Building a Modern Chinese Lifestyle Brand Through Food

How the founders of Yale-born Junzi Kitchen are fostering relationships between people and cultures, one bing at a time

Spencer Yen
15 min readApr 23, 2019

[written way back in december 2017 for a school publication, was never published :/]

Junzi on Bleecker, opened in late summer 2018

In the summer of 2011, a private restaurant serving a 13-course Hong Kong-themed tasting menu opened in an abandoned newspaper factory out the outskirts of Hong Kong. The chef behind it was then-16 year old Hong Kong native Lucas Sin. “I taught my friends how to cook, how to hold three plates at once, how to bullshit about wine, and there we were for a summer doing three nights a week,” said Sin.

With no formal culinary education, Sin embraced this pop-up style of cooking, which is representative of the unbounded creative spirit of his ideas. Pop-up cooking means that each dish will only be created once, and the ephemerality allows for almost no limitations. Much of his inspiration simply comes from piling on different flavors in his dishes and combining different cuisines. Sin’s brand of spontaneous cooking contains less much deep-rooted philosophy in than one might find with more traditional highly acclaimed chefs like Eric Ripert.

“There is no philosophy. It was just super scrappy and messy in the beginning.” Sin recalls the time he realized they needed bowls, so he just sent someone out to go buy bowls. Then there was a time he needed to develop a vegetarian broth, and so he just learned how to make it from YouTube. Sin’s narrative mirrors that of quintessential hackers in a garage — except here, Sin started with food in an abandoned newspaper factory.

As Sin explained, a chef’s career path looks something like this: go to culinary school, find an apprenticeship at a known chef’s restaurant, work for different restaurants until somebody trusts you enough to become a sous-chef, and work your way up. Then at a certain point you start to bounce around and learn different techniques and styles from different restaurants. As you collect these ideas, sometime before the age of 35, you hopefully are able to open your own place either with someone else’s money or your own.

At the end of that summer in the newspaper factory, Sin left to start college at Yale, where he studied cognitive science and started an organization that ran pop-ups called “Y Pop-up”. He ran his first pop-up in the basement of his dorm, and called it the Underground Noodle Collective. The concept was simple: he recruited a small team of students, bought the best instant ramen, and made three different broths: soymilk dashi, curry, and tomato. Students would come, check off the broth and toppings they wanted on a piece of paper, and Sin would make it in his dorm room before sending it off with a fellow student waiter.

The next semester he opened his second pop-up, “nom,” which served Japanese izakaya style food. Every week he and his team would test out different food concepts, and the food was often different and themed — on Valentine’s day, they did a 5 course “stages of a relationship” tasting menu. By Sin’s junior year, he had created a fully-fledged, student run restaurant business. Each semester, he recruited teams of chefs, business managers, and “owners” to open new pop up restaurants. They expanded to three locations, each with its own unique cuisine and ambiance, from “House of York” that served a 12-course dinner revolving around “feast food” to “Ampersand,” a cafe that paired food and drinks with poetry, music, and art.

Sin explains that loosely-speaking, he “trained” in Japan, where he spent three summers. “The second summer I started in Tokyo and had a job for 10 days. Then I got on the train and stopped in every relevant city all the way down to Nagasaki, knocking on people’s doors going like ‘I love your food here, this stuff is super dope, can I cook for you?’” Sin recounts. Most of the time Sin was turned down, but he eventually met a man who offered to teach Sin how to make curry if he also helped run his peach farm. Sin took the offer, and ended up living in the man’s cellar all that summer.

For Sin , it was all about creating interesting flavors and special food experiences for people. His experience with Y Pop-up allowed him to be reckless and experimental with food. Unlike a typical chef opening a restaurant, he didn’t have to care about paying rent or utilities because he did it in dorms. And because food cost wasn’t of huge concern, he was able to spontaneously find ingredients from leftover weeds on a Yale farm to the aisle he never explored in the local Chinese market. The intimate connection between the chef and the customer during these pop-up experiences was what made it special — students knew that they were going to experience something a little bit special that was only going to happen once.

The last summer before his graduation, Lucas did an apprenticeship at Kikunoi, a 3 Michelin star Kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto. “That was the fanciest restaurant I ever worked for. I’d work from 7 am to 1 am in the kitchen, and then go right next door to the dorms to sleep. 6 days a week, all summer. It was a super grueling, but amazing experience.” After going back to Yale, Lucas thought he was going to do something with Japanese food post graduation. But halfway through his senior year, he got a call from a Yale grad student that would later lead him into studying Northern Chinese cuisine.

