If you were to tell the story of how Lucas Sin fell in love with food and cooking, you might be tempted to trace it all back to his family — his grandmother, after all, was a cook in a Hong Kong mahjong parlor whose primary job was to prepare the staff meal, according to Sin.
“People try to figure out whether there’s a reason I do this,” he says one recent morning before it’s time to open the bright and airy Greenwich Village location of Junzi Kitchen, the budding Chinese fast-casual chain that he helps helm as culinary director. “Some journalists are like, ‘Your grandmother was a cook! Amazing. Done.’ But I’m like, ‘No, not really.’ A lot of Chinese people who cook don’t love cooking; they just ended up doing it.”
Like his predecessors who cooked for the sole purpose of making a living — his grandmother in Hong Kong; the Chinese immigrants who arrived in the U.S. and populated the country with takeout spots in every town — Sin, a 2019 Eater Young Gun, comes across as admirably pragmatic, eschewing the pathos-stained origin-story trope of “what childhood memory produced this flavor?” in favor of less sentimental statements like: “A lot of cooking is just about how to run a smart kitchen and a smart business.”
Sin has been honing his clear-eyed vision of what a Chinese culinary business can be since he was a student. Nine years ago, at the age of 16, he opened his first restaurant in an abandoned newspaper factory in Hong Kong. In college, at Yale University, he hosted pop-up restaurants from his dorm room. In his summers off, he backpacked across Japan and learned how to cook in kitchens from Tokyo to Seattle. In his senior year, he joined the co-founders of Junzi Kitchen — Yale graduate students, who incubated the concept for Junzi at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute — in building the fast-casual chain that would eventually stretch from New Haven to New York.
That was shortly after Sin had returned from his third summer cooking in Japan, according to the chef, and the experience had been pivotal. “I dedicated myself quite early on in college to learn Japanese food. The idea was that Japanese cuisine is the best cuisine in the world,” he says. His rationale was that it must be, if big-name European chefs like René Redzepi were making pilgrimages to Japan. But that summer, working in the Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant Kikunoi Honten in Kyoto, Sin heard a story from Kikunoi’s owner and chef, Yoshihiro Murata, that radically shifted how he thought about his own heritage cuisine: It took Murata traveling to France to learn French cooking techniques, the chef told Sin, for him to realize the importance of cooking food that’s “in your blood.”
“My Japan was his France,” was Sin’s revelation. “Maybe I should start thinking about Chinese food.”
With Junzi, the chef and culinary director has tasked himself with “updating and adding to” the diversity of Chinese cooking: “It would be really cool to see one day if people revered, respected, and wanted to eat and learn Chinese cuisine the way they do with French, Italian, Japanese … The cuisine is thousands of years old, it’s constantly evolving, it’s ridiculously diverse.” He references a 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles that scientists reportedly uncovered in China in 2005. “If we’ve been making noodles for 4,000 years, think of all the other things we’ve made in between.”
Noodles, coincidentally, are one of two foundational components of Junzi’s assembly-line-style menu, along with the thin, flour-and-water chūnbǐng pancakes that are a staple of northern Chinese cooking. While Sin, who is from the south, didn’t grow up eating northern Chinese food, Junzi’s co-founders did, and Sin immersed himself in monthlong “sabbaticals” in Panjin, Dongbei, and other parts of northern China to learn about what differentiates that style of cooking — deep braises, heavier flavors, savory sauces, light pickles — from the southern cuisines (Cantonese, Hunanese, Sichuanese) that have traditionally formed the basis of Chinese cooking in the U.S.
Although Junzi started in New Haven, now, with three New York locations, the burgeoning chain could be considered part of — or at least adjacent to — the new wave of Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants opening in places like the East Village.
Unlike the Americanized food served by hole-in-the-wall neighborhood takeout spots or old-fashioned dim sum parlors of years past, these stylish restaurants are built around hyper-specific genres or regions of Chinese cuisine — Yunnan-inspired mǐxiàn, Cajun-Chinese spicy crawfish boils, Sichuan-style dry pot — and often run by young, ambitious restaurateurs who were born in the U.S. or who came here in their teens and 20s for school. Now is the “best time to make Chinese food in New York,” says Sin, citing restaurateurs like Eater Young Gun Amelie Kang (’18) of Málà Project, Young Gun Jason Wang (’13) of Xi’an Famous Foods, and Eric Sze of 886.
Among this class of “new school” Chinese chefs and restaurateurs, attention has only just started to shift to thoughts of scale and fast-casual chains, Málà Project’s Kang says. As recently as two or three years ago, “people were focusing more on bringing over the cuisine itself rather than scale,” but with momentum propelling fast-casual chains like Sweetgreen and Tender Greens forward, there could be a natural gap in the market for Chinese food to fill, especially now that customers are more familiar with different strains of regional Chinese cooking.
In Sin’s eyes, fast casual is one of the missing pieces in the puzzle of Chinese food in the U.S. He believes consumers may eventually be so enthusiastic about the cuisine that there could be “an Eataly [and] a Per Se of Chinese food.” He likens it to building a house on the foundation of the Chinatown mom-and-pop shops that have a long history creating and adapting dishes like General Tso’s chicken for the American palate. Inexpensive Chinese buffets, trendy regional hot spots, fine dining, the fast-casual joints that Americans frequent during busy times — “It needs all of that; it’s a whole ecosystem,” says Sin.
To accomplish the team’s lofty ambitions for growth and scale (the co-founders apparently have a five-year plan that includes opening more than 50 locations around the U.S.), Junzi needs to be affordable, accessible, and above all, conscious of the people eating and making the food, says Sin. Junzi doesn’t hire exclusively Chinese cooks well trained on the wok; rather, the employees are “the people who live and work here,” says Sin, gesturing to his young staff, among them black and Latinx and white employees. “They didn’t grow up with northern Chinese food … but they should be the people who can learn Chinese cuisine and take it to wherever else they go.”
Trying to appeal to a wider audience also means having to broaden the definition of Chinese food, just as the Chinese-American restaurants that came before Sin did in previous decades. He used to be a stickler about not serving raw vegetables, because that’s not traditionally done in Chinese cuisine, but customers have been asking for a salad or bowl option, especially in the Bryant Park location to which office workers flock. The salad eaters won: Junzi’s fall menu includes a squash salad with ancient Chinese grains.
“You remind yourself what we’re trying to do is draw inspiration from Chinese cuisine,” Sin says. He grapples with the fraught idea of “authenticity,” but he has come to terms with what it means for the chain: “Junzi is by no means a traditional Chinese restaurant, especially in the U.S., but it is an ‘authentic’ one in that it’s an authentic appeal to our understanding of Chinese food and how that Chinese food should be in the U.S.”
Junzi’s ideal future, according to Sin, will include better food, even happier employees, and more modes of business, like full-service restaurants, fine dining, ghost kitchens, catering, events, consumer packaged goods — all in service of the chain’s mission of telling the story of Chinese food.
“Food is a great way to start telling that story,” Sin says. That’s one thing he has returned to time and time again in interviews: storytelling, narrative, translation. Like the restaurant critic in the film Ratatouille — who is transported to his childhood by one bite — people who eat Junzi’s food hopefully get to share in some thread of a story, even if perhaps nothing quite so transcendent as the critic’s experience.
But at the end of the day, behind the narrative thread of Chinese legacy that Sin weaves throughout his work at Junzi lies the “nitty gritty” of what it takes to run a successful restaurant that’s trying to become something bigger. “People don’t talk about these things in interviews, but a lot of it is detail oriented: good people, processes, procedures, ingredients,” says Sin. “Make good food.”