Trading the Corporate Life for Biang Biang Noodles

Nicole Zou from Miss Peppercorn.

Nicole Zou

Nicole Zou, chef and businesswoman behind Miss Peppercorn, has been on a full circle journey when it comes to Sichuan Chinese cuisine. Growing up, she didn’t pay the realm that was her mother’s kitchen much mind. Since then, however, quite a lot has changed.

In 2018, after moving from China to New Zealand, Nicole opened Miss Peppercorn with her husband John Zhang. Miss Peppercorn offers Christchurch authentic Sichuan food and diners the chance to travel far outside their cuisine comfort zones into the world of mouth-numbing Sichuan dishes (more on the numbing bit in a moment).

What brought you to Christchurch from Deyang, the Chinese city where you grew up?
After getting my degree in international trade and then working in a corporate setting for four years, I wanted to do something new. John and I both love nature and the quiet life so we decided to see what we could do here in NZ. We lived in Hamilton for a few years at first and I worked at a Chinese restaurant. There I realised I wanted to open my own place. When we saw the Corner Shop Bistro space for sale online, we decided to go for it and move to Sumner.

What was it like to open your first restaurant?
It was exciting and stressful. John and I had to learn a lot as we went. We wanted to serve authentic Chinese food which is often pretty spicy. A lot of people think Kiwis don’t like spice and those people thought we’d fail.

Two years on and Miss Peppercorn is a solid Sumner favourite. How have you seen that idea get turned on its head?
Actually, a lot of Kiwis love spice. Some come in and order the off menu ‘max spicy’ levels which I can’t even eat. There are plenty of spice levels to choose from though (don’t worry) and Sumner is such an exciting place for us. A lot of people that come in have been to China before or enjoy trying new foods. 

Tell us more about these peppercorns…
A lot of people want to know more about the Sichuan peppercorns which are the foundation of many of our recipes. I often bring out whole peppercorns for them to check out. I love to see how surprised they get. These peppercorns are so important to our menu because they create the mouth numbing effect that is so unique to Sichuan cuisine. It’s not spicy in the traditional sense, but actually makes your mouth tingle and go a bit numb. Many diners have never experienced it before. 

How did you build a menu that excites diners coming in to try Sichuan for the first time and diners who are after dishes that remind them of home?
I selected dishes I loved when I was growing up like Biang Biang noodles. These are some of our most popular. Then we’ve also got some traditional dishes that many people find a bit intimidating, like the duck head. These used to be on a separate menu but diners were curious and wanting to go further outside of their comfort zone. So now they’re on the main menu. 

What is your favourite item?
I love the dry pot. It’s a very classic dish in the Chinese province that I’m from. It's similar to a hot pot but without broth. I also love our dumplings because they’re handmade and come with a homemade sweet and sour sauce.

Handmade dumplings and handmade noodles are two cornerstones of Miss Peppercorn. How long do you spend making these precious items?
In a week we’ll have about three people spend three hours making each one of our three dumplings. That's 27 working hours right there. But this is the only way to control quality. You can’t make great Sichuan food without quality ingredients and I don’t like standard things.

Best day at Miss Peppercorn?
We get a lot of diners pop up to the kitchen window to tell us how much they love the food and people do this on Facebook, too. I really love being reminded of how much people enjoy trying authentic Chinese fare at Miss Peppercorn.