Authentic is the first word that comes to mind when you meet Michelle Pao Levine. Her easy manner is a perfect fit for her job. As co-owner of Mosa Asian Bistro with dad Eddie Pao, she has the natural instinct of a restaurateur to make people feel at home. A 1995 graduate of St. Mary’s Episcopal School, Michelle serves on the school’s alumnae board, and she is a fellow of the New Memphis Institute. She’s quick to throw her support behind the city’s major food-focused fundraisers, from Youth Villages’ Soup Sunday to Grizzlies Coach Dave Joerger’s annual event that supports Tennis Memphis. Michelle and husband Mark Levine are getting ready to celebrate their 10th anniversary, and are enjoying being parents to 18-month-old Matthew. And today, we get to share Michelle with you as our FACES of Memphis feature.
Tell us about your family’s journey to America.
My father was born in China, in a province near Hunan. My mom, Charleen, and I were both born in Taipei, Taiwan. My dad was a movie director there; he directed Kung Fu movies and worked with (director) Ang Lee way back in the day. My mom was a secretary in a law firm. My family speaks Mandarin, and I didn’t learn English until kindergarten. I was born in 1976, we immigrated to the United States in 1977, and dad opened the first Little Formosa in 1978.
Describe your early career. Where did you work, and what were your jobs?
Right out of college, I spent a brief time in legal marketing. It didn’t take me long to realize my calling. At the time, there were several start-up restaurant concepts in Atlanta that were hiring. I joined Doc Chey’s Noodle House working for the founder, Rich Chey, and his partners. My role was to create the operations and marketing manuals for franchise partners.
What brought you back to Memphis?
Mosa brought me back to Memphis! Actually, it was the opportunity to start my own business with an investor/partner (my dad), that brought me back to Memphis. I knew at the time that there were no hybrid-style restaurants in Memphis. Hybrid meaning full service/fast casual, and especially no Pan Asian-style restaurants. We knew that it would be risky, but we were up for the challenge!
What’s your typical day like?
I’m pretty lucky. I start my day around 6:30 a.m., and I’m usually off to drop Matthew at daycare by 9 a.m. Then I run a few errands and to Mosa, and about 10:15 a.m. we start our day. I pick Matthew up around 4 p.m., head home and make dinner with Mark, and I give Matthew his dinner and bath, so he’s ready for bed. About three nights a week, I go back to Mosa at 8:30 p.m., and I close the restaurant. At some point during the day, I try my best to get in a 20-minute run. I pass out by midnight.
It sounds like you have a lot of flexibility in your daily schedule.
I feel so lucky that I have my own business and can say “Michelle will not be available between this and this time.” We are fortunate now to be doing what we both love. If you are so lucky to have your avocation become your vocation, you just want to nurture it and see it grow year after year.
You’re Taiwanese and American, and Mark is Jewish. How will you raise Matthew?
Matthew will celebrate both Jewish holidays and Eastern Christmas. Culturally, we want him to be very aware of his Jewish side. He will go through Hebrew school and Mandarin school — he’s going to love us for that!
What are the biggest challenges working in a family business?
Some of the biggest challenges in working with your family are respecting each other’s boundaries and time. Hands down, those are the toughest challenges we continuously face.
The best part of working with my family is knowing that no one is more committed than we are to one another. I know how lucky I am every single day to have Eddie next to me. His mentality is the reason why, for 40 years, he has been able to be such a strong business owner and provider.
Watching you at the restaurant, it’s clear that being a mentor to your employees is very important to you.
I don’t know why I feel like it should come with my role, but it does. That’s what I looked for in a boss – I looked for a person who I want to learn from, and that was Rich Chey. I was really looking for that. In the end, ultimately, I went for a mentor like Rich. I wanted to go even further than how Rich mentored me, because I think that what a lot of people lack is communication from their own family. Who do you want to be? What do you want to do? It’s part of your journey through life to know who you are, and to help find that greater purpose for your life.
I hope I am that person for my staff, because I really try. Most are very young, so I try to advise them on everything … how do you apply for an apartment or rent a house, or apply to college? I help with scholarship applications, and I’ve given so many recommendations. I want them to know how important it is to care about people; care and empathy is what helps you realize what’s important.
What are your tips for successfully managing family and business?
Separate business life from personal life, and do not hold grudges
How about your best advice for working moms?
Remember to take care of yourself!
So far, what’s the best advice you’ve given, whether as a mom or as a mentor?
Be grateful for each day, and live life with great purpose.
What are your hobbies, and how do you unwind?
I love to spend time catching up with my friends (something I rarely get to do these days), whether it be over a glass of wine or on the phone. And I love to cook. I have an enormous collection of cookbooks. I love to listen to music while running — it sets me free. And I love to read and get lost in a great story.
Where’s the first place you take an out-of-towner when they come to visit you in Memphis?
Cooper Young/Overton Square … the best restaurant scene!
What’s your favorite Memphis attraction and why?
My favorite Memphis place is the Memphis Zoo, because it attracts a melting pot of people, something you don’t get to see much every day. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing the pandas and giant elephants?
Finish this sentence: If I had a superpower, it would be …
To enable everyone to find their purpose in life and act upon it
What’s one fun fact about you?
Twenty-two countries were represented at our wedding.
What one word describes you?
What inspires you?
What are three lighthearted things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Coffee, running shoes and Claritin.
Thank you, Michelle, for sharing of yourself with us today. And thank you to Micki Martin for today’s images of Michelle, taken at Mosa Asian Bistro.