“What can I get you, buddy?”
The pleasant voice belongs to a young man behind the tiny register. He doesn’t quite break out in a big jolly grin, but looks at the hungry customer with friendly eyes, happy to make a dinner recommendation or explain what “tingly spicy noodles” actually means. Watching him, it’s hard to glean that this unassuming college grad is living and breathing the dream of foodies everywhere: running his very own restaurant in the heart of Manhattan.
But Jason Wang is quick to point out that this business isn’t as glamorous as it seems. “Working in the food industry is the most down-to-earth thing ever,” he says, glancing at the far wall smothered in red-framed photos of Chinese noodles and burgers. “It’s no fun game. Sometimes it’s unfair because people in food work really hard, but the pay is so low. It’s considered unskilled work, but it really is hard work.”
And no, you do not get to eat all day when you own a restaurant. “I actually lost twenty pounds in two months when we opened this store,” Jason admits sheepishly, sharing how mad his girlfriend was. “We opened in July, and before then, I had to build out the store. And when you’re busy non-stop during the summer with no downtime, standing all day, there’s no time to eat.”
With such practical words, maybe it’s not so surprising that at the age of 23, Jason is running the East Village branch of his family’s restaurant chain, Xi’an Famous Foods, a pulled noodle shop that has caught the attention of The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and even TV personality Anthony Bourdain. Keenly picking up on the realities of the job, he works in the store everyday as a very conscious decision. “For the restaurant to be successful, the owner has to be in there,” he explains. “I have to oversee everything, make sure everything’s going smoothly, and expedite things.” And he can’t do that sitting in a closed office behind the kitchens—not that there would possibly be space in the bustling 12-seater, 600-square-foot store.
Jason gives a rundown of the store’s cuisine, which focuses on street food from the western province of Xi’an in China. The unbelievably chewy liang pi (cold skin noodles), the dish that made Xi’an Famous Foods so famous in the first place, is made daily in a complex, two-day process. The restaurant’s intense flavors are an instant throwback to Xian’s ancient glory as the beginning point of the Silk Road, where many merchants—and their spices—from all over the continent traded. “I like to call it ancient fusion,” Jason says. The spices used at the store today, in some sort of poetic authenticity, are imported from an Indian company.
Though Jason can now pull noodles and toss spices with the best of them, he knew essentially nothing about the food industry up until a few short years ago. Jason had studied business at Washington University in St. Louis, and it wasn’t until he realized he didn’t enjoy working in corporate—“I’m not a morning person”—that he started learning what it meant to work in the restaurant. And boy, were there a few surprises.
“The first week was horrible. Getting used to standing on my feet for 12 hours was quite the ordeal,” he says. But one of the biggest challenges, he shares, is physically being in the kitchen when they heat oil up to almost 600 degrees Fahrenheit to make their own chili oil. “It’s a grueling place, with a lot of prep work: carrying things, moving things, lots of physical activity,” he says. “It’s completely crazy.”
And that business degree? Perhaps useful for preparing finances and keeping records, but running a restaurant is much more. “You’re going to have to learn to deal with the government, the health department, the department of buildings and even parking,” Jason says. “It’s stuff that they don’t teach you at school.”
Luckily for Jason, he has a great mentor in his father, who worked in various restaurants for a decade to learn the ropes in every aspect, whether it came to hosting or cooking and experimenting with new recipes. In fact, his father opened the first Xi’an Famous Foods branch in Flushing when Jason was still in college. Jason first got involved by creating an online presence for the restaurant after Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” feature in 2009. Soon after, he helped expand the brand into three more branches.
Working with family, Jason’s learned, means never having to play bureaucratic games. “I can say whatever I want to him,” Jason says of his father. “We’re pretty open in terms of criticism—he’s very open and has criticized me for a lot of things. But this way we come out with what we need to say and come up with the best solution.”
The duo now co-owns the company and separately manages different branches, and they’re able to overcome the generational wall between many Asian parents and children. “We’re always joking around, and sometimes my father kids that he’s the son,” Jason says. “I respect him as a father, but when it comes to business, we’re equals.” Usually, anyway, until they have a disagreement. Then, Mr. Wang becomes like any Asian parent, temporarily deciding that he knows better because he’s older.
It’s in moments like these that Jason is reminded of the difficulties of being a professional youth. “A lot of times people—landlords, purveyors—might think there’s someone behind you who you’re working for or who they should be talking to. People don’t always take you seriously,” he says. “But it’s a little bit easier once you show them what you’re capable of. Just be persistent, focus on what you have to do, and have confidence in yourself.”
Working in the food industry might have a steep learning curve, but aspiring restaurateurs can still take heart—you just have to be willing to get your hands dirty. “Unless you have a big breakthrough concept, you do have to start from the bottom,” Jason says. “The best way still is to get out there and just do it.”
And at the end of the day, Jason jokes that the favorite part of his job is that he gets to sleep in. But the passion clearly runs deeper than that. “Running your own restaurant, you feel the rewards—not just a monetary reward, but one of accomplishment,” he says. “You take everything more personally and it means more to you. You get a great sense of fulfillment.”
Sounds like a dream to us.
Look out for Xi’an Famous Foods’ next branch on Bayard Street in Chinatown this coming month, and in midtown Manhattan and Williamsburg in the near future.