Jenny Gao, “Ambassador of Sichuan Food Culture,” is Bringing Hot Sauce to the Masses

A conversation with Jenny Gao, the innovator behind Fly By Jing and its line of prepared Sichuan sauce mixes

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3:54 AM HKT, Fri February 2, 2018 7 mins read

Jenny Gao has one of the spiciest kitchens in Shanghai. After a career in the corporate world, she ditched it for food, and has never looked back. Since that time she’s made waves in Shanghai for her restaurant Baoism (RIP), her private kitchen Fly By Jing, and now a line of prepared sauce mixes that draw on her Sichuan background and her desire to push authentic Sichuan cuisine even farther out onto the international stage.

We sat down with Gao for an extensive interview on her background with food and the trail she’s blazed through Shanghai’s F&B scene.

Tell us about yourself, how you came to be here, how you ended up in food.

I was born in Chengdu, moved around as a child across Europe with my father’s job — nuclear physicist — until we settled in Canada where I went to high school and university. After stints in the corporate world at an investment bank, P&G, and Blackberry, I ended up in Shanghai working for innovation company Frog Design. But my interest in Chinese food is what made me stay, so I quit my job a few years ago and embarked on some food related projects, and I’m still here six years later.

What is your background with food, and Sichuan food in particular?

Growing up as an only child, moving to a different country with a different language every year, displaced from your family and culture at an early age — it does something to you. I think I grasped at clues of my identity and heritage when I was old enough to travel on my own. I ended up in Beijing on an exchange semester and quickly became intoxicated by the pace of change, the people who I felt so similar to and yet so different from, and the food which was a universal language and point of connection with my family, many of whom I had never even met.

We left China when I was five and when we visited in the years after, it was always back to Sichuan to see family, so my earliest and most defining memories were always of family feasts around my grandparent’s dining table, giant crocks of pickles fermenting away in the kitchen, and sausages hanging to dry on the balcony during cold winter months.

It was always a treat to eat out. We would frequent streetside stalls for Sichuan’s famous snacks and hole in the wall joints, known as “fly restaurants” (苍蝇馆) for the hidden neighborhood gems. I associated balanced, sophisticated flavors with Chinese food; it was miles apart from what I found in the West.

That was childhood. Take us through being an adult.

When I left my job at Frog, I created a fast-casual restaurant called Baoism around the concept of sustainable, transparent sourcing with modern Chinese flavors. It was one of the first of its kind in China and its unique story garnered lots of media attention and accolades. Differences from my business partner ultimately led me to walk away from the company after two years of hard work. (It became defunct not long after, and I learned valuable lessons like the importance of choosing a trustworthy partner and not giving up control over what you build.)

In that, I realized operating a brick and mortar restaurant is not what I want to do. But I took what I learned from that experience to build my latest project, Fly By Jing, a Sichuan private kitchen based in Shanghai with global pop ups and a line of artisanal sauces and food products.

Tell me about the private kitchen.

My private kitchen, which I’ve run for the past year, is located in my studio in the center of the French Concession on Xinle Road. It is open to private dining upon request for groups of 10-20, and once a month I hold a Supperclub where anyone can RSVP (I send out the dates via social media and my mailing list a couple weeks in advance). My dinners usually last well into the night, with 10-15 courses, wine and cocktail pairings, for around 500 RMB (about $80) per head. I do all the prep, cook, and serve myself. For larger groups, I hire staff on the day of.

My guests are from all over the world. I’ve had travelers come from as far away as New York and Paris, to Shanghainese locals and their families. I’ve even been fortunate enough to bring my dinner parties on the road this year, doing pop ups and collaborations with chefs in Beijing, Hong Kong, Sydney, even Niseko, Japan and Wellington, New Zealand.

I have plans to do dining events and workshops in Berlin, Copenhagen and London this spring, maybe North America later this year.

How do you see your role in China’s food scene or restaurant culture?

I feel like an ambassador of Sichuan food culture, changing people’s perception that it’s an unsophisticated, oil-drenched, over-spiced cuisine. Even within China (outside of Sichuan), I see this bias at work. I like to experiment with classical Sichuan flavors, giving them familiar and unfamiliar applications. I love doing collaborative meals with other chefs, like the Sichuan-Korean mashup I did with Korean-American chef Mina Park in Hong Kong, the beautiful New Zealand seafood-focused meal I cooked at WBC restaurant in Wellington, and the upcoming Sichuan-Italian series I’m doing with Shanghai chef Austin Hu. It shows how adaptable Sichuan flavors are and gives more people an access point into exploring the cuisine further.

How much do you play with modernizing recipes vs sticking to classics?

