Sweet Republic's Helen Yung on Growing Up in Hong Kong, Investment Banking, and Foie
Helen Yung, Sweet Republic
Helen Yung Sweet Republic 9160 East Shea Boulevard, Scottsdale 480-248-6979, www.sweetrepublic.com
This is part one of my interview with Helen Yung, co-owner and ice cream designer/maker at Sweet Republic. Come back Tuesday, when Yung dishes about her favorite Phoenix Chinese restaurants and how to evaluate great ice cream.
Handing out a sample
You'd never know it to look at her (she's just a wisp of a thing), but Helen Yung is food-obsessed. In fact, she's the classic foodist -- always thinking, reading, and talking about food, taking pictures of it, Facebook posting and Instagramming it, and, of course, putting away massive amounts of it. Where does it all go? That's the mystery. But then, Yung was a certified personal trainer in another life, just as she was an investment banker. She's a chameleon of a woman who, apparently, can do anything she sets her incisive mind to.
She's often portrayed as a career-changer, leaving behind the high-powered world of investment banking to make ice cream. It's a charming story, but the truth is, she was in her early 20s when she walked away from the numbers-crunching corporate grind, so it's more accurate to say she figured out, early on, that investment banking didn't feed her soul -- and food did.
Yung, who grew up in Hong Kong, left home at 15 to attend boarding school at Exeter in New Hampshire, later spending one year of college at Johns Hopkins before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in finance and accounting. She landed a job at Cititgroup, where she worked for three years (the last of which was in London) as an analyst before being promoted to associate. She was back in New York for training when she met Jan Wichayanuparp, who had been working in Bangkok for Citigroup and had also earned a promotion. During their three-month training session, the two spent many evenings over good meals in the city.
Toffee Banofi Sundae
Both women were in Manhattan on 9/11, and it rocked their world. Wichayanuparp went back to Bangkok, and Yung was sent to Tokyo (which she fondly remembers as a lovely "boondoggle"), but the two friends stayed in touch, always talking about getting out of the corporate world and into food. When Citigroup went through a rough patch (investment banking is cyclical, Yung explains), the company was looking for people willing to leave with a good severance package. Yung took them up on it, using the money for a three-month basic cuisine/pastry program at Le Cordon Bleu in Australia.
After her program, Yung met up with Wichayanuparp (who was still in the corporate world and completely stressed out) in Hong Kong when SARS hit. Yung had a hard time finding work there because of it (this is where the personal training comes in), and the two eventually packed up and moved to San Francisco, where they stayed about a year and a half, both of them groping around for the next good thing. They had tossed around a number of ideas for business ventures (bakery was one of them), but ice cream shop appealed to them the most. They knew they wanted to be small and focused, and ice cream seemed fun. Plus, as Yung says, "It makes people happy, but it's challenging enough to let me be eclectic and outside-the-box."
Yung worked in the kitchen at the now-defunct Eccolo in Berkeley (owned by Chez Panisse alum Chris Lee) for a while, but when Wichayanuparp's married sister moved to Phoenix and encouraged them to check out the emerging food scene here, the two took her up on it. They liked what they saw and eventually found a cute space in a family-oriented neighborhood on Shea near 92nd Street. Sweet Republic opened in May 2008, and in the nearly five years since then, the shop has earned countless awards and mentions in local and national publications. Wichayanuparp and Yung will open a Sweet Republic at Sky Harbor in September.
Bacon brittle, house-made marshmallows and other artisan treats
Five words to describe you: Curious, rebellious, genuine, confident, happy.
Five words to describe Sweet Republic: Unique, fun, colorful, exciting, unusual.
Favorite food smell: Bread baking in the oven.
Do you read cookbooks, and if so, which ones?: Yes, on everything: sweet, savory, ethnic. I also love reading magazines like Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Sunset, Saveur, etc. to keep up with the latest trends.
Most overrated ingredient: Foie -- maybe I've just had too much of it in my past life as a high-rolling investment banker.
Most underrated ingredient: Fresh peas in spring.
Trend you like: Vegetables -- not just as a side dish.
Trend you wish would go away: Heavy-handed food with no balance.
House-made cookies for ice cream sandwiches
You grew up in Hong Kong. What was that like?: Fast-paced, very little personal space, defined by material wealth and it still is -- more than ever. Lots of good restaurants: People love to eat and there's population density, wealth, and sophistication to support it. The whole family would eat dinner at home Monday through Friday, and we'd go out on weekends to eat. It's such a crowded and small place that people travel every chance they get. My parents took me and my younger sister on vacation all over Asia, Europe, and the U.S. every summer.
Favorite thing to eat growing up: Long-boiled Chinese soups -- especially at home. I miss it so much and have only found it at a few restaurants here: New Hong Kong, Asian Hong Kong, Asian Café Express.
Favorite thing to eat now: Soup (all kinds). Nothing beats a chilled, smooth-as-silk, pureed English pea soup with a hint of mint this time of year.
What was it like to switch from jet-setting investment banker to ice cream shop owner?: It's more like I switched from sitting at a desk all day staring at intangible numbers on a computer screen -- with the occasional travel -- to the very physical job of transforming 50-pound bags of sugar, gallons and gallons of milk and cream into delicious ice cream that you can see, touch, and eat. So much more satisfying!
Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Jacques Qualin of J&G Steakhouse Claudio Urciuoli of Noca Claudio Urciuoli of Noca Matt Pool of Matt's Big Breakfast Jared Porter of The Parlor Charleen Badman of FnB Tony Abou-Ganim & Adam Seger Charlotte Voisey of Best American Brands Ambassador Steve Olson of Valley Ho Dough Robson of Gallo Blanco Edward Farrow of The Cafe at MIM Greg LaPrad of Quiessence & Morning Glory Cafe Joshua Johnson of Kai Joshua Johnson of Kai Todd Sicolo of T.Cooks Josh Riesner of Pig & Pickle Lester Gonzalez of Cowboy Ciao M.J. Coe of Federal Pizza Steven "Chops" Smith of Searsucker Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis Michael Rusconi of Rusconi's American Kitchen Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot Lynn Rossetto of The Splendid Table Cullen Campbell of Crudo DJ Monti Carlo Pete DeRuvo of Davanti Enoteca Chuck Wiley of Cafe ZuZu Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table Bryan Dooley of Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.