One year ago last week, Chinatown saw its first innovative modern Chinese restaurant open in Shojo. Co-owner Brian Moy has grown up working inside the same China Pearl building that houses his small restaurant that now serves an eclectic mix of creative Asian food and craft cocktails. As renovations were underway below us, Moy spoke with Eater from inside the cavernous dining room of China Pearl. We talked about the history of Boston's Chinatown, the stresses of a seemingly slow open, and the secrecy of Chinatown kitchens.
Congratulations on your first year of Shojo. Does it feel like one year?
It seems like it went by very fast but at the same time we've gone through a lot. It has been a very interesting first year. We haven't even fully launched all of our programs that we intended to. Within the next couple months, we'll be launching the rest of our program, such as Asian charcuterie. And we'll be starting our weekend brunch in September. The Asian charcuterie [started] on our anniversary day. Unfortunately, a lot of our products take thirty, sixty, ninety days to cure. But we have enough that we can start launching now.
What kind of stuff?
We are doing classic charcuterie with Asian flavors and also traditional Asian charcuterie. We are doing a head cheese that has a star anise, five-spice flavor. We have a pig trotter terrine. We have a pig ear terrine. We wanted to really work with some more funkier items this year. Go a little bit away from the safe side of things and really step out on the ledge and be able to experiment with more foods.
Tell me a little bit about opening day and what that was like for you.
Opening day was very surreal with all the hard work and effort that went into it, to see it actually exist in real life. It has always been one of my dreams to do Shojo. In the last three to five years, there has been a huge Asian food explosion throughout the States. In Boston, I love to go to great restaurants like Meyers + Chang, East by Northeast. Not at those guys, but I felt like a lot of other people that were using Asian flavors could be doing a lot more with the food. I always felt that Chinese food in general has been a little bit undervalued, compared to Italian, Japanese, and Korean, where they are able to produce good quality traditional food and get good pricing for it. Chinese food, however, has always been somewhat of a lower-tier price point.
It amazes me that you can go to China King and get a Peking duck for 38 bucks for four people.
And be completely full!
Beyond full. It's almost insulting, in a way, that it's that low. Not insulting to the diner ?
? To the cuisine itself! And that's why I really stepped out of the box a little bit. I felt we could do more with it. We wanted to really stay true to that aspect of it.
Going back to our opening day, we were nervous. We had an opening day party, but we weren't sure if anybody was going to show up. We invited lots of friends and family and spread the word around. We had a lot of ceremonial things before the guests started coming. We had a whole roasted pig that we blessed with the gods. We had traditional foods that were brought out as offerings. We did an opening day line dance ceremony. They did it on the street, a sort of show for the guests. They also blessed the front of the restaurant, blessed the kitchen, blessed the bar, blessed the counter. That's all part of our opening ceremony customs. It went very smooth, without a hiccup.
Did people show up?
Yes. We had a full street. We had a full house. We packed the place. It really introduced the food to people. We technically do fusion cuisine, but back then we did not want to use the term fusion. It gets misused so often that I really hate that word, honestly. People think that if you put sushi, Thai, Chinese, and Japanese food on the menu, it's fusion. So we termed ourselves as "modern Asian food" and a lot of people had difficulty understanding what modern Asian food is. We sort of liked not boxing ourselves into a certain category. Nowadays though, we have embraced the term fusion. It's really what we do. Sometimes we even do reverse fusion.
What does that mean?
Our first year, what we did a lot of is traditional Italian, French, American cooking techniques, using Asian flavors and Asian ingredients. This year we started looking at reverse fusion, which is going to be more geared towards traditional Asian techniques with non-Asian ingredients and flavors.
In BN Lee's not-quite glowing review of Blue Dragon, Shojo was brought up as "quietly serving some of the best bar food and drinks in the city." "Quietly" is a phrase I've been hearing from a lot of people when talking about Shojo. Have people been finding you?
It's very surreal. When I started this restaurant, I put a lot of my heart and soul into it. The music, the atmosphere, the look, the food, the clothes. It was really if you took a mental picture in my brain; that's what's going to come out. Everything, every single aspect of Shojo, is something that I can stand behind and be proud of. We got good reviews and everybody who was coming appreciated the food. But business was really slow. After the first month, I took a hard look at myself and what Shojo was. I said to myself, "maybe people don't like what I like? Maybe it's too narcissistic of myself to say 'everybody is going to like what i like'" When people weren't coming in through the door, that's when it really started making me reflect on our concept. I started talking to some of my friends in the restaurant business and they started laughing at me because it was only month. They said "Brian, you have to calm down a little bit, it takes time."