Yale Farm

From Environmental Science to Food Entrepreneurship

When I first heard that there was a new Chinese fast casual restaurant called Junzi Kitchen opening at Columbia, I was intrigued by the concept. Then when someone told me it was started by three Yale grad students, I pictured a group of entrepreneurial American-born Chinese types trying to ride the wave of healthy, fast casual eating with an ethnic twist.

Several months later after having added Junzi to my weekly lunch routine, I was curious to know who the team behind the Northern Chinese bings and noodle bowls served in a familiar yet refreshing Sweetgreen-esque environment was. I got in touch with the team, and soon after I was sitting on the yellow chairs outside Junzi’s Columbia location with founder and CEO Yong Zhao. It quickly became clear that I wasn’t talking to the business school type person I’d imagined — here I was, hearing an environmental science PhD dropout from Yale explain how the modern Junzi brand falls into place alongside Aristotle’s empiricism and Buddha’s enlightenment.

In 2007, Yong Zhao and his wife Wanting Zhang both graduated from the first liberal arts education program in China, the Yuan Pei program at Peking University. It was the first generation of Chinese students who didn’t have to think about solely specializing in one major; instead, it focused more on the western liberal arts values of learning a broad scope of things for life. While Zhao technically majored in conservation biology and Zhang in law, they both had varied interests outside their field of study, especially reading poetry and serving as student leaders. This had a lasting impact on Zhao’s worldview.

“A lot of my research dealt with climate change, and the problem there really isn’t about science. We already have enough evidence. It’s a human problem. Why can’t we all work together?” Zhao tells me with a look of genuine concern. “It’s like the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, which collapsed because people spoke different languages and couldn’t trust each other.”

After getting master’s degrees from Yale, both Zhao and Zhang had job offers to work for Google in Beijing. But they wanted to do something bigger, and became fascinated by the entrepreneurial startup scene. “I never considered myself as just an environmental scientist. I deferred my PhD to try starting a business because I think it’ll open more doors than just science,” Zhao says.

Zhao and Zhang started thinking about how their experience as Chinese graduate students fit into the greater cultural and societal changes in the world. Growing up in China, they weren’t exposed to much cultural or ideological diversity: everyone around them was Chinese. But after coming to the States, they were suddenly in the racial minority and experienced culture shock. While there is a large presence of Chinese-Americans and Chinese students studying in America, there is still a cultural disconnect of a mini-China in America and the real China back home. “The western conception of China felt less than the real China that we knew. Not everywhere is like the grungy old restaurants you see in Chinatowns. There wasn’t any modern brand about China that our modern Chinese generation knew,” Zhao says.

Chinatowns in major cities like San Francisco and New York started forming in the nineteenth century largely because of Chinese immigrants working labor intensive jobs. Today, with over 300,000 Chinese international students studying the US, there’s been a shift from labor to a generation of intellectual capital. Students aren’t here to just work for a secure life and send money back home; instead, a new 21st century hope has inspired students to make an impact on the world.

There’s this conflict between two extremes when it comes to China’s representation in the today’s western world: you’re either at Panda Express eating “Shanghai Angus Steak”, or at some local Sichuan place eating chicken feet. The western world knows very little about what life in modern China is like outside of mainstream media, and this element of Chinese modernity is missing in America. From the credit card-less life with WeChat wallet to bike sharing everywhere, there’s a different interpretation of modern life to be found halfway around the world. Zhao and Zhang wanted to prove to the west that you could be authentically Chinese and modern at the same time.

“In the modern world, the trouble is less about humans with technology — it’s humans with humans. We still judge others by their race and skin color, the way they talk, and their beliefs. Why can’t we accept the beauty in the fact that we’re all different, yet foundationally the same? We want to communicate what the modern brand of China is in the west,” said Zhao.

What stood out to Zhao was how food carries culture and lifestyle. Of all the forms of cultural communication, from cars to fashion, food has the lowest barrier to entry and the largest reach. McDonald’s 35,000 locations all over the world successfully spread American cuisine and culture. Food helps you understand different cultures, and it’s the closest you can get to a country without actually going there. When you go out to eat and try a different cuisine, your appetite leads you into that cuisine’s cultural background. The problem is, often times the culture represented by some restaurants is outdated or inauthentic. Zhao wanted to use the growing trend of ethnic eating to bridge the gap between popular food and authentic culture.

