Hi Kristen, thanks for taking the time to chat.
Hey. No problem.
You recently moved to Austin, Texas to open your new restaurant. How’s the adjustment been thus far?
I really like Austin. My grandfather was from Texas, but I’d never really been here as an adult. People are always asking about Texas and what it’s like. I tell them that Austin is a glowing, shining star. It’s liberal and accessible, and the people here are friendly and open minded.
Do you have a particular food philosophy or way you think about food?
My food is the story of my life and a lot of it comes from my childhood. I grew up on fast food, like McDonald’s and KFC. For example, we have a fried chicken dish because I grew up eating chicken fingers. So it’s sort of comes from this nostalgic down and dirty place plus all the formal cooking from earlier in my career.
Are there other ways in which that training shows up?
It shows up a little bit in the menu. The way it’s written it sort of progresses from lighter to heavier like a tasting menu.
So how did you go from cooking in a really luxurious restaurant [at the heralded Menton in Boston, MA] to being end up on television anyway?
I never wanted to be on TV! I was working for [Chef] Barbara Lynch and she submitted my name and just kept saying, “I think this will be good for you.” I was like, ‘No, no, no.’ But the next thing I knew I was on television. It happened so fast. She always said she saw something in me, and the truth is, at that point, she knew me better than I knew me.
And of course once you’re on television, obviously that’s transformational and a lot changes, what did you learn from finding stardom on television?
I learned I could be myself. And learning that actually gave me confidence.
That seems like an unusually happy ending, that you go on television and gain a sort of piece of mind from that experience.
Yea. It gave me this opportunity to accept that it was okay to be me. For awhile I tried to present in a certain way. But when it happened, I was just...me, which in weird way actually just gave me even more permission to be myself. Obviously it’s not for everyone, and doesn’t work out that way for everyone who is on television. It’s not just go on TV and then you have a career. There are lots of people who’ve gone on TV and you never hear from them again.
And part of maintaining that authenticity for you has meant that you’ve continued to speak openly about your beliefs.
Something I feel proud of is that for the most part, when people meet me they say, “You’re exactly who I thought you would be.” I mean, some people may say that I am a bit cold, but [laughing] that’s only because I’m shy! But once people get to know me they feel differently. So I haven’t really received any criticism. I can only present my point-of-view.
So your notoriety didn’t make you feel a sort of pressure between the person you are on television and the person you are in real life?
The thing is I never wanted to do it in the first place, I didn’t give a shit about TV, so it allowed me to be who I am.
Let’s talk more about your food. You’ve struck exactly the right combination of high end lowbrow. Do you any specific examples?
Yes, our malfadini [pasta]. It’s my fancy version of Hamburger Helper, which my mom used to make. And for dessert we have a lunchbox chocolate cake, which is a homemade Hostess cupcake. When my dad would pack a sandwich he’d top it with an ice pack, so the sandwich would get soggy, so the cake is the only thing I would eat.
How did you develop this style of cooking?
My own style didn’t come until later. For so long I cooked to try and impress, and struggled to find my own voice. Traveling was really profound for me. After awhile I just realized that cooking doesn’t have to be all theatrical, and that being a great chef is about purpose and care as opposed to trying to cerebrally compete with all these great restaurants. I just learned to cook with care and that gave me more confidence as a chef.
We kind of alluded to it earlier, but you’ve managed to have a sort of mainstream version of success while speaking freely on your own beliefs and experiences. Has that been a conscious part of your work?
It’s never really been on my radar until recently. As chefs we’re put in this rarefied space and people are starting to pay attention more. At the end of the day I choose projects that mean something to me that are worth talking about. That’s always been the case. But now I have a larger platform it’s even more true. I remain more open than ever to find ways to do that. I always say that I’m not an activist, but what I am is a supporter of any and all. I check a lot of ‘minority’ boxes, so I think people can relate to me… I was adopted, I just came out, I’m Asian American, I suffered from depression and anxiety. I do have strong opinions, but just being me — that in and of itself is like my form of activism. The best thing you can do is you.