Meet Zora Wesley, owner of Z’s Catfish at 127 Kenway St. in Rockwall. Zora is a single mother of three grown children (Akilah 38, Brandon 29, and Corey 27) and grandmother to Laila (12), Amina (10) and Zuri (7). She says her children and grandchildren are her whole world! Zora is not only a fantastic cook, but an athlete at heart and loves to stay fit by doing a variety of activities such as hiking, hitting the batting cages and bowling (she has been invited twice to bowl in the U.S. Open!). Blue Ribbon News recently caught up with “Z” to learn more about Rockwall’s beloved catfish cook.
What led you to want to go into the restaurant business?
I have always cooked for as long as I can remember. For holidays my family in California would come to my house where I would cook large meals. My family has always talked about wanting to open a restaurant. When I moved to Texas from California in 1998, I saw a need for a soul food restaurant and began my search to find a second generation restaurant to try my hand at running a restaurant. It took me 15 years to find the perfect place (Rockwall, TX).
What’s a typical day look like for you running Z’s Catfish?
A typical day running Z’s Catfish could be me making our homemade fried cornbread, making our homemade desserts (Coca Cola Cake, Lemon Pound Cake, Bread Pudding/Bourbon Sauce, Regular Pound Cake, Caramel Cake, Banana Cake, Banana Pudding and Sweet Potato Pies), prepping our fish and shrimp or peeling and chopping Yams, and prepping our Collard Greens, Macaroni and Cheese, Black Eye Peas, Red Beans and Rice. Everything we cook comes from family recipes and is made from scratch. Cooking food from scratch is really challenging because these recipes take time to make, so we really have to coordinate things to make it work.
What do you enjoy the most about cooking?
I really enjoy being in the kitchen and the challenge to provide a satisfying product to the customers. Every day I check/shake everything off at the door before I enter the restaurant as it is truly my happy place. So when I walk through that door, I’m calm, excited for the day and look forward to seeing and interacting when possible with our customers.
Your website states that you sometimes jot recipes down on the walls of the restaurant for customers to find. What was it that started that tradition?
Yes, there are a couple recipes on the wall. This is how I would get a recipe from an elder family member. I would grab whatever I could to write the recipe down on, sometimes it could be an envelope, a paper bag or whatever I could grab as the family members were getting older and I was always under their tutelage taking in all of the knowledge they share. So to this day, family members call me for old family recipes because they knew I wrote everything that I learned down. Sometimes I would have to create the recipe by taste because some family members didn’t measure anything when they cooked – they would say to put “a pinch” of this or that.
For those who have never tried Z’s Catfish, what menu items would you recommend?
For those who have never tried Z’s Catfish I would recommend a little of everything along with cornbread and a dessert.
The community showed you guys a lot of love after the unfortunate incident with the vehicle running into your restaurant last spring, with folks helping with the cleanup effort and the gofundme raising $20,000! What did this amazing support mean to you?
The support we received over the summer was phenomenal and unexpected. I received a call from Rockwall PD that morning saying, “How soon can you get here? Someone crashed into your restaurant overnight.” I got dressed in what seemed like two minutes trying not to break the speed limit. When I turned into the parking lot I immediately started to cry. The officer walked over to my vehicle to comfort me by saying, “If it makes you feel better, it appears that nothing was taken.” I was devastated! And walking in a fog trying to digest everything. The restaurant is my only means of income, and I could not understand why someone would do something like this. I was trying to wrap my mind around it and thought about my customers and decided that I needed to let them know what happened by recording a video so that I didn’t have to explain it every time someone came in. I recorded the video and posted it and continued trying to clean up the mess. The support was phenomenal, people came from near and far to show support for little ole me, and as the day ended and I started to cry, the kids were like come on don’t cry. I was just so overwhelmed, but it was amazing to have people who have never met you and they want to uplift you in a way to show you that love conquers all. I truly felt the love from everyone in the community. It just made me know that I chose a great city to open Z’s Catfish.
How has community support been for Z’s Catfish since the start of the pandemic?
The community has been supportive. We have customers who come in and ask if we’re doing okay, and they tell that they’re glad to hear that because they want us to be here. I get slow sometimes but we’re hanging in here and are grateful still for the support of the community.
When you’re not running the restaurant, what are some activities you like to partake in?
When I’m not running the restaurant, I enjoy weekend getaways. I’ll hop in my car and go to the hill country for the weekend. I enjoy bowling, fishing, running, reading, shopping and hanging out with my family.
What is something about you people would be surprised to learn about?
I have bowled three perfect games with rings to prove it.