Where are you from? Where were you born?
I was born in Manhattan and I lived in Chinatown for 3 months. My mom decided to move to Jamaica after that and then Fresh Meadows. I’m from Fresh Meadows, but I would say Flushing is where I grew up. I went to elementary school at P.S. 173 in Fresh Meadows, MS74 [Nathaniel Hawthorne] for junior high school in Bayside, and Cardozo for high school.
What languages do you speak?
I speak to my parents in Cantonese, but other than that English.
Let’s talk about Flushing!
Flushing has been changing so much. A lot of people are coming to Flushing to check out the food and it’s making a lot of noise. It’s good for the economy and that people are recognizing Flushing for its food, which I’ve been saying for years. Flushing has the best food because not only are we feeding tourists, us (the community), but this is where we eat dim sum with our mom and dad.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to New World Mall with a friend and I was like, “Oh, shit, everything is so different now in terms of…there were more white people. And it’s not a bad thing, it was just weird to me because I didn’t expect it. When I sat down at the food court, there were a few non-Asian people in front of me and they made a comment like, “Oh my god, they need to cleans these tables and these trays.”
And I was bothered by it because for us—Queens people, for those kinds of place we don’t expect much, we know we are paying a cheap price for delicious food and we know the community. The cleanliness of say the tables and the floors isn’t something we are bothered about. I just felt like they were coming to my hood and we are already minorities. And I don’t want them to take what is mine, which is my childhood, what I grew up eating, and what I am comfortable with.
Like you can take everything else in the world, but don’t fucking come here and complain about how the old granny lady should clean the trays and dishes and pick up the cups, because you know what, that’s just what it is in Flushing, and they need to respect that and not fuck that up for us! It’s great that people are coming, most importantly immigrants are coming to Flushing and bringing their food and anyone can come to try it. I’m really excited by that because I’m Cantonese and when I was growing up in Flushing it was mostly Cantonese and Taiwanese food, but now it’s more mainland food–hot pot, mala chilies, and Middle-Eastern inspired foods. It’s also great for economics because it’s bringing in money and local businesses can charge a bit more. Chinese people, or Asian people in general, probably do need to be cleaner, but that’s not their first priority. It’s that grandmother, she just wants to make food and bring home that money and that is what it is, you can’t blame them for their way of thinking or how they grew up. It’s a love and hate thing, so there are good and bad things about more people recognizing Flushing.
Well back in our day, Flushing was really different from what it is now, there was Woolworth, Caldor, Coconuts, Nobody beats the Wiz, Dr. Jays. It kind of reminds me of how Jamaica is. How do you feel about the changes and gentrification?
Gentrification is an inevitable thing. But the issue is the people who are gentrifying an area who shouldn’t be the ones to define it. I just don’t want someone from Portland or Austin moving into Bushwick claiming it to be their hood because they have no idea. I don’t think they should define themselves as Bushwick because now they finally moved to New York and that is their hood. Their hood is Portland, so rep your hood and be proud about it. Don’t feel entitled and spend your parent’s money on rent and consider that your hood. I’m proud about my hood, that I’m from Flushing. That I’m from Queens. That’s what I rep and that’s my culture. No matter where I go, first and foremost I’m a New Yorker, I’m Chinese American, and I’m from Queens.
I have always repped Queens, it really defines who I am. Most New Yorkers don’t live in Manhattan. They live in Queens and the outskirts of Brooklyn since it’s gentrifying so quickly. To get the true essence of New York, you go to Queens because who is living there? Colombians, Dominicans, Mexicans, the Asians of New York are living in Jackson Heights, Flushing, 8th avenue, deep into Brooklyn. People living in Manhattan aren’t really from Manhattan and you don’t really even meet those people, that’s some Gossip Girl shit. Those people you don’t even get to touch.
How does Queens contributes to what you do now?
I think Queens contributes a lot to what I do. I grew up eating Chinese food and learning how to cook it from my mom. Food network taught me a lot. But I’ve always stayed true to what I know, which is Chinese food and what I like. And my business defines that because the food I cook is an extension of myself. If I’m going to cook something or promote something, it’s more about people leaving with a taste of who I am. That is most important to me.
What are your childhood memories of growing up in Queens?
