Jan 22, 2021 • 35M

A Conversation with Jing Gao

Listen now | Talking ingredients with the founder of Fly by Jing.

Alicia Kennedy
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Jing Gao is now food-world-famous for her eponymous line of strikingly labeled Sichuan ingredients, Fly by Jing (the stuff is good). But before she launched what has become a super-successful purveyor of Sichuan chili sauce, mala spice mix, Zhong sauce, doubanjiang, preserved black beans, and more, she ran a fast-casual restaurant in Shanghai called Baoism.

This switch was brought upon by her love for ingredients—for sourcing them well, for putting them together well—and regional Chinese cuisines. We talked about all this, as well as why her product is more expensive than the commonly found Lao Gan Ma. Listen above, or read below.

Alicia: Hi, Jing. Thanks so much for coming on.

Jing: Thank you for having me.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Jing: Yes. So I was born in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province and food capital of China. But my father was a nuclear physicist and a professor. So we moved around with his job a lot. So I ended up growing up all over the world, really. Germany, England, Austria, France, Italy, and then Canada. So I would consider myself Canadian. I lived there for probably the longest out of anywhere else. And, yeah, so it was kind of an interesting upbringing, you know, being put into a new country with a new culture and a new language pretty much every year and needing to code switch. So I ate, I would say, you know, it was definitely a mix of different things, but a lot of home cooking. So the through line was definitely, you know, kind of, yeah, I would say like homestyle Sichuan food that my mom would make at home, and we didn't really eat out that much. So it was, yeah, it was definitely my first love, which is what brought me back to China.

Alicia: I've read that you were working in brand management in business development, what made you move toward food, and especially toward opening that fast-casual restaurant Baoism, in Shanghai?

Jing: Yeah, so I found myself in Beijing, in college on an exchange semester. And that was around 2008, so right around the time of the Olympics. And I just fell in love with the energy of the city. I didn't know what to expect when I went there, because I was so young when I left China. But I was just astounded by the modernity of it all, the energy, how dynamic the city was — just kind of the juxtaposition of the ancient, the ancient city, you know, buildings that have been around for 800, 900 years, you know, against the backdrop of skyscrapers. 

And I realized, when I was there, just how disconnected I'd become from my heritage, and from, in many ways from myself. And so I started to dig in deeper into the culture. And what I found the most fascinating was the food culture. 

Beijing is interesting, because it's the capital of China. So you have the regional government offices of all of the provinces in Beijing, and each of the offices would have their own restaurants, and they would fly in chefs from those provinces. And, you know, what people don't realize is how vastly different the regional cuisines are in China, and so it is actually really hard, even in Beijing, to find, you know, food that was super true to those regions. 

And so those government restaurants, government office restaurants, were where I started to learn about the regional differences. And I ended up helping a friend out with her food tour company in Beijing and learning even more about the history of the regional cuisines that way, and it just dawned on me how little we knew in the West about Chinese food and culture and its people and how much misinformation there was about it. And, you know, so I started writing about it at first on my blog and for different publications, which led to taking celebrity chefs around when they would come to China and doing some television work. And all of it really was with the goal to shine more light on the cuisine, and, you know, show how complex and diverse it is.

At the time, I was working in tech, which is what allowed me to be in Asia. And I eventually realized that I wanted to — I always knew I wanted to start my own business. When the food writing kind of took off, I realized I wanted to create something more tangible. And so that took the form of a restaurant. I was inspired by Sweetgreen and Chipotle’s models in North America, and I didn't really see an equivalent of that in Shanghai at the time. And so, yeah, my restaurant was using that model and able to provide food at an accessible kind of price point, but also featuring, you know, a modern kind of expression of  different regional cuisines in China.

Alicia: How did you move from that to launching Fly by Jing?

Jing: As I'm sure, you know, from talking to restaurateurs and people in food, running a restaurant is no joke. It's an operational challenge. And I realized through that process, as much as we were successful doing what we did, we had international and local acclaim and won awards. It was widely celebrated. But I realized I didn't want to operate restaurants. 

The next step would have been to grow it as a chain, and what I realized I loved about the experience was the brand creation, the product creation, the storytelling. And I wanted to reach even more people by doing that. So I actually sold the restaurant to my business partner at the time, and in seeking kind of what my personal expression is within Chinese food, I went to my hometown, Chengdu, and I spent some time there, studying with probably one of the greatest living Sichuan chefs, Yu Bo. 

