Interviewed by Diaspora Co. Editor Natalie Pattillo
Chef Jenny Gao founded Fly By Jing—a Sichuan private kitchen based in Shanghai that hosts global pop ups—to bring the flavors and spirit of Sichuan to the world. In addition to cooking these private dinners for Shanghainese locals and far-flung travelers, Jenny started making her own chili sauce from scratch. She used ingredients like fragrant Sichuan mountain-grown peppercorns, organic cold-pressed rapeseed oil, and fermented black beans that are cooked by the batches. To include an element from southern China, Jenny added crunchy, golden fried shallots. She married regional Chinese food cultures into one sauce, bottled it up, and distributed it to friends and sold it at markets and during her events. From there, folks were hooked.
The popularity of the sauce led Jenny to produce her Sichuan Chili Crisp, which became the first 100 percent all-natural Sichuan chili sauce to hit the market. Jenny, who is incredibly thoughtful and intentional about the quality of her products, has always refused to compromise quality and flavor by resorting to shortcuts. She was met with resistance from factories, and describes the process of producing and launching her products as “harrowing.” Despite the adversities, however, Jenny stayed true to her mission and paved her own production path. Now, her Chili Crisp, Mala Spice Mix, and Zhong Dumpling Sauce are shipped worldwide.
NP: How did moving across the world during your childhood shape the way you think about food and your cultural identity?
JG: I was born in Chengdu but growing up, we moved to a different country with a different language almost every year, and I felt quite displaced from my culture at an early age. I think I began grasping at clues of my identity and heritage when I was old enough to travel on my own. I ended up in China on an exchange semester and quickly became intoxicated by the pace of change, the people who I felt so similar to and yet so different from, and the food which was a universal language and point of connection with my family, many of whom I had never even met. My earliest and most defining food memories were always of family feasts around my grandparent’s dining table, giant crocks of pickles fermenting away in the kitchen, and sausages hanging to dry on the balcony during cold winter months. I associated balanced, sophisticated flavors with Chinese food; it was miles apart from what I found in the West. It was through food that I began to reconnect with my family and roots.
Do you have a favorite memory from the pop up dinners you hosted?
I was invited to cook a large pop up dinner in New Zealand by Wellington On A Plate a couple years ago, a huge food festival they put on every year. It was an exhausting but magical week, we sold out of the dinner within minutes and also made thousands of Zhong Dumplings and Lazi Pop Corn Chicken for the biggest craft beer festival in the country. The best memory from the week was meeting Jonathan Gold and having him taste my mapo tofu. He loved the deep flavors and took several jars of my sauce home. We kept in contact and met up for lunches whenever I was in LA, but he sadly passed away three months before I moved here. I’ll always be grateful for his generous friendship and support.
What spurred your mission to change the notion of what “Made in China” can mean?
Here in the West, we still have a hierarchy of taste, where the perceived value of foods from non-white cultures is somehow lower than their counterparts. Chinese food, despite being one of the most popular cuisines across the US, ranks particularly low on the scale as people simultaneously demand rock bottom prices and protest against poor quality ingredients and artificial preservatives. You just can’t have it both ways.
The early popularity of my sauces prompted me to reflect on my mission to bring Sichuan flavors to the world and to dispel the stereotype of Sichuan food as nothing more than spicy and numbing. I realized that on a broader level, I wanted to change people’s understanding of what Chinese food is, that it can be made with the highest quality ingredients and with zero artificial flavors and preservatives.
What has been the most challenging aspect of launching the line of condiments and snacks? How were you able to overcome that challenge?
The most challenging part of every entrepreneur’s journey is just keeping focused on the mission and moving forward despite every possible setback and road block. For Cleaver Quarterly, I wrote about my encounters with very sketchy Chinese factory bosses and mishaps involving hundreds of kilograms of ‘fire onions’ and summarized some key learnings of what I learned making hot sauce at scale in this Medium article.
I have been told “no” about a hundred times over the last couple of years. Factories refused to work with me because I didn’t fit into their existing processes. I was told my product couldn’t be scaled, that the sauces couldn’t be bottled, that the labels couldn’t be printed. It took over a year just to find a factory with legitimate documents to export to the U.S. instead of just promises to deliver through “underground” channels. The U.S. based fulfillment company I was working with disastrously shipped out thousands of my glass jars without the proper fragile packaging.
Every time I came back to square one, I found that there was another and better way. There is no roadmap to success when you go down a path that hasn’t been tread before. But when the vision is clear — creating and bringing the first all-natural line of authentic and deeply flavorful Chinese condiments to the U.S. market, redefining perceptions of Chinese food in the process, — you just keep trying every door until one leads you a little bit closer.
I’m sure that running a company that ships internationally and being a chef can mean super busy days and long hours. What daily rituals do you integrate to make sure that you don't burn out?
I try to sleep early and keep as regular of a schedule as I can. My ideal waking time is 5am so I feel like I’m getting a bit of a head start on the day. I take down a hot cocktail of Chinese herbs and mushroom extracts every morning to keep me energized and my immune system up and running. Scent is big for me. I like to burn incense, and use a lot of essential oils to keep myself grounded throughout the day. Oh and I’m addicted to Y7 hot yoga. When I moved to LA, I found an apartment within walking distance to their Silver Lake location so that I can go every day.
What excites you most about sharing the flavors of Chengdu worldwide?
I want to open up people’s palates to the amazing flavors of Sichuan cuisine, and show how adaptable they are across cultures. At my pop ups I’m regularly fusing Sichuan flavors with Italian, or Mexican. Mapo ragu pappardelle anyone? Or Sichuan braised pork tacos? Beyond the delicious flavors, I just want everyone to have access to high quality, Chinese food products, and take the mystery out of the ingredients.
What's next for you and Fly By Jing?
Following my successful Kickstarter last summer, I’ve just shipped all 10,000+ preordered bottles and launched my e-commerce website www.flybyjing.com. One of the top comments I’ve gotten from customers is that this sauce is so delicious they’re literally spooning it straight from the jar and are going through their sauces at an alarming rate. So I’ve just introduced subscription orders to make sure you never need to run out or hide your stash from family and friends!
Later this year, I’d like to introduce some new products, a line of ready-to-eat snacks that will also reflect our philosophy of high quality, flavorful foods inspired by ancient Chinese nutritional wisdom. We will hopefully be available on Amazon soon and enter retail later this year as well.
What ingredients are must-have staples in your kitchen? Why?
Soy sauce (light and dark), sesame oil, doubanjiang (fava bean paste), black vinegar, fresh garlic and ginger, Sichuan Chili Crisp (of course), Sichuan pepper, lacto-fermented chili, and Maldon sea salt.
I think these few ingredients are the most versatile in the kitchen and are actually responsible for creating over 30 different flavor profiles in Sichuan’s legendary culinary canon.
Shameless plug, what’s your favorite way to use turmeric?
I love using Diaspora turmeric in my bone broths with some freshly ground ginger, and in my golden MCT lattes.