"Mama" Nena Kuo prepares symbolic bok choy for the HDC's annual Lunar New Year Dinner.

Just Like Mama Makes It: Lunar New Year in the HDC

January 20, 2023
"Mama" Nena Kuo discusses her favorite HDC event and the Year of the Rabbit.

Nena Kuo has one son and one daughter, but she is affectionately known to many University of Richmond students, staff, and alumni as “Mama.” You can often find her at the helm of two large woks creating sumptuous stir fries and fried rices for the Heilman Dining Center’s Wander station.  

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Nena attended cooking school there before moving to the United States when she was 22 years old. After living in Chicago, her immediate family settled in Virginia (she still has relatives in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taiwan). She has been cooking in the Heilman Dining Center (HDC) for nearly 15 years.   

In addition to her delectable dishes, Nena is known for her kindness, strong work ethic, and generosity. She’s mentored and gifted vacation hours to Dining Services colleagues, shared homemade dumplings with staff and their families, and driven students to and from the Richmond airport during school breaks. Just in case her authentic Chinese meals don’t fully comfort homesick international students, she also gives them her cell phone number.  

“Everybody calls me Mama,” she said. “I tell students if anyone needs help, come to me. When [the students] return, they come for a hug even before they eat.” 

The Lunar New Year Dinner is Nena’s favorite HDC event because the focus of the holiday is family and food. One of Nena’s specialties is a simple yet flavorful baby bok choy stir fry (check out her recipe below). The secret, she says, is to keep the leafy vegetable crisp by limiting cook time to three minutes. Nena also prepares an estimated 200 pounds of vegan fried rice for the event.  

“Mama Miau Kuo is a dedicated employee who treats our guests and co-workers as family,” said Chef de Cuisine Andy Kerscher. “Her constant hard work and approachable attitude makes her a great culinary team member, friend, and ambassador of the University of Richmond and its students.” 

As the Year of the Tiger concludes and the Year of the Rabbit begins, Nena said 2023 should be calm, peaceful, smooth, and prosperous. Her advice? “Be patient and luck will come.” We are lucky to have Nena on our team, and we are patiently awaiting the start of our annual Lunar New Year Dinner on Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 4:00 p.m. in the HDC. 

Mama Nena’s Baby Bok Choy 

Wash and drain 1lb baby bok choy. Split lengthways.

Mince 1 clove garlic and set aside.

Heat 2 Tbsp canola oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. 

Add garlic to the pan; cook for 1 minute to release the aromatics. 

Add the bok choy; sauté for 2-3 minutes, stirring until it turns bright green and caramelized (if the color turns dull, it's overcooking).

Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Serve hot! 

Did you know? In Chinese culture, bok choy symbolizes longevity, particularly the wish for parents to live long lives.