an extension on their mortgage, Le Gros Franck was opened and has since become one of the City’s most beloved local eateries, as well as the only independent French café in Cambridge
Le Gros Franck is famed for delivering good quality authentic French food (Franck makes monthly visits to France to source the best ingredients) with delicious breakfast and lunchtime menus. Convenient for commuters stopping in for a croissant or espresso on their way to work, it is also a mainstay for a growing community of residents and businesses in the area.
LingLing and Franck have become indivisible from their restaurant, becoming a well-known unit in the City as well as active members of the community. They embrace change and make the most of new and exciting opportunities that the city’s transformation provides, such as the CB1 development and the growing trend around food vans.
CB1 was the catalyst for their second restaurant. When in 2012 they were looking for something new, the accountant and solicitor’s office on the corner of Hills Road and Brooklands Avenue provided the perfect location to take advantage of this burgeoning population. After months of negotiations and fighting off stiff competition (no doubt with the reputation already established through Le Gros Franck), La Maison du Steak was born in 2013. LingLing said:
“The changes around CB1 have been quite monumental but it’s great to be in the heart of it. We’re really proud of the challenging building project we undertook because we transformed a near derelict building to what we have today. Franck took the lead on this, he’s created space that shows off authentic French interiors and individual style. We’ve even used some of the photograph that show the various stages of the project to decorate the walls.”
Just like its sister, La Maison du Steak provides a wonderfully French setting. It lends itself to relaxed family meals or a romantic dinner for two and has quickly become a firm favourite in this part of Cambridge.
LingLing loves food – talking about it, cooking it and of course eating it. So, what better way to share her passion than by bringing it directly to her customers? They now have three food vans. The Saucisse Mon Amour food van is seen regularly on Station Road, its fluttering Taiwanese flag cocking a snoop at the Chinese state while bringing pride to local Taiwanese. “I love to see my customers’ faces when they enjoy my food. And I can do that from my van, where I can’t from my kitchen” says LingLing.
While the Saucisse Mon Amour reflects the French identity of her marriage, LingLing loves to indulge in traditional home cooking, influenced by her mother and share recipes that she grew up with. Her second food van, LingLing’s Steam Kitchen, was set up in 2015. With favourites include her beef dumplings, Taiwanese braised minced pork served with tea egg and tofu stew with plum and miso sauce. It is already a firm favourite both with locals and critics – she won the 2015 Cambridge Food Van of the Year after only being open for three months.
Finally Pull Me Chéri opened in 2016, and is used frequently for Cambridge events such as Enchanted Cinema, Thirsty Riverside, the Cambridge Comedy & Beer Festivals, Mill Road Winter Fair, Thriplow Daffodil Weekend, and a regular monthly pitch in Hitchin street food monthly and outside Thirsty.
LingLing and Franck now employ a diverse team of 20 from the UK and Europe. Indeed, the head chef started as a dish washer: everyone works together as a family. LingLing summarised:
“The staff are the bosses. They run the restaurants, they are important, they take responsibility.” she concludes: “I am so grateful for my wonderful team. It really would be impossible without them.”
LingLing has learnt a lot, but she says the key to running a successful business is to listen; to staff and to customers. That is how we learn the most important lessons.
LingLing was interviewed by Dawn Giesler, founder of scuseme, a recommendation website developed to provide an essential resource to help your family run smoothly. Dawn has lived in Cambridge for over 20 years and offers advice based on her own experiences. For more information please visit: scuseme