HOW I BUILT A RADICALLY PERSONAL HOT SAUCE BRAND AND FOUND MYSELF IN THE PROCESS
It’s been a year and a half since I launched Fly By Jing and exactly two years since I wrote ‘What I Learned from Making Hot Sauce at Scale’. In many ways it’s felt like the blink of an eye, and in others, like a lifetime.
But first, let me reintroduce myself.
My name is Jing, but it hasn’t always been.
I spent the last 25 years of my life hiding behind ‘Jenny’, a name I chose at age five to make life easier as a kid growing up in Europe. 婧 Jing, given to me by my late grandfather, means virtuous, feminine. 玄 Xuan, my middle name given me by my nuclear-physicist father means profound, abstract, and is a homonym for his field of study — string theory. Imagine burying all that, just to feel seen, just to belong.
It’s no wonder my search for identity and heritage later in life brought me back to my hometown of Chengdu in China, where I’ve spent the last ten years finding meaning and my place in the intersection of food with culture, tradition, and modernity.
I delved deep into Chinese food culture and its regional cuisines, so varied and diverse it felt more like a continent. I was stunned by the depth of this 5000 year heritage that no-one outside of China seemed to know about, and what started as a personal quest to reconnect w my roots soon became a passion project to shine light on this cuisine and culture.
I left my corporate job, opened a restaurant in Shanghai, studied Sichuan cooking with the masters, and tried to figure out my place in it all. The idea of tradition and ‘authenticity’ never really sat right with me. It felt terminal, and doesn’t allow a culture or its people to evolve. When a culture doesn’t evolve, it dies, and I wanted to help push it forward.
I started to develop my own, deeply personal expressions of these flavors. Like me, they were rooted in tradition, but also an evolution. I was finally starting to find my voice, with food as my medium.
This journey came to a head when I started an underground popup dining concept I named Fly By Jing: an ode to Chengdu’s famous ‘fly restaurants’- hole in the wall eateries so good they attract people like flies, and as a nod to my birth name — which I was just starting to reconnect with but still a bit uncomfortable responding to. I was beginning to peel back the layers, but there was still more work to do.
Fly By Jing, in its current form as a spice and condiment company, was born out of a suitcase. Whenever I took to the road to host a dinner somewhere in the world, my bags were packed full of high-quality ingredients that I couldn’t get anywhere but China. I understood why — there was little demand from the West stemming from a lack of awareness, and moreover, hundreds of years of bias against the cuisine and its people.
Chinese food ranks on the lowest rungs of what’s known as the‘Hierarchy of Taste’, society’s judgement of a cuisine’s value based on the socio-economic status of its people. It’s why people are happy to pay hundreds of dollars for French food, but insist that the cheaper Chinese food is, the more ‘authentic’. Manufacturers had no reason to export high quality products when they’re repeatedly told the market wouldn’t pay more than basement bottom prices for them.
But whether it was New York, Tokyo or Sydney, people instantly connected to these flavors. Many were surprised that these nuances existed in Sichuan food and most had never even heard of some of these ingredients. Seeing people from all walks of life connect over these flavors that were so deeply personal to me, planted a seed. I thought to myself, how can I create more spaces of belonging like the one I was carving out here?
In 2018 I traveled to California to attend Expo West, the largest natural food show in the US.
I spent days wandering through thousands of stalls, but could barely recall any Asian food brands by the end. Not surprisingly, there was even less diversity within the buyers and retailers walking the halls. It dawned on me that not only were entire groups of people being left out of healthy eating, but that the size of this missed opportunity was massive, as this was clearly not representative of what America looks like or how it eats.
When I went back to Shanghai, I knew it was time to upgrade my suitcases packed with ingredients to something bigger. I decided to launch my business in the US with the spices and condiments I was creating in my kitchen and make these flavors more accessible to everyone. I knew it was an uphill battle against centuries of false narratives about Chinese cuisine, but it was worth it if we could take back this narrative, help redefine it and show people just how high quality Chinese food can be.
