NEW YORK - Before Yong Zhao could co-found the fast-casual northern-Chinese restaurant chain that he sees as the model for the future rebranding, redesign, automation and modernization of Chinese-delivery eateries in this country, he needed to find a chef.
"We started craving something more familiar, the taste, from family, from home, from China," Yong said.
Lucas Sin was a 21-year-old cognitive science major at Yale (where Yong studied environmental science) in 2014 and had gained a reputation at school for his cooking after working in restaurant kitchens In New York, Seattle, and Japan.
"It took going all the way to Japan to realize there's something special about the food that's in your blood, Lucas said.
Lucas and Yong co-founded the first Junzi Kitchen on Yale's campus in 2015. They opened another near Columbia and another near NYU before opening a Bryant Park location in May.
"It's about time that we add more color to what people understand to be the palette of Chinese cuisine," Lucas said. "Our base grain isn't rice. Our base grain is wheat."
While the majority of Chinese-American food draws from a version of southern Chinese cuisine imported to this country 30-plus years ago, Junzi Kitchen offers more northern, modern flavors while also rebranding how we think of Chinese takeout.
"The majority of Chinese restaurant owners came in the 1990s when China was very poor," Yong said.
Many of the children of that generation gained educations in this country, allowing them to pursue careers in other industries. That left many of this nation's single-family-run Chinese restaurants without an heir.
Yong's research found that 10% of the more than 28,000 Chinese takeout restaurants in this country closed in the last year.
"The whole industry doesn't work anymore, basically," Yong said.
Yong and Lucas see their scalable, simple, healthy, and affordable fast-casual Chinese food as a solution. Junzi has raised $5 million to buy other Chinese restaurants in the city from retiring owners and plans to modernize them while retaining parts of their original menus.
"A big vision of changing Chinese food outside of China," Yong said.
Lucas added: "I believe in the diversity of Chinese food."
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