INTERVIEW: JEANNE CHENG
For our readers who don’t know, give us a little rundown of what you do. I own and operate the fast casual restaurant Kye’s in Santa Monica where we put a lot of thought and love into the food that we create and believe that if we give our bodies everything it needs to function optimally while feeding our souls with the enjoyment and pleasure that food brings, we’ll be happier. We introduced a new food, the KyeRito, which is like a mash up of a sandwich and a sushi roll. We use some of your favorite flavors with rice or roasted cauliflower and almond meal blend (paleo style) wrapped inside seaweed, romaine, or collard green and wrap it in a way that makes it super portable.
I know that Kye’s (and the famous “KyeRito”) was inspired by your son’s sensitive diet. Was it difficult to come up with recipes that were both fitting for your son AND delicious? How did your background as a molecular biologist turned Chinese medicine practitioner contribute to your culinary creations?
It wasn’t difficult at all! There are so many ways to add nutrition to traditional recipes and use better-for-you ingredients without sacrificing flavor. My background in molecular biology helped me to understand how ingredients affect each other and helped me in creating recipes. Working in a kitchen is similar to working in a laboratory, following very specific procedures and protocols in experiments is just like cooking. My understanding of Chinese Medicine and nutrition taught me the art of combining ingredients to create balance and to always be aware of supporting the digestive system and looking at things holistically with everything relating as if points on a sphere, instead of linear A to B to C. I love using food herbs in cooking.
What made you decide to turn this way of eating into an actual business?
I felt like this food should be in the world and that people would love it! I pictured it everywhere!
Without any professional experience in the food industry, were you intimidated or nervous about opening a restaurant? What did you do to prepare yourself for this new move?
Luckily, I had no idea how hard it would be or how much work goes into opening and operating a restaurant. I really believed in what I was doing, so it didn’t seem like it would be difficult and I didn’t even consider the possibility of failure. It’s kind of like when you’re climbing a mountain and each step doesn’t seem like much, but when you reach the top and look down, you’re like WOW! The first thing I did to prepare was read books about opening a restaurant and really relied on friends’ expertise to help me along the way.
Once you decided to open Kye’s, what was the first action step you took?
I was at a Mother Divine meditation retreat when I fully realized this was something I had to do, so I commissioned the pundit to do a puja and pledged to open Kye’s word wide and enliven consciousness through food. When I returned home, a friend that was at the retreat hooked me up with the Cornell School of Restaurant and Hotel Management library and I did research, read about restaurants and business and branding.
What were some unexpected obstacles you faced along the way of opening/running a restaurant for the first time? How did you push through?
Ah, so many to choose from… people not delivering on their agreements, delays in building, working with the city, difficulty sourcing products, managing people… I think the biggest unexpected obstacle was me wanting to find someone else to take responsibility for the business because I didn’t feel like I had the experience to do it on my own. This kept showing up in many different ways and life kept challenging me to do and learn everything and take responsibility for it all. The way I pushed through was to focus on the most critical thing until it was under control, then focus on the next thing, 3 foot tosses. It was important for me not to get overwhelmed by everything and to remind myself that it’s ok to be where we are and know that each day we are improving, to not get lost in the minutia and stay grounded in the bigger picture.
What advice can you share about finding the right people to work with? Could you tell us how you and your team came together and a little about your collaboration styles?
People are EVERYTHING. Attitude, self awareness, communication, and respect are key. Whoever I’m working with, I look for the differences and how I can learn from them. Our nature is to look for sameness and commune; but the growth, learning, and understanding is in the differences. I often ask myself, what energy am I contributing? Am I adding to or taking away from? Just being aware of where I’m at helps me connect. So much of communication is unconscious, so I like to name things, make everyone aware of them, and work with them. My Guru talks about gravity. Everyone knew an apple would fall if you dropped it, but Newton came along and named it and started working with it and now we’re sending people to the moon, that’s the power of consciousness. I believe that when you find the right people to work with, it should be easy, and everyone should feel a benefit when working together, better than if they were working alone, synergy. I am still searching for the right business partner and building my team for expansion, but I have amazing mentors and our store team is rocking it and we’re all learning and growing together. I’m a perfectionist, so it’s difficult for me not to be critical. I look for inspiration and opportunities to empower and approach collaboration with the heart of a student.