I mean what was cool in high school was hanging out in Flushing, standing in front of Burger King, “BK heads”, whoever got that first stop upfront was cool. Going to pool halls like Carom, Mammoth, 4×4, Empire, pretending you were cool because you had nothing else to do. Growing up here, basketball is a very important sport in New York. You grow up playing the sport. It’s readily available, you don’t need to pay for it, you just go to park with sneakers on. You don’t really need money, you could be poor or rich, you didn’t need to go to tennis camp or pay for pads for football. It is a huge part of being from Queens and a backbone of New York. Basketball is my second passion after food. I still play, twice a week, but for fun.
How would you like Queens to be represented?
I would like Queens to be known as the most representative of New York—the most diverse. I think it’s hard because it is an immigrant borough, where our parents came first and weren’t exposed to higher education or social media they just worked really hard to provide for their kids— for the first-generation ABCs to make a mark and have opportunities here. In the next ten or twenty years, I think it’s our job, as children of an immigrant culture to represent Queens and put that up.
I agree, but at the same time don’t you think we contribute to the gentrification of Queens then?
Going back to what we were talking about earlier, it’s good and bad that Flushing is getting popular. I think it’s a pride issue, it’s like, “Don’t fuck with us, it’s our food, it’s our culture, how we grew up—don’t mess around with that,” and at the same time that is what’s putting us on the map. It’s bringing people, who normally wouldn’t come, here [Flushing] to spend money. Look, they changed LIC, now everyone is about it.
What do you think about the statement ‘Queens is the new Brooklyn and Brooklyn is the new Manhattan’?
I like that. I think that it’s true and what is most important is people like ourselves to not forget where we come from. We need people from Queens to rep our hood and not be like, “Oh we made it big now and let’s move to the city!” Our parents as immigrants did what they needed to do and now it should be our duty to take care of the community and give back to what we know. People tend to make money, move to the city, and forget where they are from. And sadly, sometimes it takes people not from Queens who move here to cultivate it, nurture it—give it its notice.
Just like Brooklyn people, that’s what’s so great about Brooklyn, people who aren’t from Brooklyn, it’s like, “Brooklyn sriracha, Brooklyn tea, Brooklyn whatever” it’s the most stupidest thing, but that is what helped make it into a brand and made it cool to be “Brooklyn.”
Okay, to counter your Queens pride, why is Outer Borough based at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn?
It’s in Brooklyn because the most popular food stands is in Williamsburg.
So that says something about Brooklyn…
It’s a brand and it’s a brand that I want Outer Borough to be a part of. Look, I’m not from Brooklyn, and that isn’t what I represent, but when anyone asks me what Outer Borough means, I tell them it means where I’m from.
Then how come you didn’t continue with LIC Flea?
It’s economics, look if Smorgasburg is going to pay my bills then Outer Borough is going to Smorgasburg. If LIC Flea is going to pay my bills then I’ll go to LIC Flea, but I’m not going to go work for Adidas when I can work for Nike, right? (laughs)
You were part of the first ever LIC Flea, how was that?
It was great, I have nothing bad to say about them, they have a great market and good community. They were pretty expensive for the amount of traffic they can bring.
And going back… you worked for Adidas?
Right, but you need to fill your resume. It’s really started from the bottom kind of stuff. I paid my dues and I don’t forget about LIC Flea because they did give me a chance. I knew where I wanted to be, where I wanted Outer Borough to go, it was a business decision and not a representation of who I am. It’s a representation of what the business evolved to. Outer Borough got popular, there was demand and I needed to be where I am today. Like if I sell Brooklyn coffee in San Francisco, am I selling out? No. It’s a business move.
In this day and age of the internet and social media, does it even matter where you come from?
Right now, I feel that everyone is so socially involved and emotionally uninvolved. It is important to find out who you are and where you are from outside of social media. The problem is when people see something online they think, “Oh, that’s nice, I should get it.” Everything is so instant. You don’t have to try. Whatever you want is out there. Kids don’t have to work for anything. When I was in high school, I had to look to others, what the “cool” kid were wearing and then figure out what I like and my own style. Now, all you have to do is just search a hashtag and so many things appear before your eyes.
You can find out about anything and everything that is happening around the world at home. This is really taking away from people’s motor skills and how they use their brain. Kids today stay at home, play video games, look at social media… They don’t have to go outside, go play ball, or holler at girls. Nowadays, all guys have to do is message a girl and say, “Hey cutie,” like what is that? But you cannot deny the power of social media so I think what we should do is define yourself and then use social media to your own style, not the other way around. And use it as a resource and not an end all be all. These kids don’t even need to get out their house!
Does one identify with their birthplace versus where they currently reside as an adult?
