By Caroline Benveniste
On July 16th or thereabouts, Junzi Kitchen, a Chinese fast-casual restaurant will open at 170 Bleecker Street. This will be the restaurant’s third location, and to the casual diner, it will be a delicious and convenient lunch or dinner option. But if you eat there without knowing its history, you’ll be missing out on a fascinating tale.
The story starts with Yong Zhao, who, after completing his undergraduate work at Peking University, enrolled in a PhD program in environmental studies at Yale. His plan was to return to China and become a politician, but he began to question how much impact he could make on that path. His training in environmental studies made him realize that our environmental problems are really people problems. One problem he wanted to tackle was to reduce the perception of China as a threat, and he felt that food could be a medium to help accomplish this. For him, the everyday food of his youth was connected with memories, and he hoped to bring that food to others here. He wanted food that was affordable and convenient and easy to make. But most importantly, he was determined to make authentic Northern Chinese food that was different from the Chinese food Americans were familiar with.
In 2013, Yong and two other Chinese students, Wanting Zhang and Ming Bai, decided to pursue Yong’s idea of using food to solve some of the world’s problems. Wanting, like Yong, was at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Ming was in the MFA program at the Yale School of Art. They concluded that the way to drive rapid growth was through entrepreneurship, so they submitted their proposal to the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. After their proposal was accepted they participated in an accelerator program which had workshops, presentations and skill-building classes that covered all the general aspects of entrepreneurship. They next applied for a summer fellowship which provided mentorship in an incubator environment and some initial funding. Yong was later able to raise more money in China, in part based on the fact that Yale had invested in this venture.
Their next challenge was to find a chef: they had heard about a Yale undergraduate named Lucas Sin who was cooking elaborate meals in his dorm room. Lucas was originally from Hong Kong, and had spent all his school vacations working in restaurants, some Michelin-starred, in the US and abroad. Lucas was enthusiastic about the group’s plan, and joined the team after graduation.
Finally, the restaurant needed a name, and the team settled on Junzi, which means a person with integrity.
I first heard about Junzi Kitchen from a friend of mine, Richard Hunt, the mentor assigned to the Junzi team at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. The way Richard explained it to me, the team approached opening a restaurant using traditional start-up tactics more commonly seen in tech companies. They employed the lean start-up methodology, and applied the business skills they’d learned to fast-track the process. Ultimately, they brought innovation and discipline to an area that normally did not have it, and, Richard says, “They did it all the right way.”
The first Junzi Kitchen opened in New Haven in 2015, and the second location opened in the Columbia University area about a year ago. Unlike most restaurants, Junzi has a large team, currently numbering 17 people. The restaurants were designed by Xuhui Zhang, the Director of Real Estate Development & Architectural Design. Before joining the Junzi team, he received a Masters in Architecture from Cornell, and then worked for the architecture firm Pei Cobb Freed in New York. A lot of thought has also been put into the marketing and branding. For example, the signage at the restaurant is carefully conceived and executed. Some of this work was done by co-founder Ming Bai. Not surprisingly, in May, the Columbia Junzi was named one of the top 4 best restaurant designs by NYC x Design.
Junzi serves traditional Northern Chinese food: the underlying ingredients in this cuisine are water and flour (not rice), and out of those you can make noodles and bings (thin pancakes). Unlike Chinese restaurants with multi-page menus, Junzi keeps it simple: you choose a base (either noodles or bing with a sauce), a main (meat or vegetarian), vegetables, and garnishes. The employees at the restaurants are local to the area, but come from many different backgrounds. Some were working at Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts before, but were excited to learn how to make this type of food. Having this multicultural group preparing the food is an important part of the restaurants’ operation.
In addition to the regular menu, there is a late-night Asian street food menu offered on Fridays and Saturdays during the school semester, and Lucas conceives of and prepares a five-course chef’s table dinner monthly with changing themes. At the Columbia area restaurant, some of the themes last year were a Chinese-Dominican dinner, which explored the similarities and differences between the two cuisines, a dinner that showcased imperial cooking in Jesuit China and was a joint project with the Columbia University art history and religious history departments, and a duck dinner built around the early version of Peking Duck from 14th century China.
Junzi Kitchen, with its distinctive and enticing cooking, and its goals of cultural understanding through food will be a welcome addition to the Village.
170 Bleecker Street at Sullivan Street