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How This San Francisco Chef Used Comfort Food to Comfort His Community During the Pandemic

A photo of Chef Kevin Lieu; a photo of the exterior of Gai restaurant
Courtesy of GAI
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Kevin Lieu needed a change. After a decade of working in the world of tech and security, he was looking for a renewed sense of purpose — something not yet defined. His mind always returned to his parents’ restaurant, where he spent much of his childhood, and the sense of comfort he felt while sitting on his mother’s lap as she took orders, or helping his father cook noodles. That feeling led him to open GAI (pronounced “guy”), a fast-casual restaurant in the Castro district of San Francisco, with a simple mission: Share his favorite comfort food, chicken rice, with the neighborhood.

That mission now guides just about every business decision Lieu makes, something that’s served him well since March when the pandemic completely threw out his playbook. As GAI adjusted to its new delivery-only reality in the spring, Lieu wanted to find a way to help others. For that, he looked no further than his restaurant’s DNA, and he decided to send overworked nurses and frontline workers comfort in the form of GAI’s most beloved dish.

The gesture was inspired by Lieu’s younger sister, a nurse at a hospital in Virginia, who was telling him how stressful conditions were. “Masks weren’t readily available, and guidelines were constantly changing,” Lieu says. “They didn’t know what was needed because hospitals had to ramp up so quickly as news was coming out. I could hear her stress at work but wasn’t able to be there to comfort her, so this was my way of encouraging her and showing support.”

An image of nurses in the San Francisco area receiving bagged lunches from Gai restaurant, during National Nurses Week in May 2020.
Courtesy of GAI

Working With Feed the Line to Donate Food

To organize his food donations, Lieu worked with Feed the Line back in April. He reached out to GAI’s community via its Instagram account, email list, and website. “We would just say ‘Hey, we’re participating in Feed the Line,’” he says. “‘If you’d like to help out, you can donate a meal: For every meal you purchase, we’ll make two and send them to the hospital.’”

Logistics and organization were a challenge for a business already in survival mode, and it required the help of all his team members, at all hours. “We made the meals earlier, and the staff was always willing to help out,” says Lieu. “I would personally drive the meals to the hospital and deliver them.” All that work paid off, though, and GAI donated over 500 meals to San Francisco hospitals.

Although seeing the nurses’ reactions while delivering food was enough for Lieu, he received an unexpected thank-you a month after their donation during National Nurses Week. A woman came into GAI, ordered food, and left an envelope with the cashier. Tucked inside the envelope was a card from an ICU nurse who worked with COVID-19 patients, thanking the restaurant for offering comfort during the toughest of times. It now hangs on GAI’s wall.

“She talked about having the strength to tend to patients while working long hours and being anxious about what was going to happen next. And she wrote, ‘There is a power in your food that is healing,’” says Lieu. “It really just brought tears to my eyes, knowing the comfort food we stand for is serving its purpose.”

An image of workers at Gai restaurant in San Francisco. The workers are standing in a line, wearing matching black t-shirts.
Courtesy of GAI

Reimagining Restaurants for a Pandemic

While GAI’s commitment to serve comfort food is non-negotiable, the way it delivers that food will forever evolve. During the pandemic, Lieu has doubled down on what people want more of: delivery and pickup. It’s why he’s laser-focused on finding ways to optimize the to-go experience, something he’s betting will remain important post-pandemic, as people become accustomed to faster, easier, and more accessible dining through apps like Facebook and Instagram, which help restaurant goers find and order from local spots.

For GAI, this has meant streamlining processes and investing in new technology, like the app Ordermark. It centralizes orders from several delivery apps and sends them directly to the kitchen. “Now, it eliminates the need for a cashier, however we didn’t let that team member go,” says Lieu. “We redirected their role to focus on creating a contactless pickup and delivery experience, running orders for curbside pickup, increasing sanitation efforts, and even opening doors so people don’t have to touch anything.”

GAI’s website is now able to take orders for delivery and pickup, and Lieu counts it among the best ways the community can support GAI along with regular customers subscribing to its newly launched meal pass, a subscription-based service that guarantees 10 meals a month. He would also love to see more people at GAI again: “Come out and support. You can buy a drink, you can take food to the park, or you can sit at our newly opened outdoor seating.”

Lieu says the theme of improved access ties into a larger trend playing out in Silicon Valley. Things are just getting easier and more readily available, and restaurants are not immune to the pressure to keep up. Just like people now expect ordered packages to be delivered almost instantly and rides to arrive at their door with a push of a button, Lieu noted, the same things are expected for restaurant meals.

A photo of a person wearing scrubs and a mask receiving bags of food from Gai.
Courtesy of GAI

For restaurants feeling the weight of the shift, Lieu recommends starting small but starting now. “Let’s not wait for the new normal, or hope for things to return to that of the past, but let’s start building our future,” he says, advising others in his position to look for any changes that can be made, and lean on the community for support. GAI has benefited from collaborating with nearby businesses, and it’s relied on the Castro Merchants association to stay current on rapidly changing COVID-19 guidelines. For entrepreneurs who can invest in research and development, he recommends it, as he says it’s worth pinpointing how to shift focus from making great food to effectively distributing it.