I want someone coming from outside Queens or New York to educate themselves about the neighborhood and its people. Know what is happening at the corner deli, who’s selling you cigarettes. Know where he is from and his story.
You know, I meet more out of towners these days and as a New Yorker, I think you can become a New Yorker if you again, educate yourself. It shouldn’t be your mindset to use, say, the title “Williamsburg” to represent who you are. What you know, your friends and family, where you were from–let that represent who you are. See outside of Williamsburg, go to Queens, go to Staten Island be knowledgeable about what you like and don’t like and eventually you gain an attitude and view of your hood and you become a New Yorker too.
Do you think you have more “cred” because you were born and raised here?
Of course, but it’s also because of my travels. I’ve been to Thailand, Mexico, China, Taipei, and San Francisco, and no matter where I go in the world, the one thing I define myself as is a New Yorker first and I bring that with me and I don’t forget it. I have my own New York style, a New York accent, and street smarts. And Queens is the backbone. Queens is like no other, you feel at home, there is no pretense here.
How do you feel about LIC and Astoria? I think when people outside of Queens think about Queens, they think of those two neighborhoods first.
There is a disconnect because we would never go there as kids… I think that’s because the real New Yorkers live deep into Queens, like Elmhurst, Woodhaven, Flushing, and Bayside, the first generation Queens people. A lot of commuters are moving there because that is what they can afford outside of Manhattan, and it’s just a place they live for now. We can be dropped in Flushing and I know where to shop, where my mom’s at, and of course where to eat. It’s home and it can be dirty, but we still like it because it is where we grew up. Flushing feels more nurturing.
Would you call yourself a foodie?
Some people love to eat and don’t know how to cook. There are people who love to post pictures. I wouldn’t call myself a foodie and I’m totally not a chef. I like to cook, but I am not classically trained. I’m home taught and I cook what I like and what my friends like. I take a more fun approach to it. If my friends want a barbecue then I’ll barbecue, if my friends want fried turkey on Thanksgiving, then that is what I am going to do. I mainly make foods that my friends like. It’s so weird, people expect me to have a higher palette, but I actually like the simpler things in life. It doesn’t need to be fancy. Actually, I don’t even remember the last time I ate at a fancy restaurant. I like to eat what I’m comfortable with and what I know. And also flavors that I’m not accustomed to, so like Vietnamese and Korean are my favorites because I didn’t grow up eating that and the flavors are just so delicious and complex compared to Chinese. Chinese food is very simple, it’s sweet or salty. That’s it.
You think Chinese food is not complex? I think it is, especially compared to American cuisine.
American is not complex at all. For example, Viet you have sweet, salty, sour. Umami. You don’t have that with Chinese, you have rice, soy sauce, and a meat. And a bland vegetable with salt. Or you have something fried with salt and pepper. It’s good, but I don’t think that it’s complex. With Korean, it is umami, it’s like fermented salt. Aged fish, layers and layers. Korean’s umami is simple without compromising taste. I guess I mean Cantonese food in particular, that it’s too simple, but still good. Taiwanese food is different in that it’s salty, sweet, and a play on textures. But Viet and Korean get my juices flowing. I like the shock factor of their flavors.
How is Outer Borough doing? I saw you did a Lucky Rice event!
It has been doing well. It’s getting a lot of love on Instagram. Sales have double since last year. I’m always wondering where people are coming from. I think people are talking. People are blogging and posting up pictures. The lines are very long.
Oh, I got that through networking and being in the business. Word of mouth and being in the “foodie” community. The Lucky Rice event was simple because there weren’t too many people and there was a pre set menu. They tell you the amount of people, what to serve, and the budget. Events are always easier. It isn’t like Smorgasburg where you have a rush of people, 200 to 300 orders, and you never know what is going to happen, like these past 4 weeks we had rain. My grill fell and it was all wet and when it stops raining you reopen.
You have the strongest following on Instagram versus all your other social media outlets. Why do you suppose that is?
Because it’s instant! You get the gratification right away. You get a good picture and you share it right away with a hashtag and location. There are so many layers to it, you see the location, it’s Outer Borough, it’s in Williamsburg, and it’s at Smorgasburg just with one picture. I’m very active on Instagram and I am going to continue to be.
With Twitter, I don’t really use it because I don’t know how to. There are so many things to look at, that I just get lost, it’s like unlimited. I think it might work for me personally, but not for my business. Instagram lets me connect with people. Twitter is too hard to follow.
Who do you look up to?