Originally from the Liaoning province in northern China, Zhao frequently ate chun bings growing up. Made of thin flour-pressed dough and used to wrap meats and vegetables, they could be called Chinese burritos — and this was the basis of the idea for a fast-casual restaurant serving chun bings. Zhao noticed how popular Chipotle is in America and was inspired to start the first rendition of a modern fast-casual Chinese restaurant: “The Chive Project,” named after the distinct ingredient often found as a staple in Chinese cuisines.

“We want to build a modern Chinese lifestyle brand starting with one integral part of our lives: food”

Ming Bai, who graduated with an MFA from Yale’s School of Art, distinctly remembers the first day Zhao called her and explained this grandiose vision. “Yong told me about this new idea of a modern fast-casual Chinese restaurant for our generation, and all the big picture cultural implications. I just happened to be walking on Canal Street about to enter a section with a bunch of old Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. That was the moment I had this epiphany and felt the full mission of what we’re trying to do.”

In early 2013, Zhao, Zhang, and Bai started by making simple beef chun bings. “We did beef because we didn’t know how to make chicken yet,” Zhao laughs. Soon after, the team approached the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and became the first Chinese team to be accepted into its Venture Creation Program and receive a $5,000 grant. It was through this program that they rebranded as “Junzi Kitchen”.

Jun Zi, or 君子, is a Confucian idea that roughly means an exemplary person with integrity and morals. “It’s a really old idea that conjures images of an ancient old looking Chinese dude with super long strands of facial hair,” Zhao explains. But it was an old Chinese concept that has deep implications when applied to the modern world today. To Zhao, the modern Junzi is about bringing together people who are not the same. While Aristotle focused on living in the right community and the Buddha looked internally for enlightenment, Junzi is about the unprecedented multiculturalism of our modern world. “Today, especially in America, we increasingly need to accept this multiculturalism as people are becoming more divided. We want to use this Junzi idea to create a product that goes beyond minorities and ethnicities. We want to build a modern Chinese lifestyle brand starting with one integral part of our lives: food.”

Junzi Kitchen is a quintessential story of entrepreneurship. None of the Junzi team at this point had much cooking experience at home, let alone any prior restaurant experience. The team jokes that Zhang once took 2 hours to prepare a Blue Apron meal kit that was supposed to take 30 minutes. In 2014, they expanded their team, further developing the Junzi brand and A/B testing their first product — the chun bing.

“We would come up with ideas and then run experiments. At first we were laboriously hand rolling our chun bings, but then we eventually found out about tortilla machines. So we bought a tortilla machine and convinced a Chinese restaurant to let us test it in their kitchen. We’d go in at midnight, try to figure out how to use the machine, and test different ratios of flour and water at different temperatures. After a lot of trial and error, we were making delicious fresh bings at the press of a button,” Zhao says.

Wanting Zhang, Yong Zhao, and Ming Bai

Developing the Philosophy Behind the Food

In early 2015, Zhao heard of a Yale student-chef who was opening restaurants in the basements of dorms. Zhao got in touch with Lucas, and gave him a call to recruit him as a much needed chef and culinary director for Junzi. “When Zhao first called me and asked me to help with this northern Chinese cuisine concept, I was a little confused. But then he explained the whole vision, and I vibed with it. My opinion is that Chinese food is the best food in the world, and I wanted to help bring underrepresented Chinese cuisine to America,” Lucas says.

It was only when Lucas joined Junzi Kitchen in June 2015 that they added noodle bowls to the menu. Later that year, Lucas traveled to different cities in northern China and learned about the history of northern Chinese food. “I had to really dig into the books, and I found this book that told the story of the bing. Way back in the day, like 7,000 years ago, bings were literally just food!” Lucas excitedly tells me, before Zhao corrects him: “Not 7,000. More like 1,000.” “If you look in the first collective dictionary in China, it says the word ‘’bing’ is food. It’s flour and water. No yeast, no salt, no sugar. It’s just dough. And if you take the dough and flatten it and wrap things in it, that’s a chun bing. If you put savory things in it and wrap it, that’s a dumpling. If you hold it over fire and shave it into water, that’s noodles.”