Whatever you do, Lieu adds, no one should stop believing in their product or their purpose. “The pandemic doesn’t mean the need or want for something is gone,” he says. “If customers were there for you pre-pandemic, then now we just need to focus on new ways of getting the product to our customers.”

GAI has even more initiatives coming up, Lieu says, and will continue its mission of serving comfort food with increased accessibility and connectivity to its community. Lieu also plans on launching new partnerships and collaborations that he hopes will bring GAI closer to its customers. “We make comfort food and comfort food should come easy,” he says. “It isn’t something to travel too far for, wait too long for, or spend too much time on.

To find ways to support GAI and other restaurants you care about, visit fb.com/SupportSmallBusiness. Keep up with Kevin Lieu by following GAI on Facebook and Instagram, and in the meantime, you can make one of his favorite dishes with the recipe below.


An image of Gai restaurant’s original Hainan Chicken Rice dish.
Courtesy of GAI

Hainan Chicken Rice Recipe

GAI’s signature dish, Hainan Chicken Rice, is an everyday meal that’s popular in Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore, where it’s the national dish. Each country has its own variation, and the key distinction is in the sauces: Thailand’s is salty and soy-based, Vietnam’s is sweet and tangy, and Singapore’s is a savory garlic-ginger. GAI offers all three. “It’s super simple and healthy, but yet provides a complete meal,” says Lieu, who learned the recipe from his mother. “It has soup. It has rice. It has chicken, and the best part is it’s a no food waste concept. We de-bone the chicken, make the broth out of the bones, and then use that broth to make the rice along with some rendered fat from the skin.”

Ingredients:

5 chicken thighs

5 quarts water

5 quarts chicken stock (from cooking chicken thighs)

1 cup canola oil, plus extra for chicken thighs

3 tablespoons chicken fat, rendered

112 large whole ginger (112 -inch knob of ginger, sliced, skin-on & 114 cup peeled and grated ginger)

23 cup scallions

2 tablespoons minced garlic

4-inch piece of daikon

1 tablespoon cilantro stems, minced (optional)

1 pandan leaf (optional)

2 cups premium jasmine rice

3 tablespoons salt

12 teaspoon ginger powder

12 teaspoon lemongrass powder

Pinch of sugar

Preparation: Chicken Thighs

1. On a clean surface, cover the outside of chicken thighs with 1 tablespoon salt.

2. Place chicken thighs in a container, cover, and let marinade for 20 minutes.

3. While chicken thighs are marinating, heat the water, seasoned with another 1 tablespoon salt and 2 tablespoons skin-on ginger.

4. Bring water to a boil. Once water is boiling, drop in chicken, stir, and bring water back up to a boil. Then, reduce to the lowest simmer and poach for 30 minutes, lid on.

5. Make the Hainan sauce while chicken is cooking.

6. Test the chicken’s internal temperature, ensuring it reaches 165°F before taking out of oven. Remove thighs and shock with ice bath.

7. Reserve thighs for butchering and deboning. Rub a small amount of canola oil onto skin for shine.

8. Reserve stock for rice and soup.

Hainan Onion Ginger Sauce:

1. Roughly blend 1 cup ginger in food processor.

2. Finely chop 5 tablespoons scallions, and don’t be afraid to use the white parts.

3. Combine the blended ginger, chopped scallions, and minced garlic in a bowl.

4. Heat 1 cup canola oil in a pot on medium heat until rippling. (Medium heat for 10 minutes. You can test the oil’s heat by dropping in a piece of scallion; it should sizzle.)

5. Pour the hot oil into the bowl of aromatics (ginger, scallions, and garlic). Mix and fold a few times until fragrant.

6. Add in 12 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon of ginger powder, and 1 teaspoon of lemongrass powder. Mix well. Add additional salt to taste.

7. Let sit and cool for 30 minutes.

Note: Lemongrass powder can be replaced with 2 teaspoons of pureed lemongrass.

Jasmine Rice:

1. In a medium skillet, render chicken fat (removed from thighs or substitute with canola oil) at low to medium-low heat. Strain and return the fat to a clean skillet.

2. Lightly stir fry 2 tablespoons minced ginger, 1 tablespoon of minced cilantro stems (don’t use leaves, or it’ll turn your rice green), and 1 tablespoon minced garlic to bring out aroma.

3. Pour 2 cups chicken stock into aromatics mixture and remove from heat.

4. Rinse and place rice in rice cooker. Then, pour the broth mixture over the rice.

5. Add 12 teaspoon salt and mix well, finish with a pandan leaf on top.

6. Close and cook in rice cooker per allotted time.

7. Fluff rice with rice paddle when finished cooking. Remove the leaf before serving.

Soup:

1. Pour 4 quarts chicken stock back into pot.

2. Chop the daikon into 4-inch pieces, and combine with broth. Simmer on medium-low heat for 45 minutes, then strain.

3. Serve with cilantro, if desired, and additional chopped scallions. You can add a pinch of sugar and salt to taste.

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