Some dishes I stay true to the classics on, like my mapo tofu, Zhong dumplings and sweet-water noodles, adapted from out-of-print recipe books I found digging in Chef Yu Bo’s extensive cookbook library, but even these are updated because of the quality of flour I use to pull the noodles, the blend of chilies I use in my chili oil, the Qingxi Tribute pepper (most prized variety in Hanyuan) I source from deep in the Sichuan mountains…

Yu Bo is one of China’s most revered chefs, and one of the top two or three fine dining chefs in Chengdu. You spent a few weeks working with him. Tell me about that.

After I left my last project, I spent time in Yu Bo’s private kitchen south of Chengdu. I gutted and descaled fish, shelled hundreds of abalones, spent many hours tearing threads of slow braised and dried chicken jerky until my hands were raw and burning from the spices, eventually graduating to plating and saucing his famous course of 16 cold appetizers. The best moments were spent listening to him and his wife Dai Shuang regale me with tales of their travels around the world, their encounters with Western cuisine (even El Bulli had not impressed) and lamentations on what he feels is the rapid degeneration of Sichuan cuisine.

His style of cooking does occasionally borrow from Western and Cantonese fine dining, making him not very typical of classical Sichuan chefs. He is masterful with Sichuan flavor profiles, but uses abalone and sea cucumbers, ingredients not found in landlocked Sichuan, and replaces tofu with acorn jelly in his mapo tofu.

But hanging with him can also be a bit of a downer, especially when I don’t think Sichuan cuisine faces an ill-fated demise. In fact the old guard is part of the problem in their culture of secrecy and not passing down traditions. Sichuan food has always been and is constantly in flux, as new influences are being introduced and with people’s changing tastes. I discover new eateries every time I am in Chengdu, run by a generation of passionate young cooks, which gives me a lot hope that the best is yet to come for Sichuan food culture.

Fly by Jing — could you explain the name?

Fly is a tribute to fly restaurants, the soulful hole-in-the-wall eateries that are said to be so good they attract diners like flies. People in Sichuan are obsessed with flavor above all else, and are willing to overlook even the dirtiest and most uncomfortable settings for the perfect bite. These rickety stools and shared tables spilling into alleys and sidewalks are really at the heart of food culture in Chengdu. My aim is to capture this spirit in the flavors and experiences I create.

What about the line of sauces?

I started developing them earlier this year. They were born because Sichuan flavor profiles are so distinct, and so widely applicable that they really lend themselves well to a sauce line, making Sichuan flavors accessible to the home cook. I use the finest ingredients I can source in Sichuan, most of which never make their way outside of China — like five-year-fermented doubanjiang (chili bean sauce), Qingxi Tribute pepper, erjingtiao chilies — and build my flavors completely naturally. It is also completely handcrafted in Sichuan. There’s nothing like this on the market in China or abroad, and I want to change the perception that food, especially sauces made in China, should be relegated to an unsightly shelf in a Chinatown grocery store.

A sauce line is a big undertaking. How did it start?

It started with a chili sauce. I’ve always been obsessed with chili sauce, Laoganma, XO sauce, doubanjiang, sambal olek. Most foods are just a vessel for carrying more chili sauce for me. I put it on anything — fried eggs in the morning, fried rice, avocado toast, noodles and pasta. I started playing around with a recipe similar to an oil-based dried chili crisp like Laoganma, and landed on a version that I think blows everything else in the market out of the water.

The best part is there’s absolutely no preservatives, and the intense umami is naturally built through layers of mushrooms, kombu and spices rather than relying on the crutch of MSG. The road to getting it produced at scale at a QS certified (and export certified) factory in China has been harrowing at best, and still ongoing. Translating a small batch recipe to metric tons is no small feat — finding a factory willing to take on the job, and one you can trust, is harder. I’ve just managed to produce my first batch at the end of last year, and will be launching several more sauces, including a Zhong dumpling sauce, Lazi chicken spice mix, and a Kickstarter campaign to launch international pre-orders in the first half of this year.

Where are they sold?

They currently sell within China on my WeChat Store (@FLYBYJING_SH) and select shops in Shanghai. My goal is to export them to US, Canada, UK and Australia by the end of this year.

Future plans?

My plan this year is to begin exporting the sauces to other markets, and I’ll be kicking that off with a crowdfunding campaign for international preorders in March, with sights set on retailers not long after. I think there’s a gap in the market internationally (even within China) for what I’m trying to do. I love watching people’s eyes widen and palates awaken when they taste what Sichuan flavor profiles can be like.

To focus on this, I’ll be moving to Chengdu this year to be closer to the factories, the ingredients, and just to explore and learn more. The best food in Sichuan is not in the restaurants — it’s in the countryside, in people’s homes, and I want to be closer to the source.

The other reason I’m moving there is to work on a book, capturing the culture of Fly restaurants, their spirit, the stories, the changes, and the recipes. Every time I go to Chengdu, places are moving or closing, and I think they and the people who run them deserve a greater spotlight.

I’ll probably start my private kitchen there as well. More to come…

All photos courtesy Jenny Gao.

Learn more about Fly by Jing here, or by following their WeChat store at @FLYBYJING_SH.

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