Fly By Jing and the Timeout Food Personality of the Year Awards

I was more than a little surprised and very honored to find out last week that I have been nominated for Time Out Shanghai’s Food Personality of the Year award alongside some heroes in the industry, Nat Alexander of Yang Jing Bang, Camden Hauge of Egg and Shanghai Supperclub, Paul Eschbach of Jean Georges, and Kim Melvin of Commune Social. After the harrowing couple of weeks we’ve all been through, I think it’s safe to say this is one election where you can truly feel good voting for anyone. #strongertogether

It’s been a year of a lot of change, of incredible highs and lows. I lost a company that I built from the ground up and poured my heart into for two years. But with loss comes reflection, centering, renewed focus and firmness of purpose.  I packed my bags and left for Chengdu, seeking solace in the warm embrace of home, of a city that’s given me everything and inspired me ceaselessly. If you followed me on social media back in May you saw my days spent in the kitchen of Yubo’s restaurant, picking apart various sea creatures, assembling his famous appetizer spread, pouring over his recipe books during my downtime, trying to distill what it is I want to express about myself- my identity, through the food that has shaped me.   I’m still not there yet, and the path keeps evolving, but it has led to my current project FLY BY JING, a celebration of Chengdu’s vibrant street food culture, inspired by the ‘fly restaurants’ that breathe life into the city. You can learn more about it on the website and follow along its growth on Instagram and Wechat @flybyjing.

That’s Shanghai, another local magazine in Shanghai recently interviewed me about FLY BY JING, and I’ll include it here as it answers most of the frequently asked questions.

Having departed from Baoism, the restaurant she co-founded this year, food writer and cook Jenny Gao turned her hand to the cuisine of her hometown: Chengdu. We sat down to learn about her new street food pop-up brand, Fly by Jing.

Why Sichuan food?
Many people know I’m from Sichuan, and when I started writing my blog, Jing Theory, it was mostly about sharing Sichuan food culture. It’s what I grew up around, and is the reason why I really got into food in the beginning – as a way to get to know my heritage a bit better. To me, Chinese food is the most underrated in the world, despite being one of the first Asian cuisines to spread in the West. I started Fly by Jing as a means to share the amazing food culture of Sichuan. As a pop-up, I love that it has flexibility to be anywhere, be it here in Shanghai or abroad.

Why did you choose the name Fly by Jing? 
Chengdu, my hometown, is a place that’s food obsessed, people of all ages and backgrounds love food. In my opinion, the craze around food is even greater than other ‘foodie’ cities like Taipei or Singapore. One thing that you only find in Chengdu is this idea of a ‘fly restaurant;’ down and dirty, hole-in-the-wall eateries that serve the most delicious food that people are willing to line up for hours for. Hidden down alleyways with no advertising, they’re like old school pop-ups – so flavorful and good that people come regardless, flocking to them ‘like flies.’

A lot of people associate Sichuan food with spice. Is there more to it than that?
Definitely! Many regional cuisines in China are dominated by certain flavors, whereas in Sichuan there are dozens and dozens of different flavor combinations. Some of them are really complex, meaning certain chefs become famous for mastering them. Getting the balance right takes both practice and a developed palate.

Who taught you how to cook in that style?
I never went down the culinary school route actually, but after a sudden and unexpected departure from a project I spent two years building, I found myself back at square one, questioning what brought me to this industry in the first place. Naturally, I gravitated to the food of my hometown, because to me, it’s the most comforting and soulful cuisine in China. That’s when I sought out training with Sichuan master chef Yu Bo (喻祥波), who I first met when writing an article about his restaurant Yu’s Family Kitchen (喻家厨房).

Why did you choose street food as the theme of Fly by Jing?
‘Fly restaurants’ were the strongest memory of eating during my childhood; every weekend I’d go with my grandparents to eat plates and plates of these incredible noodles and dumplings that you just can’t find anywhere else. I particularly remembered the complexity of the delicious sauces they used, and that’s something I’d like to represent through Fly by Jing. I mentioned this to Yu Bo, and he thought it was a good idea, so we went through his library – he has hundreds of these old, crumbling cookbooks packed with fantastic recipes – to find inspiration.

How do you put what you learned into practice?
What I do at Fly by Jing isn’t strictly traditional; I’m happy to modernize certain elements, like putting uni with mapo tofu, or using the best imported Italian 00 flour for my ‘sweet water’ noodles. But what I took away from those recipes is that if you’re going to cook in this style, you really have to do everything from scratch and with the proper ingredients, there are no shortcuts

How do you mean? 
For example, the dressing used for my dumplings isn’t any old kind, it’s actually a mixture of ‘red soy,’ sugar and spices, which need to be cooked down together. Some types of doubanjiang (preserved fava bean paste) I use needs to be aged for years, the best chefs in Chengdu have stock that’s aged for over 20 years.

Even in Chengdu, this culture of taking the long way is fading, authentic flavors are getting harder to find, since many restaurants now take shortcuts or use artificial flavoring. Even if what I’m cooking at Fly by Jing is not traditional, it’s important for me to see the flavors I grew up with preserved.

Read about all the Timeout Food Personality of the Year Award nominees and vote HERE.

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