I look up to people who are more successful than me because you can see where you can be one day. I love working at Smorgasburg because I get to see people’s progress. People starting from the bottom to opening up their own storefront. I’m so happy to see them do well. It’s a great community, if you need anything they are there for you.
As a kid, the first person I looked up to was Rachael Ray. When I first got the Food Network channel, she was one of the first shows I watched. I was 16 and I would watch 30-Minute Meals. She made things you could relate to. She was very genuine and you could tell she was excited. That’s why she was one of my first inspirations, but obviously she turned into… It’s business. You get bigger than life and you are bound to you sell out. Do I blame her? No. Do I still like her? No. But do I credit her? Hell yes. Because she is one of the first shows I’ve ever watched.
I also watched a lot of Anthony Bourdain. I really love Andrew Zimmern, he is great for the food community. He is a pioneer with his show Bizarre Foods. It’s a fun show and it’s just genuine, he doesn’t care what he eats or how he looks like, he just did him. Those three I would credit for the very start of me loving food. As I developed, I really love Danny Meyers. The way he thinks, hospitality, and just the way he approaches food and his restaurants. And Eddie Huang, he’s really great for Asian Americans. I can really relate to him. I love his style, I think he doesn’t give a fuck about what people have to say.
Do you like Baohaus?
I worked at Baohaus. I don’t like Baohaus, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like him. I get the hustle, I get the business. I don’t hate the game. Do I like the food? No. Do I love him? Yeah. And I continue to follow him. I really admire him and I think every Asian American should admire him regardless of whether or not you like his food. I think Asians in America are a minority and we should try to be more expressive like him. He is trying to preach just to be yourself—do you and make a mark in this world and not be the stereotypical Asian American that becomes an accountant because they listened to their parents.
Did you read his book “Fresh of the Boat”?
I did read it. It was awesome and I think everyone should read it. I respect him because he is an Asian American man and he is expressing himself and it makes me feel like I can do the same thing. I am sick of Asians in this day and age, they are so typical and predictable. So cookie cutter. I’m tired of Asian men losing this game with women. We are looked down upon as minorities in movies and everyday life. We are getting overwhelmed by white America. We need to make a stance and we need to start defining who we are in today’s society. I think it’s important that I live every day 100 and that I leave a legacy. No matter what culture you are from, I think it’s important for all of us to do that.
So how is it navigating the world as an Asian American man?
I think it’s awesome being Asian American. It gives you flavor, style, and culture. I’m cookie dough or mint chocolate chip. I’m not vanilla. I like being Asian American because it makes me different and I’m happy to represent who I am and what my parents taught me. I want to learn more about my culture and more of the language. I hate Asian Americans who think it’s cool to not speak Chinese. I find it stupid to not learn it and connect with your immigrant culture.
Another thing is, I don’t like it when Asian girls say they don’t date Asian guys. To just X out your own culture is wrong, it’s better to say what you like and don’t like. You could say you do not want these qualities in a man and that’s fine, but removing your own race as a whole is wrong. As a minority, we need to stop playing weak roles and have a voice.
Switching gears, The Shaved Ice Shop, has that been integrated into Outer Borough?
It’s still a part of me. I don’t have a permanent spot and it’s not open, but I still have the equipment and the skills. If someone asks me to do an event, I’ll do it. It’s still there and eventually I want to incorporate it into Outer Borough. It’s closed, but not closed. It’s still alive and I can bust it out. It was my first business. It was never to make money.
The core of that business was that I loved shaved ice. Do you remember that spot, on the corner of Prince Street and Roosevelt? The first shaved ice spot. Way back when. Everyone who went to Flushing knew about it, but it closed down due to health reasons. And I fell in love with it as a kid and I wanted to introduce something that I grew up eating to New York. And I did that, I introduced it to the masses and not just in Flushing and Chinatown. The idea wasn’t to make millions or have a storefront, so that’s fine with me.
What do you care about?
I care about everything I do and I give it 100%. I want people to know when they see me do something—whether it’s cooking, doing an interview, or an event that they instantly know who I am, well at least I hope. Like, I’m not going to cook hamburgers because that is not me. I don’t regret or question anything, whatever I say or if I curse, it is who I am. I can live every day and stand by what I say and what I cook. I didn’t forget who I was as a person. I see myself as the shark in the tank. I can just be me. I’m not the little fish in the tank. I am not going to copy or reinvent someone else’s ideas. That’s not what I’m about, I feel like my method is a way of me leaving my mark behind.
