NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - Lucas Sin opened his first restaurant at age sixteen.
A high schooler in Hong Kong, he found a location for his venture in the basement of an abandoned newspaper factory. He named the restaurant 煲仔 (Bo Zai)—Cantonese for "Claypot Kid"—in honor of claypot rice, his favorite dish. Three nights a week, in the building's empty wine cellar, he and his friends served 13-course Hong Kong-themed tasting menus.
"We took ourselves way too seriously," he said.
From that point, he was hooked.
"I haven't stopped opening restaurants or working in restaurants since," he said.
Now 25 years old, he is culinary director at Junzi Kitchen, a fast-casual Chinese restaurant with locations in New York City and New Haven, Connecticut.
Each month, at the restaurant's Morningside Heights location, he departs from the standard menu of Chinese noodles and flatbreads with Chef's Table, a series of experimental pop-up dinners.
Over three nights each month, with eighteen guests per night, he and his team explore a new theme related to Chinese cuisine through a meal of five to seven courses.
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"The goal is to add to the narrative of Chinese cuisine," he said.
He investigates ideas from the cultural to the scientific.
Past dinners have looked at food related to 14th century imperial Chinese medicine, dishes inspired by Shanghai comic book illustrations, and the confluence of Chinese and Dominican cuisines.
Each month, he collaborates with a new chef to bring his ideas to edible fruition.
At a "Sweet and Sour" dinner, Sin and his team investigated the role of vinegar in Chinese cuisine with help from Michael Harlan Turkell, author of Acid Trip: Travels in the World of Vinegar.
"Vinegar is exciting," Sin said. "We're looking at preservation. We're looking at protein coagulation."
Sin ties each course to a lecture about its history and preparation—speeches that require effort and study.
"We read a lot. We think about it. We ask questions. We call everyone. I called about 15 different people about sweet and sour pork to get a good understanding of the frying batter," he said.
He tackles familiar basics like egg drop soup as well as more complex hybrid dishes.
"Nanbanzuke was a cross between a Chinese and a Japanese dish—hard-seared bluefish sits in a snail vinegar that's been aged for eight years, made out of snails," he said.
Above all, Sin aims to keep it interesting.
"The flavors and the textures and the temperatures and the way you cook things need to tell a story," he said.
For him, food is an exceptional vehicle for learning.
"Food is the first step for understanding culture," he said. "If you can tell interesting stories about the food, people might be more interested to find out more about the culture."
Sin says the bulk of learning happens through exchange among the cooks and the guests.
"You have people tell you that you're wrong, or tell you that there are more interesting things to think about," he said. "They add to that dialogue."
Through his Chef's Table dinners, Sin aims to correct misconceptions about the food he grew up on.
"The primary understanding of Chinese food is that it's quite singular—that it's always based off of sugar, MSG, cornstarch, and that everything is deep-fried, stir-fried," he said.
To him, this view is too limited.
"There's always more color and diversity to Chinese food," he said.
Chef's Table at Junzi Kitchen
New York, NY 10025
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