I launched my first product on Kickstarter that summer, Sichuan Chili Crisp, an all natural chili sauce that I developed as a foundation for a lot of my dishes. It became the highest-funded craft food project on the platform. It was clear that we were ready for a new narrative about Chinese food, one that did not conform to preconceived notions of value, taste and tradition.
I highlighted the ingredients that I had spent years sourcing in the mountains and countrysides of China, starting from my restaurant days. Many of these had never been exported before, like Qingxi’s elusive gongjiao, a variety of Sichuan pepper so intoxicating and rare it was given exclusively as a tribute to the emperor, or the prized amber-hued caiziyou, cold-pressed semi-winter rapa oil that’s been used in Sichuan cooking for thousands of years for its health benefits and intensely nutty flavor.
I knew my products wouldn’t taste like anything else on the market, because they weren’t made like anything else.
I was finally getting closer to finding what I was looking for when I first moved to China ten years ago, a voice that was undeniably my own.
After launching direct-to-consumer in February of 2019, we started to grow from our initial Kickstarter base as word-of-mouth spread about our products and the media started paying attention to this versatile new condiment called chili crisp- a heritage category that’s been around in China for many decades.
Despite our early traction, many investors I met with dismissed it as a fluke. They told me my company (Chinese food) was too niche, and would never cross over to the mainstream (ie. make money for them), despite data showing that Chinese food was the most popular cuisine in America based on the number of restaurants alone and that no single brand has yet risen to capture share of mind and represent a new standard of quality.
For a long time, it felt like one step forward and two steps back. I was accepted to a prestigious tech accelerator where business leaders told me to tone down my mission of rewriting false stereotypes and bringing diversity to natural foods and instead just focus on the delicious attributes of the sauce, because “consumers aren’t interested in the mission behind the business.”
I wondered if they meant that, or just that they weren’t interested in this mission in particular. White investors told me they had a hard time believing Chinese food faced any prejudice at all, because “that wasn’t their experience”.
These were the uphill battles I knew I would face in building this business, but it still stung to hear. I was a kid again, on the first day of school in Germany, indignant to the gaze of my classmates, who I recognized even at my young age, saw me as the Other. I had the simultaneous feeling of wanting to be seen and to disappear all together.
I decided to bootstrap the business, learning the ins and outs of running a direct-to-consumer company along the way from books, podcasts, and the wisdom of other founders. We steadily grew about 30% month over month.
That was until March of 2020.
When Covid first hit the US, things were scary and uncertain.
Increased tensions rose from xenophobia, trade relations soured, and overtly racist comments started popping up on our social media pages. “We don’t need anything else from China right now” “What’s this made of? Bats?” Production ground to a halt in China. I braced myself for dark times ahead.
But when quarantine began, things quickly started to change. Forced to cook at home, many reached for our products which made it easy to add complex flavor to the food they were already eating. We were flooded by emails from customers telling us how much our products have given them comfort in difficult times.
And then in mid-April, Sam Sifton wrote about us in the NYTimes.
Nothing could have prepared me for the impact. In one week we sold more than we had in the entire previous year. It was an overnight success, several years in the making.
The elated highs of the moment quickly dropped down to the lowest of lows as the reality of the pandemic’s impact on global supply chains hit me. We sold out of many months of inventory in a few days as I scrambled to start production in China, where they were just starting to come back to life after several months of strict lockdowns.
I wish I could say it was smooth sailing from there, but I could fill a saga with the comedy of errors that ensued over the next four months as I battled global logistics delays, ‘random’ customs inspections, and the machines at our co-packer literally breaking under the weight of our sauce, forcing us to bottle 30,000 jars by hand.
I was touched by the outpouring of support from everyone throughout all the delays. After a particularly devastating update I had to send informing customers of yet another issue in the supply chain, the hundreds of beautifully written and kind notes that came back brought me to tears.