You were on Maker’s Lane, a web series about entrepreneurs in New York City. Do you enjoy doing videos and being in front of the camera?
I always wanted to do videos. It’s something outside of food and another way for me to express myself. My other talent is to give advice—I always wanted to be someone like Dr. Drew. I did another video once, with a DJ… and I gave my opinion on 99 cent pizza (laughs). I think it’s gross and it isn’t like the good pizza we used to eat growing up. It is giving pizza a bad name. A high schooler today will most likely pick that 99 cent pizza and now their childhood is fucked up. It’s sad that when we were growing up we could get good pizza for that price…
How did you “officially” get into the food business?
I graduated college in 2009 and I was 25 years old, so I was later than most people. I transferred a couple times, from Hunter to Pace, and then I ended up at Baruch for business school. I worked at The Loading Dock after school. Around that time I realized I wanted to get into food. So I was inspired to travel and I bought a ticket to Hong Kong, Bangkok and Taiwan. When I came back I worked three jobs. I worked at a soul food restaurant in Fort Greene called “Just Taste It” which is closed now, where I was frying chicken and making collard greens. It was a small business, it was literally 4 people, but they were a new business so I wanted to get a feel of how a business was run. I bartend at MOCA in Forest Hills at night and then I would fry fish tacos at the Brooklyn Flea. Seven days a week.
Did you like working under people?
Hell no! I hate working under people, I took those jobs to learn the business—to get a taste of the hustle. It was only short term to get a feel for it and make connections. I wanted to know if I really wanted to get into the food business. After meeting so many inspiring people, I quit those three jobs and opened up The Shaved Ice Shop for two years. Then I stopped because I was ready for something else. I was tired of introducing something nobody knew and it was seasonal.
After that I decided to work at Vista Sky Lounge and Catering. We did a lot of weddings and events. I found it fun because of the events and working with food. At times it was overwhelming because it was just me managing the sales and the rest of the staff. But I handled it and I made a lot of money for the company, but I knew in my heart I could do something else. So I decided to quit.
I went to LA to get some inspiration. The food in New York is great, but I wanted to experience the food scene in LA. When I got there, I saw how “big” beef rolls were there. In the LA Times. It was as big as boba. It is just a different kind of culture, there is a lot of Asians. It is different in New York because there are so many things that are popular, it’s like who cares? I came back to develop things and just eating stuff to figure out what’s next for me. I worked at Baohaus and did some investigating. In my opinion, it’s important to work next to successful people and places to figure how they run things. After working there for three months, I applied to LIC Flea and I got it. I did it for 4 months. And then I got an interview for Smorgasburg.
They asked me where I thought I would be in a few years. I remember telling them I didn’t know because what matters to me right now is to be sitting in this room. How that meant everything to me. For them to taste my food, say it’s good, and listen to my story. They responded saying to not sell myself short and I just told them I was telling the truth. And they loved me. A day later the CEO contacted me and told me he wanted me there.
Describe a typical Outer Borough week.
Prepping starts on Monday, I check my inventory to see what I need to buy. I make a list. I start at the beginning of the week because I don’t like working on Fridays. I usually sell out every weekend, unless it rains. I need stuff like oil, scallion and cucumbers. Basic things. On Tuesday, I go shopping for everything in Flushing and Jetro, it’s a restaurant supply store. I cook the meat on Tuesday. I need to cook it and cool it. Its a two-day process. So I buy, cook and cool the meat. I’ll also clean the vegetables. On Wednesday I will cut the meat and veggies and make lemonade. On Thursday, I just finish up anything I missed the rest of the week.
People think I only work two days (laughs). It is important to me that the work doesn’t run my life. I like to party and be social but I also like to work—I’m never not working. I don’t want to own a restaurant because I do not want it to run my life. If people think I only work two days that’s cool because I like to have fun and sleep. Those two days at Smorgasburg are very intense.
It is tiring and sometimes I don’t get to use the bathroom. And I can’t eat. I have to stand for 7 hours because when you see an order come in you can’t drop it. You have to finish it immediately because there will be more.
And finally, one of your statuses was “My milk tea brings all the girls to the yard.” What did you mean?
Hell yeah, my milk tea brings all the girls to the yard. I wrote that because I met somebody after they tried my milk tea. I would have never met her, but because of my delicious milk tea I did. When I write things it is personal, it is me. Most of the time what I say is R-rated, I am not gonna be “cookie cutter” and filter myself just because I “should” say it differently.