Courtesy of Jonah Rosenberg

Tsang's journey to success in the food world has been unconventional—but deeply rewarding

Jillian Kramer
December 18, 2017

Ivy Tsang may not have known it as a college student—one who was tapped by a Hong Kong-based modeling agency—but she was destined to be in the food industry. And yet Tsang’s first modeling campaign may have been a clue: Tsang posed for McDonald’s.

Flash-forward six years, and Tsang was still dipping her toes—albeit, indirectly—into the food industry. She took her visual communications degree to Publisis, a global advertising agency, where she worked with hospitality clients such as Marriott and Moët & Chandon.

But it wasn’t until she moved back to the United States, with her husband, Jonathan Chu, that Tsang decided she wanted to change careers—by launching a restaurant in New York.

“At the time, I had worked in advertising for about 10 years,” Tsang says. “And I wanted to do something different. I asked myself, ‘What do I really want to do?' I wanted to be in food.”

Tsang continues, “When I was younger—instead of spending all my money on clothing—I spent all my money on going to restaurants and trying new things.” That’s another way her modeling career might have been a clue: it allowed Tsang to travel to near and far locales, where “I was able to understand a lot of different and very strange cuisines,” she explains.

With three partners by her side—Tsang’s husband, who was working in real estate; chef Michael Jong Lim, who’d just departed Japanese hot-spot Neta; and partner Selwyn Chan, who brought a background in fashion operations—Tsang opened Chikarashi in mid 2016.

Chu found the perfect spot, nestled on Canal Street; Lim designed a menu that combined a love of Hawaiian poké with his background in Japanese cuisine; Chu whipped a staff—and all the other background operations—into shape. And Tsang? She brought the (big) hype.

Of course, getting people in the door wasn’t all Tsang did to get Chikarashi off the ground. But her background in modeling and advertising again came into play in the weeks and months before the restaurant first opened its doors—and certainly after. “Our initial digital campaign caught the eye of influencers,” Tsang recalls. “I used social engagement on a few social media platforms to spread the word about Chikarashi, and my [branding] experience definitely helped.” She got creative too—and got her hands dirty, literally, in the process.

Tsang photographed every single image the restaurant posted on Instagram. And she came up with a tabletop video series—videos that showed Chikarashi’s poké bowls being made from beginning to end. “That helped engaged new customers, and it helped to find people who are influential in the food industry,” Tsang says. “I would get people to come in who have a lot of followers to photograph our food and help spread the word about Chikarashi.”

The restaurant saw enough success that Chikarashi expanded this September to a second, NoMad location, and is under construction on a third, 2,000-square-foot establishment on Rector Street, where the restaurant will offer up ramen and tempura in addition to poké.

At about the same time, Tsang, Chu and Chan opened up Nickel & Diner in Chinatown, with the help of chef James Friedberg, who came from West Village eatery Blenheim. Together, the foursome developed the restaurant around the idea of elevated American cuisine, with Chan’s infamous sliders—they became popular at house parties he hosted—on the menu.

Whether you’re at Chikarashi or Nickel & Diner, however, Tsang believes they have built something unique, something that is more than a restaurant—they’ve created a lifestyle. (And that may be even more of Tsang’s modeling and advertising background talking.)

“We wanted to build a lifestyle brand, a place where people can enjoy the atmosphere, they can grab a coffee, they can enjoy the design,” Tsang says. “I want people to feel comfortable while they enjoy their food. These are places where fashion, food, and design all collide.”

As for the secret to her success? Tsang says it has a little bit to do with meeting the right people, at the right time, and a lot to do with hard work. “You have to expect a lot of hard work—every job is not too small or too big, and you have to expect things like chasing contractors,” she says. “You can't be afraid to dive into every aspect of the business.”