Lucas gave the Junzi menu an update, adding knife noodles and spring noodles, chicken, pork, tofu, mushrooms, a seasonal pick of cooked vegetables, and raw vegetables like kale. He also developed original sauces: sweet bei, garlic chili, savoy soy, and roasted sesame, for the bings, and jaja, tomato egg, and furu sesame for the noodles. After spending months to remodel the store to fit their modern Sweetgreen-esque brand, the first Junzi Kitchen opened right by the Yale campus in October 2015.

Junzi in New Haven, CT

A product that carries cultural value should first be modern and fit into your everyday lifestyle. After that, you can tell the narratives and stories behind it. With the goal of bringing a modern Chinese food to America, they importantly kept the American audience in mind. Unlike most Chinese restaurants, the experience at Junzi is familiar and easy — everything’s in English (and Chinese), the green and white branding has a clean aesthetic, and there’s plenty of natural light and plywood everywhere. When you walk in, you’re greeted by the familiar food assembly line format, similar to restaurants like Chipotle. Choose either a wheat or white bing or two types of noodles, pick your sauce, choose one protein, add vegetables from matchstick potatoes to pickled daikon, and finish with garnishes like chive ash and cilantro.

Junzi has already grown beyond just offering fast noodle bowls and bings and are moving closer and closer to creating a lifestyle brand. Junzi After Hours was inspired by the late night cooking Lucas did at Yale, and caters to the weekend nightlife part of the Junzi lifestyle. Walk into Junzi After Hours on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll see the space transformed into a pop up street food bar, featuring colored lights, music, trays of bacon egg and scallion bings, and Vita juice boxes spiked with mini liquor bottles. Additionally, Junzi Chef’s Table is a reincarnation of the Lucas’ pop up tasting menus and offers a monthly-themed five course tasting menu. Every Chef’s Table dinner has sold out, with diners coming from all around the city for culinary experiences like “Realms of Soil,” a collaboration with the Fou art gallery in Brooklyn where each course was a response to the gallery.

“That’s the future I imagine us playing a part in — finding common ground in the future, through food first”

I had the privilege of attending one of the Chef’s Table collaborations: “When Food Meets Humor”, a collaboration with Shanghai-based cartoonist Tango Gao. The whole dining experience was refined yet casual — five innovatively (and humorously) plated courses served on two tables in the middle of a busy fast casual operation. The food was fantastic, but the highlight was the whole experience around the food. While typical fancy tasting menus involve waiters explaining the complexities and origins of the ingredients in each course, each course at “When Food Meets Humor” came with much more meaning. Tango’s hand drawn cartoons elevated the presentation and interaction of each course. And in place of the waiter’s explanations was the chef, Lucas himself, telling the stories of how he and Tango came up with the ideas. My favorite was the fourth course, “Big Fish, Little Fish”, which was fried red snapper being “eaten” by a larger cartoon fish drawn on a sheet of butcher paper. The inspiration behind this dish was rooted in the notion that in New York, there’s always someone bigger and better than you, but you can accept this, enjoy life, and not be consumed by the bigger fish.

Big Fish, Little Fish

Though roughly half the customers are Asian, Junzi has nevertheless started to gain customers from different backgrounds. By offering convenient, fast, and healthy food, Junzi has made its way into people’s regular meal rotations. This is exactly part of their plan — as Junzi becomes a more trusted brand locally, they hope to develop more communication bandwidth with different kinds of people. One day as I was in line to get my go-to garlic chili pork bing, I just noticed the true diversity of the store: in front of me were a couple Chinese graduate students, a football player, and an elderly couple reading the menu and wondering what “jaja” sauce tasted like. It was something I’d never see at the Chinese dry hot pot place a few blocks down the street. Even as a Chinese-American, I felt a sense of joy that all these different people were enjoying a fast casual Chinese food. Junzi is a modern Chinese brand to be culturally proud of.

At Junzi, the more you understand the authenticity and cultural modernity of China, the more likely you’ll appreciate the experience. Junzi’s cultural communication through food and lifestyle is just starting: in July 2018, they opened their third location in Greenwich Village, and another location in Bryant Park is coming soon. The Junzi team is excited to test out new concepts as it reaches different demographics in bohemian and corporate neighborhoods.

“We don’t want to find some cultural ‘middle ground.’ We want to build the future. Down the road I see two versions of humanity: one that is more isolated, filled with advanced technologies but polarized ideas,” said Zhao. “Then there’s a more united humanity, one in which we all live in harmony. That’s the future I imagine us playing a part in — finding common ground in the future, through food first.”

Junzi After Hours at Columbia



Spencer Yen

small stories, writings, and uninformed opinions from my life