The first three months were a little bit scary. We were coming close to the end of our reserve financing. Around October or November, business really started picking up. But it really wasn't on a consistent basis until right around springtime 2013. The press and the guests, people of Boston in general ,have been really supportive of us and we feel very blessed and very lucky for that, honestly. It was a great honor to be mentioned in someone else's review. To be in the same category, and to be thought of together [with Ming Tsai], it's mind-blowing to us.
You grew up within China Pearl, correct?
I've been working with China Pearl for close to 22 years now and still currently manage and own the one in Quincy. I also help manage the one in Chinatown. I started when I was 10. Because I was 10, I was "helping." I wasn't "working." I haven't had weekends off since I was 10, except for my senior year in college, when I took the whole year off from working. I figured it was my last year before I have to hit the real world. So I took that year off and had a lot of fun. China Pearl was started back in the 60s with the Chin family and the two brothers, Frank and Billy, the godfathers of Chinatown. They brought all the politicians into Chinatown and really made Chinatown what it is today.
My father came to the country when he was 14 and his first job was at China Pearl as a busboy. He was eventually opening his own businesses when the Chin family decided they no longer wanted to operate and approached my father to offer it to him before it hit the market. I still remember the day when he had to go to the bank for his loan. He never wore suits back then.)This was when I was 6 or 7, roughly second grade. And it was during the summertime. He put on his suit, and I gave him a high five and I told him "you are gonna rock this world." Back then, China Pearl had no dim sum and he had a vision to expand the business. And there were a lot of naysayers, just like for Shojo. A lot of people in the neighborhood basically doubted that Shojo would be successful because I spent money making the bathroom look nice. I take a lot of pride in our restroom because Chinatown has a stigma that the bathrooms are always dirty and bathrooms are a good representation of how clean the restaurant is. They didn't get the effort that we put into decor. The concept of the food, nobody understood. People didn't understand our business and it was a little frustrating at first because people would consistently tell us "you're going to fail."
These were your neighbors?
Some local business people, different patrons at the restaurant. Not everybody, there were some people that didn't quite understand, but said they'd give it a try. Chinatown has a history of being against change. One of the first Chinese bakeries in Boston was Ho Yuen bakery. Back then everybody made all their breads and pastries at home, so everyone said there was no reason to come out to purchase. They are still around. When Ginza opened as the first Japanese restaurant in Chinatown, they said "nobody eats Japanese food; nobody eats sushi" and they were one of the busiest pioneers of sushi in Chinatown. Shabu-Zen opened the first hotpot restaurant in Chinatown and people once again said "that's not going to work" and once again, they were successful.
When my father started China Pearl's dim sum program, there were already three dim sum houses: Dynasty, Imperial House [both closed], and another one across the street. Three very popular, very busy restaurants. They said "there's not enough people, not enough clientele, it's not a good idea." And he carried through with it, bringing chefs over from Hong Kong. And as soon as we opened it was a huge success and dim sum became where we got most of our recognition. It's why I take Shojo as a personal challenge, because we had so much difficulty opening and so much resistance in the neighborhood. Having grow up in Chinatown, I wanted to bring a different crowd of people in and expose it to more kinds of people than your typical Chinatown patron.
Do you think that's happening? Are patrons of yours asking where to go try Xiao-long bao?
Yes, and that's one of our great pleasures. We got customers that came in and yelled at us, "you don't serve General Gao's chicken! How can you be in Chinatown and not have pork-fried rice?!" And we just smiled and said "we can definitely suggest different restaurants." We see people come to Shojo as a destination point. They take the taxi, hop off, come straight to Shojo, hop back in their cab, and leave the neighborhood. But the great thing is our regulars will start to ask where we would eat, and we'll start suggesting restaurants to eat specific specialties. And we don't have any issue with that. A lot of times Chinatown businesses, they don't want to lose the business, so they are not going to suggest anything else to anybody. We look at it more as "come, welcome to Chinatown, explore." We have the luxury of being able to communicate in full conversational English, so we can definitely guide people the right way in Chinatown.
We recently posted an interview with Grant Achatz where he was surprised to learn that the current generation of Boston chefs around town like each other, that they are friends who collaborate. Has that collegiality started happening in Chinatown?
