Sweet Republic's Helen Yung on Phoenix's Best Chinese Restaurants, the Perfect Ice Cream and How 9/11 Changed Her Life
This is part two of my interview with Helen Yung, co-owner and ice cream designer/maker at Sweet Republic. If you missed part one, where Yung talks about growing up in Hong Kong, investment banking, and the dish she thinks is overrated, read it here.
You had a high-powered career. Did you have a Tiger Mother?: No, I had a Tiger Dad who taught math at HK University and a career-driven mother who traveled a lot when I was young, including attending Thunderbird here in Phoenix.
Did you go through culinary culture shock, moving from NYC to Phoenix?: Yes, it felt like nothing but corporate chains here. It took me a while to find independent eateries that serve food with heart. I think it's really exploded in the past few years with top-notch, chef-driven restaurants.
What you'd like to see more of in Phoenix: Authentic ethnic foods. There's no Shanghainese food in the Valley -- one of my favorite Chinese cuisines.
Name your three favorite Chinese restaurants in Phoenix and why you like each: Great Wall (dimsum), Nee House (Cantonese) and Chou's Kitchen (Northern Chinese). Great Wall and Nee House exhibit superior skills in their cooking. The ladies at Chou's have such passion and love for what they do.
I've seen you speak Chinese to Chinese restaurant owners. Does that give you street cred?: Yes, they know you'll appreciate the food. Many Chinese dishes require a lot of skill, and the differences may not be obvious to people who didn't grow up eating it.
Which languages do you speak? And is it commonplace in Hong Kong to be fluent in two or three?: Cantonese, Mandarin, and English fluently. Chinglish is common in Hong Kong, as it was an English colony and many expats live there. I went to German Swiss International School for nine years, so I also speak a little bit of German, French, and Japanese.
strong>Name three other favorite local restaurants and why you think they're great: FnB, Hana, Binkley's. Each goes to great lengths to source the best ingredients possible and treat them with the utmost respect.
The story people always tell about you is that 9/11 profoundly changed your thinking about your career and your life. How?: Witnessing the impossible happen firsthand forces you to make the most out of your life when you realize tomorrow may never happen. Life is too short to do something you're not excited about, because it could end the next day. I'm especially reminded of that every time a plane goes through turbulence or flies overhead.
Did you have an interest in the culinary world before you changed careers?: I've always loved to eat and cook ever since I was a kid in Hong Kong. I was spoiled by three home-cooked, from-scratch meals a day. My classmates would be jealous of my lunch box filled with at least three different dishes. I cooked almost every day in college (usually 100 percent vegetable meals). And I always researched places to eat wherever I lived or was traveling to beginning in high school. Food has always been my preferred entertainment.
You attended Le Cordon Bleu in Australia. Why there?: I had lived in Asia, the U.S., and Europe. It was the only other English-speaking continent I had not lived on. Plus, I heard they had great seafood.
What have you learned about cooking that culinary school didn't teach you?: Culinary school can only teach you technique but not how to taste. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to travel and eat amazing food to develop my palate.
Any crazy mistakes you all made the first year?: Trying to get in on the healthy yogurt trend. Ice cream is about indulgence. It should just make you happy, period.
How do you come up with new flavors?: I look at what's seasonal at the farmers markets. I love ingredients like Meyer lemons and huckleberries that I get through Bob McClendon. He likes the resulting ice cream, too, so we trade. I like to eat at lots of different places to get ideas and read cookbooks and food magazines.
Has your palate or your philosophy/focus changed since you opened in 2008?: My palate has an increasing preference for simple, unfussy food made with fresh quality ingredients and executed with finesse and balance. As for SR, we didn't expect so much of our business would be wholesale when we started.
Do you have to worry about getting too way out there flavor-wise?: Always. Ice cream is a comfort food for most people. It takes time for people to venture outside of their comfort zone, so we give them time because we believe in our ice cream. Honey Blue Cheese was a very hard sell when we first started offering it in our first year of operation. Now we have people who come specifically for it.
Courtesy of Sweet Republic
Name two of your favorite Sweet Republic flavors and explain why: Earl Grey Tea (I love the bitterness of the tea contrasting with the sweetness of the ice cream and the fragrant bergamot) and Rocky Road (I love textures in what I eat, and the pillowy soft marshmallows against the crunchy toasted almonds keeps me going for more. It's also a childhood favorite).
Name an ice cream shop you admire: Jeni's Splendid (Ohio) -- I admire how Jeni has such a direct relationship with all her suppliers and her creative flavors. Her marketing is extremely effective at communicating the lengths she goes to.
Do you hope to expand SR? And if so, where would you like to open a second branch?: Absolutely. We want to expand both on the retail front as well as wholesale. We currently supply all Whole Foods in the Valley (new Camelback branch expected to open in the fall) and restaurants such as FnB, The Mission, House, Wildfish, Eddie V, Orange Sky at Talking Stick, La Bocca in Tempe, and more. We're scheduled to open in Terminal 4 at Sky Harbor this September. After that's under our belt, we would like to expand SR to other parts of the Valley.
Last meal on Earth: Would involve a private jet for me, my family, and close friends: sushi at Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza in Tokyo, wok-sautéed pea shoots and a long-boiled soup in Hong Kong, then across the Pacific to San Francisco for peaches at their peak ripeness -- sweet, fragrant, and juicy straight off the tree from Frog Hollow Farms.
Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Helen Yung of Sweet Republic 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
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