Lucas Sin ’15 is the chef and co-owner of Junzi Kitchen, a Northern Chinese fast food restaurant set to open at 21 Broadway at the end of September. A Hong Kong native, Sin has always had food at the forefront of his life, and has been running various kitchens and pop-up restaurants since the age of 16. At Yale, he cofounded YPOPUP, an experimental buttery-kitchen project. WKND sat down to talk about passions, from ginger to mental time travel, and to chart the future of a food journey years in the making.
Q: What is the concept of Junzi Kitchen?
A: Junzi Kitchen is a Northern Chinese
fast food restaurant. We make chun bings (flatbread wraps) and noodles. The founders of Junzi all went to graduate school at Yale, and we all realized that we really wanted to eat this specific fast food. We decided to act on the idea we were throwing around, and
applied for YEI (Yale Entrepreneurial Institute) backing. We got a fellowship, and we found a space. Our hours will be 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Because of the way I like to run things and because of my cuisine, the restaurant ends up being an open platform for a lot of collaborations and trials, and what that means is that we run a late-night menu on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, like the butteries here at Yale and like Chinese late-night street food.
Q: When did your journey with food begin?
A: I’m from Hong Kong, and when I was 16, I opened a restaurant in an abandoned factory building, taught a couple of my friends how to cook, put together a 13-course meal, and plated Hong Kong-style food. And then once the restaurant got going, I realized I
had to take myself a little more seriously. Every break I got, I was working in kitchens and learning and opening up pop-ups.
Q: Was food important in your family growing up?
A: Yeah, definitely. My grandmother was a cook back in the day — not a very good cook or anything. Not a supercrazy celebrity chef — but she made food. My whole family eats a lot of food as well; Hong Kong is one of those food cities, so everyone takes it very seriously.
Q: You graduated with a degree in Cognitive Science. How does this approach translate into the restaurant
A: Because the Yale education is holistic, everything applies. Personally, I studied a lot of narrative, English, and philosophy. One example is that food is very much the basis of story and a lot of food can be used as a storytelling tool. In that sense, some of the narrative theory applies and informs you in a certain way. Reading aesthetics and the way art should be as a public language means that I need to plate my food in a certain way; that level can be very intensely intellectual. But on top of that, I ran the undergraduate organization called Yale Pop-Up, opening one restaurant per semester at least. I was doing a lot of food-related things here and used to edit the food magazine, Yale Epicurean.
Q: What is the first dish you ever cooked?
A: My first signature dish was clay pot rice: you braise pork belly for a couple of hours and combine it with rice cooked in a Cantonese clay pot. Inevitably, pork bellies became a signature dish of almost every restaurant I opened. Either that or fried chicken. These are the things that get people going.
Q: What ingredient do you love or hate the most?
A: I like ginger a lot; it’s a versatile spice that’s representative of where I’m from. There’s not much I don’t like.
Q: What’s your favorite dish that you cook?
A: I really like making fried chicken [laughs]. I like serving fried chicken over rice, sort of like a Thai/Taiwanese/Korean hybrid…make a couple of sauces…serve that over the chicken…
Q: Is there a particular demographic that Junzi Kitchen will cater to?
A: Obviously, we’re embedded in the Yale community, and we’re cooking for a lot of students and people in the
Yale community. But at the end of the day, the reason we’re in New Haven is that in our team, everyone either went to Yale or is from here. It’s the community that we know the best. It’s the community that we believe in the most. We’ve been here forever. So it’s not just Yale students, obviously. We’re cooking a lot for the people of New Haven as well, not to mention that the type of food we’re making is a type of Northern Chinese food we don’t have access to in America as of yet – in that sense it’s exciting. For whoever comes by, it will be a fresh taste, a different concept, and a different kind of Chinese food.
