Denver’s MAKfam restaurant is busy passing down the tradition of food, family and hard work

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Eden Lane/CPR News
A MAKFam staffer takes an order during a press opening on Oct. 19, 2023.

When Doris Yuen and Ken Wan started dating, Yuen had a big question. Wan had only been cooking professionally for about four years, but Yuen had big dreams for their life together.

“I asked him because I knew he was a chef, and I asked him, ‘Are you interested in opening up your own restaurant one day?’” Yuen said.

“It was just me always in the back of my head that, ‘Yeah, that I would want to open a restaurant one day, but more so what would it be? What would it look like?’ All those details,” Wan said. “And I'll say Doris definitely played a role in helping me flesh out those details, giving me more direction as to where to take my culinary skills.” 

The couple married, and now, they’ve seen the dream come to fruition. But the road here wasn’t easy.

As many restaurants battled pandemic-induced slowdowns, the team finally built their dream into their first brick-and-mortar fast-casual spot in Denver's Baker neighborhood, MAKfam.

Eden Lane/CPR News
Kitchen staff work during the MAKfam press opening on Oct. 19, 2023.
Eden Lane/CPR News
Ken Wan directs staff in the kitchen of MAKfam at its press opening on Oct. 19, 2023.

Like many big dreams, this busy new eatery took time, hard work, and early planning to come to life. It started as a New York City-area pop-up, then a Denver food hall concept before opening as a full-fledged restaurant in November near 1st Avenue and Broadway in Denver. 

The couple got their start by participating in food markets and events, in one of the most competitive culinary markets, New York City. In 2015, they became vendors at the Queens Food Night Market as Hong Kong French Toast.

Yuen said that experience gave the couple a taste of what it feels like to be their own bosses and run their own business, “having our own ideas, planning it, and then having it come to fruition.”

That led the couple to explore their savory side and create Meta Asian Kitchen .

“Ken made this dish called the Mama Wan's. It is his mom's braised pork belly recipe, served over white rice with pickled vegetables,” Yuen said.

Success there convinced the couple to quit their jobs and move to Denver to open their own restaurant. But why Denver? Wan said they had visited his sister who lives in Denver. 

“We always love Denver. I personally like the atmosphere of Denver,” Wan said. “New York's a good place to build and grow your career, but as far as an end game is concerned, buying a house or raising a family, it's really expensive.”

After moving to Denver they quickly built a following at the collective eatery Avanti Food & Beverage in Denver’s LoHi neighborhood.

Today at MAKFam, their menu is Chinese food inspired by family recipes and childhood memories. Wan's mother’s braised pork belly dish was the launch pad.

Eden Lane/CPR News
Doris Yuen, right, and Ken Wan speak at a press opening for their restaurant, MAKfam on Oct. 19, 2023.
Eden Lane/CPR News
Signs adorn the walls of MAKfam at the restaurant's opening on Oct. 19, 2023.

“We use that very same pork belly. It's the pork belly in our pork belly bao buns. And it's funny when my mom eats it too, it reminds her of raising us as kids and something that she would make for us when we were growing up,” Wan said.

The couple stresses that their menu isn't traditional Chinese food, but a riff on their family recipes. 

Doris Yuen’s family dishes also inspire the menu, but for her, all the details of MAKfam are personal, and a response to childhood. 

“When we were creating this restaurant, I told Ken I want to showcase all of the Chinese elements that make me who I am and that I'm very proud of,” Yuen said. “The little Chinese girl in me that always got made fun of for being too Chinese is now being praised. And people are telling me like, ‘Oh, it looks great here. I totally understand what you're trying to do here.’ So it feels really good.”

The name MAKfam combines the acronym for Meta Asian Kitchen, the name they used when they were based at Avanti Food & Beverage, and fam for family. 

“A lot of our recipes are family inspired, they're tradition inspired. Doris's mom helps us work. My mom is integral in some of the recipes. We use our family as a baseline for when we [do research and development.] We'll make something, Doris's mom, Doris's dad will taste it, they'll give us their opinions. I lean on my mom and my dad for recipes. So family is a very big part of our operation,” Wan said.

“And our tiger logo is actually representative of our daughter Autumn. She was born in the year of the tiger,” Yuen said. “So that's why you'll see our logo for MAKfam is actually a little tiger and a Chinese name for our restaurant means ‘little tiger place,’ ‘a little tiger restaurant.’ This is basically our gift to her. She doesn't know that it's our gift to her, but we're building this life.”

With a strong focus on family, the couple then focused on hiring staff who share their values and care about the food and hospitality.

“Running and owning a restaurant's hard. It's completely consumed my life. And I mean, I love every minute of it, but I just want people to know that we care. And everyone that comes in here, we will always give them the same grace.”

Eden Lane/CPR News
A cocktail glass sits on a counter during the MAKfam press opening on Oct. 19, 2023.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect name for Mama Wan's braised pork belly. It has been updated.