I just absorbed everything that he had to offer, and he was very kind to take me under his wings and read all of these century-year-old cookbooks in his library. Ate so much street food. And it was the food I remember growing up with as a child, these places called fly restaurants. And it's a very unique part of Chinese food culture. Fly restaurants are so named, because they are usually hole-in-the-walls, kind of rundown, dirty, but they are considered so delicious, like the flavor trumps everything. And so it's so delicious that it draws people like flies. They’re my earliest food memories, eating with my family in Chengdu, and so I just had such a love for them. And they're such an equalizer, as well—you have people of all different backgrounds, you see Ferraris parked next to bicycles. Everybody's literally just there, in that communion of those delicious flavors for that one moment in time. And it's something that really deeply inspired me.

What I also saw was that a lot of these fly restaurants, you know, there's the old-school ones that are run by elderly mom-and-pop teams, but then there's also the new-school fly restaurants that I saw popping up. And with young people really just kind of innovating and pushing the boundaries of what Sichuan food and even homestyle street food could be. And so I was very inspired by that. 

I knew that because of the way that I grew up, and my unique set of experiences, I needed to figure out what my own expression was. And so it was through experimentation and kind of synthesizing my experience having traveled and eaten all over the world and, I wouldn't say bridging west to east, but definitely taking all of my personal experiences and putting it into my dishes, I started to cook something that I think was uniquely my own, and went back to Shanghai and started this underground supper club that I named Fly by Jing, and took that on the road, traveled to cities all over like from New Zealand, Australia, you know, the U.S., Europe, and did pop-ups.

At the time, I didn't know that I was going to start a condiments company; at the time, I was just cooking and carrying my suitcases of ingredients around with me, because I realized that the flavors taste as they do in Sichuan because of the very specific ingredients, and I had spent years by that point sourcing those ingredients, and I knew that they were super rare even within China. 

I mean, China is such a massive country. The highest quality ingredients are immediately snatched up whenever they're available. And so, of course, there wasn't going to be any available in the places I was going. And cooking for hundreds and thousands of people, I saw this immediate feedback on their faces, and when they tasted the food, I knew that, okay, these flavors are universal, and people love them; they just have no access to them and have never even heard of some of these ingredients. Kind of a light bulb went off, and I realized I wanted to make these flavors more accessible to everyone and that I could do that maybe through the sauces.

Alicia: You mentioned you're not changing the flavors for different audiences, but you are bringing these flavors to an audience that maybe didn't grow up with them. And because you had this experience with Baoism, serving these regional cuisines within China, what did you change, if anything, for Fly by Jing to make it so kind of globally appealing?

Jing: So I think with Baoism, as well as with Fly by Jing, I was looking for a modern expression of those flavors that are traditional. So at Baoism, we combined different flavor profiles from different regions, and we made a red braised pork dish that is a very kind of characteristic of Eastern Chinese regions like Shanghai, but we served it almost like carnitas-style. So a pulled pork version of the hong shao rou, which is usually served in chunks of pork belly. And we also served that with pickled cucumbers, and cilantro, and peanuts that were more evocative of the Taiwanese region, and the gua bao, the steamed bun itself, is rooted in Taiwan. 

We also had a Cantonese style, like black pepper—usually that's like black pepper beef, but we paired it with crispy tofu. And so it was always kind of like, a bit more whimsical and a bit more unexpected. 

I was always interested in kind of, like, defying or giving the diner something that they didn't expect, or, you know, that they expected one thing, but having something completely different show up on their palate. 

I approached that with Fly by Jing, as well. Some of the ingredients in the sauces that we make have literally never been put together before, and I know this because of just the difficulty in sourcing and in combining those ingredients, there's a lot of challenges along the way.

The way that, again, it's like—I realized that I can only, for me, I can only cook what I know, and what I know, is a kind of amalgamation of where I've been, what I've found, and what techniques I've learned. That's how I approach it, and I think my background, the products, they're rooted in tradition. And to me, that means really understanding the cultural significance, the way it's evolved over time, the provenance of the ingredients, and then made for the way that we eat today. Super versatile, something that has no rules bound to it, that you can add to your existing kind of lifestyle.

Alicia: The Fly by Jing tagline is “not traditional, but personal,” and have people kind of pushed back because I know that there's been so much demand for this idea of authenticity, especially around cuisines like Chinese cuisine. What is the response to that? And also, is that tagline kind of a push against that already?

Jing: Yeah, you're right. It is a push against that. 

We launched a couple of years ago. So I actually moved to L.A. about exactly two years ago to launch Fly by Jing here. And, you know, we came up with this rebrand just a couple of months ago, and we started working on the rebrand about a year ago. And at that point, you know, we'd already been in market and I definitely started noticing a lot of people trying to put us in a box—in a neat little box that will allow them to understand what we are, because we were the first modern Chinese chili sauce company to launch in the U.S. At the time, in 2018, Lao Gan Ma had been around, but definitely had not reached kind of the mainstream cult status as it has now. 

