By Anne Cruz
Amelie Kang is chef-owner of Málà Project. The first Málà Project opened in the East Village in 2015, and brought Sichuan dry pot into New York’s mainstream dining scene. For her work with Málà Project, Kang was honored in Forbes 30 under 30 and Eater’s New Guard. The concept has expanded to three locations throughout Manhattan. A fourth location in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is slated to open this fall.
My parents wanted me to study advertising or media, and I had my mind set on that until I impulsively decided to go for culinary arts. My mom ended up agreeing only because I had shown her all the articles on Gordon Ramsay. I said, “Chefs can be cool, too.” Chefs didn’t have a good reputation in China. To my parents, it just seemed like a lot of work for a girl in the kitchen, which it is. Now things have changed. My mom sees that I’m good at it and that I’m really enjoying myself. And at the end of the day, everybody’s got to eat. No matter how the world changes, restaurants are going to be around for a really, really long time.
I got into baking when I was in high school. I had met this really cool New Zealand pastry chef, Hao Li, and he was doing a lot of traditional Western pastries that were very different from what we had back in China back then, importing really nice butter from New Zealand for all the puff pastries. It was just really cool to see. I applied at the Culinary Institute of America, which only had two majors—pastry, one is culinary—so I chose culinary.
I graduated and started working on Málà Project with my partners in 2014. It took us about a year to get it open. We always wanted to grow more than just one location, whether it was going to be multiple smaller projects or one mammoth project. When you have only one location and you’re young, it’s nice to dream about growing into multiple locations. But now it feels like we’re more grounded, and everybody on the team is more confident.
I don’t think I can say I know what I’m doing. Some things you’re like, “Okay, I’ve done this before, so I kind of know what to expect.” We didn’t really have any mentors to learn from, so you have to do what you can and learn from your mistakes. The confidence comes because everybody’s learning new skills. None of us come from a business background. As we’re learning, we see that we have more resources, we have more tools, and we have a bigger network to rely on. We’re working with more professional companies and outsource talent. So confidence makes things easier. We know more now than two months ago, and we definitely know more than five years ago.
I’ve been relying on situational leadership, which is a concept that I recently learned. It’s basically four different styles of leadership, and you apply different styles to different individuals in different situations. I never wanted to micromanage, so I try to avoid giving somebody really specific directions or instructions and try to let them figure things out. But in certain situations, you have to give really specific instructions.
Leadership is a topic that I’m personally super interested in. You can’t really call yourself a leader when you’re 23. I didn’t have the confidence, but I knew the difference between the leader and the manager. We always talk about these things with the managers, and we’re always talking more about leadership rather than management. We’ve always had that conversation going since the beginning. I have a leadership coach, and I try to learn a lot from him, and then I’ll take what I learned from him and I’ll deliver it to my team. In the grand scheme of things, the goal is to make everybody a leader. You can definitely see everybody growing as a leader, myself included. But that’s just going to be a forever project.
When the pandemic hit, we were really lucky to already have the customer base and the system in place, and we were already on all the platforms you can imagine. One of the challenges was figuring out how to stay in touch with everybody because the rules were changing all the time. That took a toll on the team members, because nobody really knew what was right or what’s wrong. So we learned a lot from that experience—the psychology part of things, and how to keep our team feeling safe, and how to keep the customer feeling safe. Last month, everybody was all about masks, and then the next month nobody wants to wear masks anymore. You have to go with the flow and try to please everybody. There were definitely a lot of curveballs. Now I feel like there’s no situation that we can’t handle as a team because we had to deal with the hardest situations.
Having multiple locations helped with staff shortages because we were able to move things around. The managers have to jump on the floor. We made it through. Last winter, we were worried that we had to close because we had no people to work for two weeks. A lot of restaurants had to close because they had no people. We didn’t end up closing, but people were working overtime.
We had always been getting requests to go to Brooklyn. We have a pretty wide clientele, and we’re pretty affordable, too. We want the diversity in our customers, just the same as in our team. So going to Brooklyn is pretty easy, and so many people who work at the Málà Project also live in Brooklyn. I live in Brooklyn myself. I like Greenpoint—it has a cool vibe and a mix of old and new. I like that area in particular, but we were looking all over. We were looking at Park Slope, we were looking at Boerum Hill. I believe if you see a space and it’s meant to be, then sign it. We got that sense from this location in particular.
We were intentionally looking at the neighborhoods that have the vibe we like, although that’s such a vague thing to say. But a lot of the times when we go scouting, we just sit in the neighborhood and we feel it. You can look at the demographic data, but it really doesn’t mean much. We see a lot of the same qualities between the East Village and Greenpoint. We’re on the border between Greenpoint and Williamsburg, which I really like. I especially like Manhattan Avenue, because it’s got so much life—even on Monday mornings, it’s always busy, and there’s always traffic. It’s a very intimate neighborhood. That was a big turning point for me.
Selecting a location is very important, especially when it comes to the landlord. We make sure we meet all the landlords, and we make sure that they are good people. You can see, because of the pandemic, so many stories between the restaurants and the landlords or the tenants with the landlords. That’s a game-maker or deal-breaker, what kind of landlord they have. We got really lucky that all of our landlords are super supportive. That was really reassuring.
I think people’s perceptions of Chinese food have changed, but we’re not there yet. This is just the beginning. Also, the pandemic really set us back. There was a really good momentum going on at the end of 2019. We would hear stories about people trying to open new types of Chinese restaurants. People were going really, really regional. But unfortunately, the pandemic killed a lot of that. I think it is changing, because you can see different clienteles that we didn’t see before.
A couple of years ago when we first opened, a lot of our customers had been to China, or they had lived there. It was a slow, organic growth in our clientele. Now you can see people who have never even heard of dry pot before. So it’s a different experience for them, and it’s a different experience for us to try to communicate with the customers about our food. But even at the Málà Project, I can’t even say that we represent Chinese cuisine because it is such a small percentage of that. There are a lot of people doing cool things, like the guys from 886, and Bonnie’s. It’s going to take so much more time for us to really change people’s perceptions of Chinese food. As we are opening a new school of Chinese restaurants in America, there are also American Chinese restaurants. They’re going to keep opening, too. But I like where this is going. It’s nice to see.
I really would like to bring Málà Project to other cities. The challenge of our industry is that if you want to bring it to more people, you have to physically go there. As the company grows, we can also build a bigger platform for our staff.
A really big goal of ours is to increase the quality of life for people in the industry. We really don’t get a lot of resources as restaurant workers. A lot of people didn’t graduate college. How are they going to know about communication skills if they’re busing tables 10 hours a day? If we provide those resources, then people are going to appreciate them and use them to improve their other areas of life.
I think good food is good food. Human tongues are not that different. People appreciate nice flavors. I don’t really believe that Chinese food has to be sweeter in America. We have billions of people in China, and each person has different tastes. When we first started Málà Project, I didn’t have the confidence to say that everybody was going to like our food. I just wanted to cater to people like me—Chinese international students. But surprisingly, in the first six months, our customers were locals, American, all types of people. Everybody really bonds over food. It’s the same way that I would enjoy a nice bowl of pasta. If it tastes good, I like it. I don’t know what’s authentic. I’ve never been to Italy. But I know that this bowl of pasta tastes really good.