Q: Take me through the process of starting a restaurant from scratch — what are some of the most gratifying and
A: I want to say that a lot of the reason I cook is that I cook for the people. When you start to serve people and they seem
like they’re enjoying your food, there isn’t very much else that is more gratifying than that. Junzi started as a startup, so we were in the YEI incubator, which meant that there was a lot of mentorship and guidance for how to set everything up and to put a product out there that people will enjoy. So in that sense it’s sort of a weird startup. My experience with pop-up is a little different: if you need bowls you buy bowls online; if you need to hire people you hire them; if you need cooks you train them. It’s sort of like I need to do
this, this, this and this to make it happen. The mindset is very, very different. The other thing with pop-ups is that you know that there is a sense that the restaurant is going to be temporary, you’re not building something which is meant to last. Junzi isn’t like that.
Q: What’s your favorite city to eat in?
A: Hong Kong.
Q: What goes into perfecting a recipe?
A: Making it a lot of times, physically; refining your technique; testing it out on people… A lot of hard-work and
repetition gets it to where it should be.
Q: According to LinkedIn, your senior thesis title was “Mental Time Travel as a Function of a Narrative Model of Mind.” Expand on that.
A: In short — there’s this thing humans can do called mental time travel. Mental time travel is the ability to project yourself forward or backward in time subjectively. One way to describe it is episodic memory. So, yesterday I ate a sandwich and felt like this; tomorrow
I’m going to eat a sandwich and then I’m going to simulate it in my mind and it’ll be like this. So there’s this crazy thing that humans seem to be able to do that babies and animals don’t seem to be able to do. The problem with this is that there’s no easy way to explain it, so basically what I did is I began to set up a framework to think about mental time travel in terms of language and narrative. It’s kind of complicated. So I’m really interested in narrative – and that’s what a lot of food-making is about as well.
Q: What does ‘Junzi’ mean?
A: Junzi is a pre-Confucian philosophical term in Chinese that denotes an individual who is honorable, well balanced and a community leader. He’s an unidentified but holistic, idealistic individual who represents the way society and people should behave.
Q: How has Chinese cuisine in America evolved? What do you envision its future to be?
A: Prior to opening the restaurant, everyone in the team did a lot of research to see what Chinese food was and what market we were going into. There are multiple narratives to drive us to the point of where today’s Chinese food is. But, basically, in my mind Chinese food is either contained in Chinatowns or scattered all over America. All the Chinese restaurants’ cuisines come from an unspoken, uncentralized cuisine, like General Tso’s chicken… fried chicken with sauce, basically. Or, more importantly, Chinese food, like all food, travels with the people. That’s why it’s in Chinatowns. The bigger the Chinatown, the more diverse and interesting and colorful the Chinese food is. We’re opening a restaurant in a place that doesn’t have a Chinatown… a place that has a strong Chinese demographic, but is not traditionally where you would introduce a new type of Chinese food. A big question we get a lot is “Why aren’t you in New York?” or “Why aren’t you in Chinatown?” Well, again, it’s because we believe in doing things locally. These are our ethics and this is the way you should do business.
Q: What’s your favorite restaurant in New Haven right now?
A: There are a couple that I love. I love Shake Shack. I like the way Shake Shack runs their business, generally speaking. I love Ivy Wok for sentimental reasons because I used to live above it and I used to go all the time. Those places are amazing. Oh, and Zoi’s on
Orange has the best sandwiches ever, more or less.
Q: Who’s your favorite celebrity chef?
A: Every summer I was at Yale I went to Japan and trained in Japan, so I really like Japanese chefs. Actually, Roy Choi in LA, he’s doing awesome things and important things. He’s trying to revolutionize fast food culture. He’s making burgers and they’re going to be
super awesome. I really like Roy Choi.
Q: Can you talk about the food culture at Yale?
A: It’s the best – there’s the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which is a national leader in the college sphere of what it means to grow ethically and sustainably. Pop-up is crazy. YPOPUP, which Kay Teo ’16 and I founded, is, as far as I know, the only college-based
restaurant incubator. It’s crazy that we run multiple fully-functional restaurants on campus every semester. Yeah, they’re only open once a week, but it’s kind of insane. Yale food culture is really cool. These projects harvest a love for food and make it something that is actionable and active. And at the end of the day, it’s not just because it’s Yale. It’s because almost everyone loves food, and almost everyone can connect with food.”