I found a lot of people were, you know, because our first product was a chili sauce—and we have many products that we've launched since then—but because our first product was chili sauce, a lot of people would say, ‘Oh, is this just a gentrified version of Lao Gan Ma.’ Or, you know, you know, ‘I've been to China once so I know what chili sauce is,’ like, ‘is this gonna meet my expectations’ kind of thing, or, you know, ‘I have a Chinese girlfriend, so I know what this is all about.’ 

A lot of it was coming from people who are not Chinese, and trying to kind of make it fit in their minds. Even some Chinese people or Asian people would have kind of, I realized, this very ingrained view in their own minds of what Chinese food should represent. And I felt like it was often prescribed on us.

Growing up, my parents would tell me, or, growing up, we were always very cost conscious. And Chinese food—you know, this is a very common thing with immigrant families— the more authentic it is, the cheaper it is, the more authentic it is. And so, there's definitely a lot of connotations, I guess, around the cuisine and what it represents to so many people and so, I wanted to move us away from that, because to me, this product is such a personal expression to me that I knew the ingredients had never been put together before, these ingredients have never been exported before. And so this tastes different to even people in my hometown in Sichuan. 

My family tasted it and they're like, ‘Oh, this is different. This is interesting.’ Because everybody in China has their own chili sauces and homemade condiments, and everyone's is so vastly different. Some have meat inside, like beef, and some have dried seafood, some have black beans, fermented fava beans—everyone has such a different way of making these sauces that most people in China just eat their homemade stuff; they don't even buy stuff from the stores. 

So I wanted to show that we're not just a monolith. Asian food, and just even Chinese food, and even breaking it down even further, Sichuan food. It's not something you can neatly fit into a box that makes it easier for you to comprehend. There's so much complexity; there's so much depth; and every version of it deserves its own space to be, and so that was the impetus behind the rebrand and and calling it a very personal product. And since we did the rebrand nobody has—well, you know, people who don't know about our brand and just kind of see it on a surface level will still try to place their judgments on it, but for the people who have seen our rebrand, our customers and people who are interested in digging deeper into these things, their response has largely been very, very positive. And people really get it.

Alicia: I saw you on Instagram, I think this weekend, kind of responding to people with the idea that you've gentrified chili crisp or something. And I had already written this question because I know that people especially—it's a woman-run brand, it has really cool branding, there are people who are going to say that t's too expensive and that sort of thing. How have you responded to this publicly? What is your go-to response when people say that the brand is more about this kind of millennial aesthetic, rather than motivated by flavor or important sourcing and that sort of thing?

Jing: Mm hmm.

The people that make those comments, they don't really say it's for the aesthetic at the expense of these other things, because I don't think they dig deep enough to know about those other things. But usually it's like an ad or something like that. You know, they're just seeing it for the first time. And I think the assumption is always that, again, I think there's such a perception of—their perception of whether this is just an expensive chili sauce is very much colored by people's views on the value of ethnic food, right? 

Broadly, and in this case, Chinese food, and Chinese food history in this country has been one that has been forced to be very cheap, because of expectations, and evolved this way because of many different factors, one of which is the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1800s. The immigrants that came here had no choice but to produce Chinese food and change it up based on the available ingredients, and based on expectations of its value. And so, for a very long time, Chinese food is seen to be extremely cheap and affordable. But as a result, it's become extremely popular and proliferated. There's 50,000, Chinese restaurants in this country alone. So it's arguably one of the most popular cuisines here. And so everybody has some interaction or some kind of connection to it. And so people feel that very personally, and have very, you know, strong feelings about what it represents in their mind. There's definitely a lot of pushback on the price. But that pushback I find is, oftentimes has not been very thoughtful. Because if you think really about it, what does a price of a product—what are the components of that, it's the people behind it, making a living wage; it is ethical sourcing; it is transparent sourcing. If it's a product that tastes incredible, any chef or anybody who's cooked knows that what you put into your dish is everything, right? The same dish made with different grades of ingredients will produce completely different things. I think there's not enough thought put to that.

Our response usually is just explaining that this tastes different from everything else, because this is made differently from everything else. People also forget about economies of scale. They want to compare—because when you see an ad on Instagram, you kind of tend to think that you equate all of these companies the same. So it's like a small, tiny company, you're seeing the same ad on the same platform as a giant monolith, or giant company. They often think that we're maybe at the same scale of something like Lao Gan Ma—it is a billion dollar company, and we're completely bootstrapped. I was the only employee up until August of this year of this business. Actually, I wasn't even on payroll. It's comparing apples to something completely different.

We do explain it without judgment. We're like, Look, we can't compete against the economies of scale of something like Lao Gan Ma, but we can be proud of the quality of our ingredients, the intentionality behind it, the the craft behind it, and we're a very small team and female minority run. Usually, the response is excellent. We've seen a lot of white men apologize to us on Instagram. We also recognize you can't win every battle and so we don't need to sweat about it. We sometimes will have some fun with the trolls and troll them right back. 

