Bing Cao and Cara Ou are the innovators behind Wabi Sabi, the Ambleside restaurant that brought sushi and ramen to our Services.
“Nothing is perfect; nothing is complete, nothing is permanent.”
There are many translations of the Japanese phrase wabi-sabi, but for Cara Ou, this is the one that sums it up best.
“It is a beautiful concept,” says Cara, co-owner with her husband, Bing Cao, of Wabi Sabi restaurant in Ambleside. For Bing, whom she describes as a “crazy chef”, the name perfectly encapsulates the philosophy that underpins his food.
“It means: I keep improving; I look for new things; the menu is always changing,” he says. “We chose this name for the restaurant because it represents me and the things I want to cook.”
Before the Covid pandemic, the things that Bing wanted to cook were becoming things that more and more people wanted to eat. His tiny restaurant was a word-of-mouth hit, a favourite of Cumbria’s Michelin-star chefs for the creative, idiosyncratic dishes that seemed to jump straight out of his imagination onto the plate.
But then came lockdown and the overnight closure of the restaurant industry. “When the pandemic hit, I had enough money to pay my rent for three months,” Bing says. “I needed to find a way of surviving.”
Bing and Cara got in touch with our Farmshop Buyer, Alexander Evans, with an idea to sell fresh sushi and ramen kits made in the restaurant kitchen. Alex was immediately intrigued, spotting an opportunity to bring something new and fresh to Tebay’s customers while supporting a small local business to survive and thrive.
At stake was a dream that first took shape when Bing was a student at Lancaster University, where he and Cara had both arrived from China to study business. “I rang my mum in China and asked her to send me money to buy a car,” Bing remembers. “She said: find a job and earn the money.”
He took a job washing pots at Jade Gardens, a Chinese restaurant in Ambleside. As he was graduating from Lancaster, his boss was looking to retire. So – after another phone call to his mother – he bought the restaurant. Five years later, he changed its name to Wabi Sabi, gradually transforming it into a unique destination restaurant with an inventive tasting menu inspired by Lakeland landscapes and local ingredients.
“I like to experience this environment: on the boat, in the woods, on hikes with Cara and our dog,” he says. “By getting to know the environment where local ingredients are growing, I get the inspiration for the dish.”
He explains that buying meat, such as Herdwick mutton, from local farmers and foraging for wild plants and mushrooms in the forests near their home is a vital part of his process.
“To recreate a dish from my mind and make it into reality I have to use local ingredients, because otherwise it won’t taste right. For me, taste is the meaning. When you taste something good, it becomes a new memory. A good memory.”
The clear passion and commitment with which Bing and Cara approach their craft were the magic ingredients that our buyer Alex Evans is always on the lookout for.
“I’ve always bought into the person that’s producing a food rather than needing to find this product or that product,” Alex says. “You need to leave yourself open to people coming along and taking you in a direction you hadn’t thought of. Bing and Cara are those people. They just make you happy.”
As a self-taught chef who had never sold through a shop before, Bing deeply valued the support he received from Alex and his buying team. “Every time we had a small problem, Alex would say: ‘We can sort it for you.’ I feel it is so easy to talk to him, ask him for feedback and adapt to make things better. Those little details: they made me feel I was back on track.”
The first products they launched in our Farmshop were boxes of ready-to-eat sushi, handmade in Wabi Sabi’s tiny kitchen and delivered by Bing and Cara in a refrigerated van they bought specially. The maki rolls and nigiri sushi in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian selections showcased Bing’s use of locally sourced ingredients and imaginative flavour pairings: beetroot-cured salmon; charred hispi cabbage with charcoal oil; tempura courgette and miso egg yolk sauce made using eggs from their own woodland chickens.
Next, Bing and Cara launched their ramen kits in the Farmshop: viewers of the recent Channel 4 Series A Lake District Farmshop watched the couple put their hearts and souls into preparing ramen bowls to impress Alex and his colleague, Emily, featuring slow-cooked Herdwick mutton, flavourful handmade broth and perfectly elastic handmade ramen noodles.
Crucial to their success was persuading Alex that the dish would be easy for customers to recreate at home from a kit. Cara’s hand-illustrated instructions added a sincerely personal touch. “We created these kits during a pandemic when everyone was stuck at home,” Bing says. “If I was the customer and I saw a hand-drawn message, it would make me feel happy.”
Wabi Sabi restaurant is now open again, and Bing is once again creating elaborate tasting menus inspired by his dreams and foraging trips around his beloved Lake District home. But so successful have been their ramen kits and sushi boxes that the couple have opened a permanent takeaway shop next to the restaurant.
The growing range of Asia-inspired ready-to-eat foods they now deliver to Tebay Services includes gyoza (filled dumplings) and bao buns. We can’t wait to see what Bing dreams up next.
“With Bing, you can see he thinks really deeply about things and he likes coming up with solutions,” Alex says. “You get the sense there’s more to explore, more opportunities and more ideas that we’re going to come up with together that neither of us knows about yet.”