THE NEW GUARD OF CHINESE TAKEOUT IN AMERICA
For the Yale-educated co-founders of Junzi Kitchen, wraps and noodle bowls are more than just lunch—they're cultural ambassadors.
By DANICA LO
"It's a super-exciting time to be making Chinese food in New York City today—it may be the best time," says Lucas Sin, who at 16 opened his first restaurant in an abandoned building in Hong Kong and today leads the culinary team at Junzi Kitchen, crafting a fast casual menu of chun bing and noodle bowls that feature northern Chinese-inspired flavors heretofore rarely found on our shores. "It's post-David Chang; post- Mission Chinese. Now it's The Tang, DaDong is coming, Hao Noodle is super-well designed, Szechuan Mountain House—it's the whole spectrum, and we're all new-generation."
Sin, along with co-founders Yong Zhao, Wanting Zhang and Ming Bai, met when they were all students at Yale. There, in 2015, they opened the flagship New Haven location of Junzi Kitchen, the Northern Chineseinspired fast casual restaurant and concept originally developed as part of a fellowship program at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. Fast forward two short years and Junzi has already expanded, opening this past spring in New York, uptown near Columbia; next year, another outpost will debut on Bleecker Street.
On a typical weekday morning, customers start streaming through the doors well before noon, lining up for Junzi's signature built-to-order variations on the traditional Chinese bing (wraps) and customized noodle bowls. In Morningside Heights, the bustling open kitchen is staffed with people hailing from all corners of New York City and a multitude of backgrounds—"Our kitchen should have the same diversity as what's outside our kitchen," Zhao says. And while the founders—and menu—all have deep roots in China, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything stereotypically 'Chinese-American restaurant' on deck, at least insofar as the mainstream narrative of Chinese restaurants in this country over the past hundred years.
"Immigration has always dominated how Chinese food was presented to America," co-founder Yong Zhao, who earned a master's in environmental science at Yale, told Food & Wine. "A new generation is happening, which means there's a shift from labormajority capital to intellectual capital majority. Now, it has shifted to people like us, to create something that's real."
By real, the Junzi Kitchen founders don't only mean authentic regional cuisine—"I think it's always impossible to talk about 'Chinese,'" says cofounder Ming Bai, who earned an MFA at Yale School of Art and steers design at Junzi. "It's really tricky to talk about authentic-or-not." When the founders talk about real, they're aiming higher—to accomplish a bigger mission.
"Food is a vessel of culture," Zhao says. "What makes us excited is this mission of communicating culture." For example, he says, "In our restaurant, we have a lot of items that when you're actually Chinese or if you've been to China, you'll get it—and you'll want to cry. If you've only ever seen China through Mulan or Hollywood movies, then you won't have that kind of experience—because that's not real. So, that's what we want—in the future, for people to communicate with each other through real culture, in a great product-driven way."
In fact, the Chinese signifiers are so subtle that some customers may miss them entirely—"There are a lot of people who come into this restaurant five times a week, and it's only on the fifteenth visit they ask, 'Wait, what kind of food is this?'" Sin says. Some others get caught up in detail.
"In the restaurant, we serve a tomato with egg sauce," Sin says. "The New York Times wrote about it like it's a legendary thing. But still, even in that article, it's always presented as a dish that's eaten with rice, because that's how we eat it in the south. But in the north, they don't eat it with rice—you eat it soupier, with noodles, you stretch it out with cornstarch and water, and it becomes a velvety experience. So that's what these guys grew up with—and that's a whole other approach with tomato and egg that southern people and other types of Chinese people can still have a connection with. Of course, there are always people who come in here saying we're not 'authentic.'"
As the breadth of Chinese representation in the United States continues to grow, and the next generation of immigrants and entrepreneurs make their mark on food culture in this country, the idea of what represents Chinese cuisine in America will continue to shift away from this monolithic preconception of sweet-and-sour, fried or steamed, red, brown or white sauce. With it, so will cultural understanding. "If you like food, it's in your blood," Bai says. "You cannot do anything without food. Every time you get depressed or something, food can comfort you. Food has an emotional connection with almost everybody—I think that's a very strong base from which to connect with everyone."
It's not just customers who this food-culture diplomacy reaches—there's also the staff. "I think one of the interesting things about our employees is that they really represent the modern world," says co-founder Wanting Zhang, who earned a master's at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. "We have people from the Dominican Republic, from Jamaica, and from all over the United States. They're all coming together for one purpose—they enjoy food and want to work, that's why they've come here."
It's no surprise, then, that Friendsgiving for the Junzi Kitchen team will feature a family-style menu that mixes American, international and Chinese flavors and traditions. This year, Chef Sin will swap the turkey for Hong Kong soya sauce chicken, stuffed with glutinous rice. He's also created a repertoire of somewhat familiar sides, including fried taro with a sugar crust; crispy brussels sprouts with ricotta, honey and cumin; long beans in shrimp XO sauce, garnished with almonds; blackened cabbage with jaja crema and shallots; a winter melon soup; dumplings; and tang yuan—a traditional Chinese dessert.
"Junzi, the brand, is about the person who honors being together, but not the same," Zhao explains. "China invented this idea 2,000 years ago —this kind of multiculturalism—so we're bringing it back."
Junzi Kitchen: 2896 Broadway at 113th Street, 917-261-2497