It's Poppin': Two Friends and a belly
Brunch has been a wild hype in the foodie scene for the past few years. Predominantly in the cradle of gentrified neighbourhoods, we've seen many people line up in many lines to eat many eggs. But let's not act like brunch isn't amazing. It is. It's just that it could always be better.
Two Asian kids from the West Coast want to support this sentiment in their own way. Ethan, an avid cook for a minute, teamed up with his friend Albert and they decided to open up a pop-up in the Bay Area serving amazing brunch food made from scratch.
Reason? They weren't seeing it at the level they knew it could be so they wanted to take matters into their own hands.
We talked to them to figure out why they wanted to get into the food industry, their favourite places to eat and why In-N-Out Burger is overrated.
What made you realise that Belly could be something?
Albert: I just thought this is something I can look later on back in life and be like 'hey I was a part of this'. And that's what appealed to me the most - to help and be a part of it and say that I experienced it with my best friend. I didn't really start cooking for real until last September. With a little bit more practice I realised I can actually do this. What's stopping me?
Ethan: Dude when I got the Momofuku cookbook and I opened it up and I saw that the two primary ingredients he was using to cook all of his protein was salt and sugar, I realised that making good food isn't super complicated. All you need is salt, sugar and maybe some patience. In the area that we live there's nowhere really great to eat, unfortunately we have to travel a bit to San Francisco to get good stuff. That's when I was like 'dude let's do something'. Brunch food that's really good.
What was your relationship with food growing up?
E: It absolutely was integral. Food is a way to show people they care. My grandmother made kimchi in her backyard and she fermented her own soy beans. She always had these huge clay pots in her backyard and she would bring it to up to us when she came to visit and she would cook for hours. It was a weird thing because I don't speak Korean and I never understood it but it was where her cooking was her way of her speaking to me and my sister and showing us that she cared. Even the tiny things - back when I was a kid she would cut little pieces of kimchi and meat and arrange it on a spoon for me with rice on every single bite so I would eat it. Throughout the entire meal that's what she would do.
A: I have a huge family on my mom's side. When I was younger, I would always get really excited about seeing my cousins at family parties, which would happen once every month. However, after growing up a bit, I started realising the importance of food at each of these gatherings. My aunts would always make it a point to go all out on the dishes they serve, which are always Vietnamese. After I started cooking more, I paid more attention to the details within each dish that my aunts make, and I now ask them how something is made in hopes of learning how to continue on their cooking. Whenever a family member runs into you at the gathering they would immediately ask "have you eaten yet?" so I guess for my family, food has always been something that brings everyone together and also makes sure everyone is taken care of.
Do you guys find you work well together because you're friends and there's a level of respect there?
A: I never really thought about it…what do you think?
E: Albert and I have a working relationship where I would never ask Albert to do something that I wouldn't do myself and he's exactly the same so we're both the types of people that will offer to do the shitty task to save the other from doing the shitty task so we're extremely compatible in a working environment.
What's your pet peeve in the food industry? Anything about chefs or cooking in the kitchen that pisses you off?
E: We're deeper into this kitchen game so we've been exposed to and met a couple of people who - it's hard for me to say this because it's important to be serious about something you care about - but being an asshole about it…fuckin'….Albert you know who i'm talking about. There's this Filipino guy who has two spots now and they're both shit. It's American food and poutine. He's on Instagram wielding two chef knives like he's some kind of badass. It's overpriced and trash.
A: When they get into this industry I guess they build an ego…and it ends up being a dick measuring contest. One time, someone contacted me and it was so obvious that they had missed the point of cooking and it had become about them and how much they know, more than their passion for food.
If you guys were to expand the workforce- aside from the obvious requirements - what do you look for in someone when you want to work with them?
A: We need to know what someone really wants out of the role. We don't want anyone egotistical. This is Ethan's baby and I'm the Robin to his Batman and I don't want anyone coming and fucking that up for him
E: Honestly? Someone who wants to fuckin' learn. Actually wanting to learn without taking shortcuts. Someone who is willing to put in the time and understand that a lot of cooking is being organised and clean. Albert started cooking in November and he can do everything that I can do. I've been working with him every single day for the past 4-5 months and I've never seen someone improve at something so quickly in anything. Anyone can cook but if the eagerness, willingness and humility is there that's all that's needed. Fuck culinary school - I don't care. It's not necessary.
Who are your ideal dinner party guests?
A: Anyone from my family. My aunts and uncles. I respect their opinion when it comes to cooking so I would want them to be the judge of it.
E: One of the things that put and kept me onto cooking was and is cooking for my friends. Being able to try new shit and most of the time have it go my way and seeing the reactions of people I care about be like "oh shit this is good". I don't think we've ever talked about money except for our food costs. It was never our goal to be like 'hey let's do this and make a shit tonne of money off of it'. If I could, all of our friends, good music, alcohol - there's nothing better than that.
Where is the best place that you like to eat and also what you consider to be the most overrated place in your vicinity?
E: Most overrated place to eat as a Californian native is In-N-Out Burger. I mean it's good but watching Bourdain put it on a pedestal was crazy. As far as good places... man the banh mi that we had at Huong Lan...
A: Dude I know. Do you feel like after you start cooking that you go to places to eat you start to break down their menus and it becomes more simple to you. Like with music, if you start making your own music you start hearing other peoples productions and you get to appreciate it more. That's why I'm not worried.
E: Albert lives on the east side of San José and there's a very high population of Vietnamese people and there's a lot of bakeries and sandwich shops that look like trash but they're incredible.
A: The best place in San Jose is Thien Long which is right next to a Target. They have the most authentic Vietnamese food that I've seen. There's an extensive menu. The most overrated spots are boba tea spots. There are so many opening and they're so hyped up and I really don't get it.
E: The best place I would go to in my area is a tiny Burmese spot in Saratoga called Kyusu and it's some of the best food I've had in my life. It's simple, it's humble. On the other hand there's a place called Burma Superstar in Oakland and it fucking sucks
A: Why did you tell me to go there?
E: *laughs* Because you have to experience it for yourself!
Belly is now open and can be found in Chromatic Coffee every weekend with a rotating menu.