So thank you, for coming along with me on this journey.
As the tide of support rose, so did the crescendo of racially-charged comments online, ranging from the unimaginative variation of “$15 for chili oil? I could get this for $2 in Chinatown.” to the eloquently worded take-down, “Any Chinese food that is ‘high-end’ isn’t authentic and is a capitalist marketing attempt.”
It was the same reductive dismissal that I had been hearing for years, whether explicitly from potential investors, or implicitly from the stubbornly white-washed natural foods section. It was a narrative that stripped Chinese food and its people of their value. And at the end of this long road, I was exhausted. I was done convincing people of my worth. I decided instead to hold up a mirror. What is it that makes you think Chinese food and the people creating them aren’t worth more than the value you ascribe to them?
Fighting for acceptance was a feeling I was all too familiar with. As a child of immigrants who had to prove themselves and their right to exist everywhere they went, I was naturally conditioned to achieve. My feelings of self-worth, internalized at a young age, was measured in accomplishment and output.
When I think back to late nights laboring over my stove in Shanghai, those long, exasperating days at factories in rural Sichuan, or crying in the bathroom of an office building after yet another investor I met dismissed me and my vision, I persevered the only way I knew how, by donning a hard shield, emblazoned for battle. I fought so hard for an illusion of me, that I no longer knew the person beneath the exterior.
Then one day, a few weeks into quarantine, something shifted. It dawned on me that I couldn’t recall the last time I was in my own company for this long, without the need for protective armor. Incredibly, I felt peace in just being.
I looked in the mirror and no longer saw the battle-worn Jenny who I’ve known for the last three decades of my life. She had carried me far, but it was time to peel back the layers. It turns out that what I was seeking all this time, was right here in front of me.
That was the day I came back to Jing.
In a world that constantly demanded justification for my existence, finally embracing my birth name felt like a small but radical form of self love and acceptance.
I was finally home.
In the half year since I’ve reclaimed my birth name, I’ve felt a deeper connection to my purpose and clarity of my mission and voice. I realized that my past drive to achieve was fueled by a state of fear and contraction, the need to prove myself to the external world at all costs. As I shifted my attention inward, my hunger for growth and drive to make an impact didn’t fade, but instead felt even more limitless as I now created from a state of expansion and truth.
I‘m grateful to be living in a time when we’re finally beginning to create space for all the diverse and multi-faceted voices of our cultures to be celebrated and expressed, in our own way and on our own terms. The landscape of natural food in this country is changing, faster than I ever thought possible.
We’ve come a long way since those days of me standing over a wok in my tiny Shanghai kitchen. As I think about this evolution and all that we have yet to become, I’m proud to share a rebrand for Fly By Jing today that tells our deeply personal tale of seeking belonging, and finding one’s way home. A story of breaking free from tradition, and rewriting new narratives.
I hope that others will see a piece of themselves in it, that something as simple as a name and a jar of chili sauce can be a radical reclamation of personal power.
Food has always been political.
Chinese food has long been painted as a monolith and molded into narratives that fit neatly in our collective biases. But it’s easy to be reductive when our exposure to others has been so limited. There is no room for complexity if everything is binary.
But like its people, Chinese flavors are more complex, ever-evolving, and diverse than that. We are more than that. What started as my personal quest to reconnect with my roots has become a mission to celebrate the many-layered stories of the diaspora, because real stories are personal, and they deserve to be told.
If I could travel back in time to little Jing before she made the fateful decision to change her name, I would tell her that she is worthy, just as she is, and that there’s always been a seat for her at the table.
Fly By Jing is the product of a personal journey of discovery and coming home to self. Like me, it’s born in Chengdu, but living in America. It’s rooted in tradition, but made for the way we live today. It doesn’t conform to anyone else’s notions of value, taste or tradition.
It’s one person’s recipes, one person’s vision, and one person’s story.
And with these flavors, I’m telling you mine.