Alicia: I read that your business kind of boomed during the pandemic, which I think has happened, you know, for a few kind of artisanal brands in food doing stuff that will make people's home cooking more interesting. You mentioned that you just hired people—how has that been, to kind of grow so quickly? And under these kinds of conditions? How have you adapted to that?

Jing: Yeah, so, this year has really been unimaginable in so many ways. It's been a crazy year for me personally and professionally, as it has been for so many of us. 

I think, at the beginning of the year, we were still just kind of growing at a steady pace; we were probably 20 to 30%, month over month. It was completely bootstrapped. I didn't have venture capital funding; I didn't have 1000s and 1000s of dollars to pump into advertising. So it was growing largely organically, through word of mouth and through media mentions, but in March, when there's so much uncertainty brewing, and my factories on the ground were also shut down since the beginning of the year, because of COVID on the ground in China, there was alot of uncertainty, and it was quite scary, especially as more and more kind of blatantly racist comments were popping up on our socials. We had no idea whether this business would make it. 

But then in April, we had a really glowing review about us and feature about the product in the New York Times by Sam Sifton, and that coincided, obviously, with the lockdown, and we saw sales spike immediately. And with the New York Times article, we actually sold out of three months’ worth of inventory overnight. It's obviously—it was great, but it was also highly distressing, because the factories were not up and running yet. And so I had to overcome a lot to get that up and running again. And it's just seemed like at every corner, there was a new challenge, a new issue that was sending us back, and we started taking preorders, which was a godsend, because we probably wouldn't have been able to survive without it. We eventually had about 30,000 people on a preorder list. Because we were also being very communicative and transparent with our customers, as to all of the delays and the reasons and we were also donating about 10 percent of our sales at that time to organizations feeding the frontline. And, and also, in June, two organizations that were doing essential work in Black communities, I think a lot of our customers were very happy to support, to wait for their product, if it meant that their money was going to support these causes. 

There were obviously also some people that were just extremely adamant that they needed their chili sauce immediately in a pandemic. Luckily it was very, very few. But yeah, I mean everything from, you know, setting up a whole new supply chain in the U.S. because the Chinese bottlers were unable to do it. And to you know, custom delays of up to a month, to the sauces literally breaking the machines when we got to the co-packer so we had to bottle 30,000 jars by hand. All of these things just—it was endless issues. 

But when we finally got our stock back, which was about July, the feedback from customers was incredible. You could see that as soon as they received it, they would come back on the site and buy four more jars o give to their friends. I think this year has been really a landmark year for us. And I was able to hire four people. We're actually doing a little kind of 2021 strategic planning session right now, and I'm so excited about all of the different directions that we're going, and all of the opportunities that we have ahead of us. We started as C-to-C. And out of necessity, because it is just the most efficient way for someone without capital to get started. But now we are looking at entering retail this year, and, and some new products coming down the horizon. So I'm very excited about that.

Alicia: That sounds amazing. And so for you, is cooking a political act?

Jing: I think so. It's the reason why I got started with this, I felt like. There were so many factors that I couldn't control that were coloring the way that people looked at Chinese food and looked at me as a result, and I hated categorization more than anything, putting people in boxes that make it easier for you to comprehend, but that grossly misunderstands or underestimates them. 

With Chinese food, it's always been kind of at the lowest rungs of what's known as the hierarchy of taste. And that's the value that we prescribe to different cuisines that really is colored by the value we prescribe on their people and the immigrants from those countries. So there's no, there's no doubt, in China, the Chinese food has value, but I found that in the West—countries like the U.S., which ends up influencing global culture as a whole through the power of the U.S. media—I felt like there was something I could do here,  which is why I chose to base Fly by Jing in Los Angeles, and in the U.S., I wanted to tackle the problem at the source. I think through the work of newer companies like mine and some of the new-school restaurants, even, that have opened in New York and L.A., run by young people who are really pushing the conversation forward about what Chinese food is and what it could become, we are working to make it be more seen.

The byproduct of that, and I think, with my rebrand, I was telling a very personal story that was around seeking belonging and coming home to self, and I found that our goal is really now becoming creating space for all of these different stories to exist, because they deserve to be told, and it felt highly vulnerable for me to share my story. But the amount of feedback that we got, and then the people that really connected to that, from all walks of life, really showed me that this is a universal thing. And so through what we're doing in something as little as a Sichuan chili oil, hopefully we can create space for everyone to tell their stories.

Alicia: Thank you so much, Jing, for taking the time out to chat.

Jing: Thank you so much for having me.