If you go to Tao Tao Chinese Restaurant in KCK on a Wednesday—or any day of the week—an hour before opening, you might find owner and chef Annie Der feeding people who are hungry before she opens shop. Chef Annie wakes up around 9 am and begins preparing fresh sauces for the day around 10. She often continues cooking nonstop until 2 or 3 am the next morning.
You might also find someone walking in who hasn’t seen Annie in seven years. At least, I did. A customer by the name of Ron walked in as I did and asked to see chef Annie. After several years away, Ron’s first order of business was to check on her, to “see how she was doing.” When Ron walked in, Annie recognized him immediately, hugged him and began to prepare an order for him—free of charge and dessert included. “I have one mother, but a few moms,” Ron says. “Annie is my mom. She’s part of my soul.”
For many people in the KCK community, chef Annie, who recently turned seventy-five, is someone who has cared for them, fed them and been a mainstay in their lives for decades.
Most of her regulars come at least once a week—and they’ve been doing that for years. When asked why they come back, they say the food. But if you have the chance to talk to chef Annie for yourself, you’ll know she’s the real reason.
For more than five decades, Annie has been making dishes like Springfield cashew chicken, shrimp fried rice and crab rangoon. Tao Tao boasts eight different flavors of crab rangoon and is one of the only places outside of Springfield to make authentic cashew chicken—dishes that make Tao Tao unique to other local Chinese restaurants.
I watched chef Annie and her daughter Tina Der in action at Tao Tao one morning, and the three of us chatted as Tina and Annie made food nonstop for a continuous line of regulars and a few newcomers.
What was it like opening Tao Tao over fifty years ago?
Tina: My mom bought the old building that is Tao Tao—at the corner of Minnesota and 13th—with my father in 1971. The two had $7,000 saved and purchased the former chicken house to start their Chinese restaurant.
At the time they purchased the hundred-year-old building, my mom did not know how to cook. But my dad was adopted from China by a Chicago family who was in the food industry, and he learned how to cook and run a restaurant at a young age. He taught my mom how to make Chinese food.
How much of your life is running Tao Tao? How do you spend your time when you’re not at the restaurant?
Annie: I work Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, I like to clean my house or spend time in the garden. I don’t plant vegetables—I’m no good at that—but I like flowers, and I like to be outdoors.
When I go on vacation [which is not often], I don’t like to fly or travel too far—too much sitting still. I’ve been to Hawaii twice in my life, but the plane ride was too long. I like riding the train. We [Tina and I] rode the train out in San Francisco. I liked that.
I feel like a tiger. You know how I have so much energy? I don’t sit down.
How do you make your famous Springfield cashew chicken? And who came up with the idea of doing different flavors of crab rangoon?
Tina: Mom fries the chicken fresh every day, and she marinates the chicken before frying it to make it extra tasty.
The crab rangoon, that was my brother. It’s taken a while to perfect the recipe. When we first started adding fresh fruit to the rangoon, they were too watery, and the filling would leak out in the fryer. Now,we are working with a new recipe that keeps the filling intact.
Do you remember all of the customers who come to Tao Tao?
Annie: Yes, of course. Some of them I’ve known for decades, and I’ve cooked for their children. I always love to see them.
Tina: She remembers them, and they remember her.