Checking in with… Susan Zhu of Tree House

In our new column, Checking in with…, we’re catching up with local food industry employees to find out how they’ve been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. 

South Grand vegetarian/vegan hotspot Tree House has one of the busiest brunches in town. It also has one of the friendliest, which is due in no small part to Susan Zhu, who can usually be found behind the bar or weaving her way across the floor, slinging coffee, vegan donuts and tofu scrambles. She’s been there just under three years and does a bit of everything, loosely (and after a bit of deliberation) describing herself as the front-of-house manager.  

“It’s a small team and it’s very collaborative,” she explains. “I stepped into that role because I wanted a better understanding of what it takes to make it work and function.” That understanding has, naturally, changed in the past few weeks. “We were probably a 90% dine-in restaurant and, within a week, we shifted to takeout only. It was kind of insane,” she says.  

We talked to her about the home projects she’s working on, why she considers Stalking the Wild Asparagus, a foraging manual from the ’60s, to be essential reading today, and what we might actually have to learn from staying at home. 

What’s the current situation at Tree House?
Friday was officially our last day, at least for the time being. We had kept it going for a while, in varying capacities. It was definitely very adaptive. It wasn’t anything like what it looked like before. There was a big conversation amongst the small crew that was left about what would be in our best interest not only for the restaurant, but also for social responsibility and the safety of our staff and the people that come out. 

You’re probably used to being in the restaurant for most brunch services. What was it like not to go in this weekend?
This was probably my first Saturday off in years. I’ve worked like every single Saturday since I was 14. It was very odd, very weird. It was like a dichotomy of two different sides — part of me was like, “I just want to sit in bed all day and be somber,” and the other part was like, “You know what, it’s nice out. I should probably try to do something that I’m never able to do, which is take a walk in the park.” That’s what me and my partner did, and it was great. Half of my body is excited, almost like it’s a snow day, when you’re in school. The other half of me is pretty panicked, like, “Oh shit, what’s this going to mean? What’s going to happen? This is the first day, and I’m already freaking out.”

Are you and your partner quarantined together?
Yeah, we’re definitely a quaran-team at the moment. We live together, so it wasn’t really a question of whether or not we’re doing that.  

What are you looking forward to doing while you’re at home? 
I’ve been working full-time-plus, so I think a lot of stuff at home has been left unresolved. I’m really looking forward to taking inventory and just seeing what my needs are at home. Getting rid of things that no longer serve me. Really honing in on what it is that we need to make a stable, functioning home. I think it’s just a continued project that people forget about when they’re in the daily grind. I’ve got a big pile of books that I need to get into. And the normal binging on whatever trash shows are around.  

Which shows are you stoked about picking up?
We did start watching Ozark again. I’m excited about revisiting stuff that we’ve watched in the past. I really like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure at the moment. It’s so surreal and wacky. It’s a Japanese animation that’s so over the top. It’s fantastical, and it takes you out of the world, which is nice. 

What’s notable in your stack of books?
I love food, I always have. I’m looking forward to getting into the nitty-gritty of The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz. I’m also reading this book called Stalking the Wild Asparagus, which I think is kind of fitting for this uncertain era of reverting back to a simpler time. It’s about foraging wild foods and whatnot. It’s a world that’s almost unrecognizable right now, given the situation. I wonder how many people in my generation would not know what to do if they were out in the woods for a minute. How many people would not know what to do? I think about that a lot. I’m excited about getting back into these old collections of do-it-yourself [books]. Old skills that are completely forgotten because of modern technology. 

Right. I have been wondering about whether I would even know how to wash my own clothes if my washing machine broke right now. 
Exactly. Like basic things. Gardening is huge — it’s always been a big passion of mine. It’s kind of… try to make the best of the situation so you can see all these new opportunities of what you can do. And also it just makes you grateful for what you have, because obviously this situation sucks. I don’t think anyone’s going to disagree with that. I think everyone’s in that position of, “Am I going to have a paycheck?” We don’t know. There’s very real questions of unemployment, of how you’re going to make your bills and your basic needs. But at the same time, we’ve very lucky to be living in the situation we’re living in. We’re able to self-quarantine, we’re able to have shelter and water. Those questions of how to introduce those very basic skills and integrate them into what we already have. I’m really excited about that prospect, so that’s where my book list is taking me right now. 

Adam Rothbarth is the staff writer at Sauce Magazine.