Just two years ago, few Chinese restaurants with downtown NYC aesthetic existed in East Village. Now, there are more than a dozen — and many of those restaurateurs credit one restaurant as an influence: MáLà Project, from first-time restaurateur Amelie Kang.
Opened in December 2016 in the East Village, MáLà Project is a Sichuan dry pot restaurant with ingredients more commonly found in Chinatown or Flushing, like chicken gizzards and quail eggs. But the aesthetic of the restaurant is all modern East Village. It was a hit, and soon, other ambitious young people followed with their own businesses, saying that Kang was “the first to have a real dining atmosphere” among Chinese food restaurateurs in the neighborhood.
The success has led to a mini-empire: Kang, 26, followed MáLà Project in November 2017 with Tomorrow, a fast-casual joint in the Financial District, where the offerings more closely resemble the dishes she grew up eating in the Chinese cities of Tangshan and Beijing, like stir-fried tomato and scrambled eggs. In February of this year, she opened a second MáLà location in Bryant Park. And by next year, she hopes to open three more Tomorrow locations and another for MáLà.
Through all this growth, a big thing that Kang thinks about is the environment she’s creating. There’s value in leaders being vulnerable, she says. She doesn’t care about acting “tough,” and has no desire to adopt qualities that usually get coded as masculine, like aggression bordering on hostility. “I’ve cried in front of my staff plenty of times.”
Kang, who employs 60 people across the three restaurants, realized that emotional exposure functions as its own kind of strength in the kitchen. She arrived in New York from Beijing in 2010 to attend the Culinary Institute of America. The experience was sobering. “Coming from the CIA, I saw how tough it is,” she says. “Sometimes you have to put on this shield to protect yourself and fight back. You have to be able to yell, yes chef! really loudly.”
It just wasn’t her style, something she realized as she spent the next few years working her way through Bar Boulud as a line cook, a manager at Yiming Wang’s Cafe China and China Blue, and a bartender at TriBeCa’s Japanese speakeasy B-Flat. And when she had the idea to open MáLà in late 2014, she wanted to create an environment that was nurturing.
When she hires people, Kang prizes personality over experience, even if that means training novices from scratch. This risky strategy has had fantastic payoff, keeping turnover low. “My biggest fear is if I treated my staff wrong,” Kang says. “If somebody were to leave, I would never want to see them leave unhappy.”
Despite all this, Kang appears utterly uninterested in building a cult of celebrity. She attributes her success to a lack of ego. Kang hopes her restaurants serve as launchpads for talent. She wants her staff to have their own followings, so Kang doesn’t really care if somebody comes in and doesn’t know who she is, if they know more about the staff than they know about her. Her restaurants aren’t really about her, she says.
“Most of the customers come in and don’t look for me,” she says. “I’m okay with that.”