You have quite the colorful background! How do you think your life experience has helped you start/run your business?
I feel like all of my life’s experiences are culminating in Kye’s. It’s a great place for me to play and do all the things I love, from the food to the people, I love it! I spent my life in pursuit of knowledge and meaning and as cheesy as it sounds, have always wanted to help people and make the world a better place. I feel like Kye’s can do this. I’ve done a lot of personal work and so I feel pretty comfortable inside myself and able to navigate whatever life brings. Meditating for 31 years has helped me the most. It creates a space inside that no matter what is happening on the surface of life, you’re rested into the depth where there’s a fullness and you know you are ok and it’s all good. This space allows for compassion and perspective. To live beyond the day to day, the noise, the personality, the judgment, the identities, the conditioning, the perceptual filters, the projections, all the things that reinforce the duality and separation and limit our consciousness. It’s key and I can’t imagine what life is like without this.
What does a ‘typical’ day look like for you – morning to night?
I wake up at 6am, drink my bone broth, make breakfast for my boys, meditate, check emails and depending on how many caterings we have, will go into work anytime between 8-10am. I’ll work till 3pm, take a break to pick Kye up from school or for emails and computer work or pilates till 5pm, then go back to work depending on what we have going on, may work in restaurant till 8 or 9pm or cook dinner for my boys and work on computer, meditate, then in bed by 11pm. We eat at least one meal a day at Kye’s and I usually have a meeting or two somewhere in the day.
If you could go back to the start of building Kye’s, what advice would you give yourself?
Find the right business partner, take the time to conceptualize the brand fully and create a brand platform, start with an operations manual and keep fine tuning and tweaking- the more detailed the better. It’s all about people, so invest time and energy in everyone you bring in, your team is critical to success.
Where would you like to see Kye’s 5 years from now?
Kye’s is a loved brand trusted for our quality and caring. Organic unmodified foods are the norm and we have made leaps and bounds in understanding the immune system and the gut. We have several locations in L.A., SF, NYC, Chicago, and are opening our first international location in Tokyo. We’re in airports and on college campuses and have started a whole new food category that’s fun and exciting as it’s evolving. We’re partnered with Virgin, Equinox, Wholefoods, Erewhon, Co-op and are known as one of the best companies to work for. We have a nonprofit that teaches meditation in middle and high schools. That being said, with all the technological advances being made, I’m not sure what the world will look like in 5 years!
L.A. LADY CULTURE
Favorite area of L.A.? Malibu, I’m a ocean girl.
Favorite eatery in L.A. (other than Kye’s, of course!)? Green Zone in San Gabriel, the only organic chinese restaurant I know of. In our hood, Cassia.
Menu item we must order there? Green Zone – the spicy wontons and the hainan chicken. Cassia – Kye loves the kaya toast and will down 3 of them, the whole grilled sea bass, the chicken wings.
Favorite happy hour? Don’t drink, allergic.
Favorite weekend activities in the city? Beach, hiking, bike ride. Unfortunately we are open 7 days a week, so don’t see many of these.
Audio of choice when sitting in traffic? I don’t like to drive and am a total traffic phobe. I suppose I’d listen to music from my iTunes, whatever I’m in the mood for… Beastie Boys to 80s to soundtrack from Once to Chinese pop to Thievery Corp to Pavorotti are my go tos.
Place or thing you want to do most in L.A., but haven’t yet? Ride the metro to downtown.
Biggest L.A. guilty pleasure? Olympic Spa, my home away from home.