Chinatown always has been a very secretive industry. We have chefs that will tell their sous chefs to do a certain part of the process, then they turn their backs and start measuring and pouring different things, so they will never fully teach you their recipe. I feel in the Western kitchens, you share and you grow together. A lot of it is because of job security; they feel threatened. They feel that if they teach their underlings the recipe, then there's really no need for the chef anymore. So that's where that originates from.
Our barbecue chefs, in the past have done the secrecy thing. "If you want to fire me, I am going to take my recipes and you can't reproduce this food anymore." We've battled through that. But that's why we are also very loyal to our employees; in turn, they are very loyal to us. We have a specific barbecue chef that makes the suckling pigs for our whole company, makes the char siu for us, makes our ducks for Shojo and China Pearl. He started as a kitchen helper with no specific role. Whatever needed to get done, he got done. His first day in Boston, he started working by my side. I didn't realize that until last year, when he said "Brian, we've been working together for 21 years and I've been in Boston for 21 years. As soon as I landed I came straight to your restaurant, and I was working by your side and we were working together." Then I realized how old I was. But, it's people like that, that we start to train and mold within our company to progress and now he's our head barbecue chef.
Boston Magazine just named you Chinatown's best neighborhood restaurant. Are you seeing a lot of Chinatown residents come into Shojo?
Our clientele is very unique. Our Asian clientele, typically will be roughly 25 to mid 30s. Our non-Asian clientele, we get upper 20s all the way up to 60s and 70s. We don't get too much traditional Chinatown business. And that is part of the difficulty we had when we first opened. We don't have a lot of cross-sharing of customers. A lot of the customers come to Chinatown looking for traditional authentic Asian food and we don't fall into that category. We're not going to get someone who's going into a mom and pop shop saying "next time we'll try Shojo." Where, if you are in a different neighborhood with lots of trendy restaurants, you go into one place, you try the next place, and restaurants share a customer base.
But is it important to you to be in Chinatown?
This is my first independent restaurant and I wanted it to be in Chinatown. I did find it important. I see a lot of changes happening in Chinatown, a lot of apartment buildings, condominiums coming up. Tufts Medical Center and Tufts Dental have expanded, and I see the demographic of people changing . I feel that Chinatown is not able to retain all of these new residents. That's why I really wanted to come into Chinatown and put our foot-stamp on Chinatown. We have future plans for different neighborhoods. But, for Shojo and my very first one I wanted it to be in Chinatown.
Any more changes ahead for your second year?
Later kitchen hours! Monday through Wednesday the kitchen is now open until 12:30 AM. Thursday through Saturday until 2 AM. We are going to do a late night spin on yakitori called yaki-Shojo. We are actually planning on expanding deeper into late night. We have a 3:30 AM license through China Pearl. Once everything settles down a little bit, we are going to be launching. And then in September, we start weekend brunch which I am really excited about.
You never hear chefs say that they are excited about brunch.
We had a kitchen meeting about a month ago, when we were discussing brunch as that graveyard shift no one ever wants. For me, outside of the kitchen, I've been really excited about brunch because of all the fun stuff we can do. We are going to keep it Shojo-style, which means we are going to do traditional brunch items with an Asian spin, some will be items like Hong Kong-style French toast, a traditional Hong Kong-style dish, if not a traditional Chinese dish. We are going to do our version of eggs Benedict with Chinese bacon on it.
What's been the best part of this first year?
I think one of the coolest things that we really appreciate, is the amount of support and kind words that we've received from, not just customers, but specifically industry people. Restaurants that we love to go eat at, their head chefs are coming, their owners are coming and giving kind words of support. They show us a lot of love when we go to their restaurants to eat. To have those people that we admire come to us and say they admire our food is really mind-blowing. Jamie Bissonnette is coming through our restaurant frequently. We are in awe that he's loving our food; we love his restaurants. The Gallows' Seth Yaffe is one of our good friends, he has been really supportive of us. It's just really weird and a little different for me because I am used to Chinese chefs that I worked with before being really secretive and different owners don't get along. With them, it's more like "they are open and they are going to take our business" and there's a lack of camaraderie and I felt like once we opened Shojo, all these restaurateurs welcomed us into almost an inner society. People have invited us to go out after work and they come out and support us. It's really interesting to see that happening. We are really excited for year two.
Eater Boston intern Gabriel Bellegard Bastos transcribed this interview.
· All coverage of Shojo on Eater [~EBOS~]
· All coverage of One Year In on Eater [~EBOS~]