By Chris Mohney
Brian Tsao is the former chef at Beauty & Essex and Mira Sushi & Izakaya in New York. A chef contestant in the first season of Beat Bobby Flay (which he did), Tsao is also a member of the metalcore band Loss Becomes. In 2022, he opened Mission Sandwich Social in Brooklyn.
When I was the age of 13, my father woke me up on a Saturday morning and said, “Boy, I came to this country at 11 years old, and I started washing dishes at 12. Now you’re going to start working at the gas station.” My dad had a gas station at Flatbush Avenue and Dean Street.
Back then, in the early 90s, we were the only Asian people in the area. We dealt with a lot of racism, but also a lot of elbow grease, stocking shelves, sweeping the yards, stocking tires, cleaning bathrooms—you name it. In the summer, I worked five days or six days a week. We closed on Sundays, otherwise I’m sure my dad would have made me work seven days.
But I was the richest kid in the school because I’d get paid a $20 a day, which, if you think about it now, is child labor. But I guess it doesn’t count when it’s within your own family. Anyway, the point I’m making is that typically every day he’d order Chinese food—chicken with broccoli, beef with broccoli, General Tsao’s chicken, egg foo young. But once in a blue moon, he would order sandwiches from the local bodega, and it was such a treat. They were big heroes, lots of mayo, lettuce, tomato. It was always pastrami and cheese or ham and cheese. Those are the only two sandwiches my dad knew.
But my mind was blown by sandwiches at 13 years old. I remember telling my dad—and I don’t know what possessed me to say this—”I can make a sandwich like this.” He just stopped and looked at me and was like, “Really? Okay.” And then a week later, to my mom’s dismay, there was a fucking professional meat slicer on the counter. My dad instructed my mom, like, “Take Brian to Restaurant Depot and have him make lunch for the staff.” He said to me, “I’ll pay you an extra $20.” So that meant that I was making $40 a day.
I made basically the same thing the bodega was making—ham and cheese and pastrami and cheese. I thought I was getting fancy by putting peppers in there, or pickles or raw onions. The staff absolutely loved it. That was really my first memory of cooking food for money. I don’t know, it just felt right.
Years later, in November 2019, I was visiting a friend in San Francisco. Just a trip, just hanging out. I love going to California at least once a year. I was in the Bay Area and met up with a buddy for lunch. No intentions. He’s just a buddy of mine that I’ve known through the metal scene. He took me to a spot called Little Lucca, and I saw them making sandwiches out of this crazy-looking bread. There were just tons of different combinations that were so fun and creative.
You could clearly see this is a super DIY place because all the specials were in plastic sheets taped on the window and in very different degrees of yellow, depending on when they were posted up. But they were just so much fun, and this bread had this very distinctive pattern. I tried the sandwich, and my mind was blown. All of a sudden, I thought to myself, “How come New York doesn’t have this style of sandwich? How come I’d never heard of or seen this bread before in my life,” which is called Dutch crunch.
So I insisted that we try a number of sandwiches the next day. My weeklong trip became this sandwich search. I was so enthralled by this bread and this style of sandwich that’s stacked and saucey and veg-heavy and creative and fun.
My background is in Asian cuisine. I grew up with a Korean mother and a Chinese father, so I grew up with these two cuisine types that are obviously very famous and very notable. But I always wanted to spread my wings with cuisine outside of Asia. I saw the sandwich as the perfect vessel to basically do whatever the fuck I want.
I went back to New York, and I couldn’t stop thinking about these amazing sandwiches. And then I started to realize that New York sandwich culture is predominantly bodegas and Katz’s, both of which are absolutely amazing. Nothing wrong with these two sandwich cultures. But I felt there wasn’t that much in between. I saw this opportunity, to do something different with something that can be easily understood.
Here I am, getting inspired, thinking, “The world is my oyster. I have all the time in the world to work on this project.” I made another trip in December and another trip in January, and we all know what happened in March 2020.
We hit pause on everything. I’ve been cooking professionally for 18 years now. I also probably have undiagnosed ADHD. So come March, everything shuts down. Obviously like everyone else, I’m completely devastated. But then I said to myself, “I’m stuck at home. This is the first time I’ve had all this time.” And I kept telling myself that I wanted to do something on YouTube. I wanted to work more on my social media. I told myself, “By the end of this pandemic, whenever it is, I’m either going to have six-pack abs, or I’m going to have a new skill.”
I will confirm to you that I do not have six-pack abs. I drank a lot of six packs, but I also learned a lot of new skills. I learned about cameras, editing, lighting, learning how to manage a YouTube channel. I created a whole YouTube show to keep myself engaged in the world of sandwiches. I basically was filming my R&D for the sandwich shop, whether it was going to happen or not.
I figured, I’m already stuck at home. Nothing I can do about this. But I really love this project, so I might as well just keep marching forward. I started sending questionnaires to my closest friends, the quote-unquote celebrities, mainly in the metal world. I sent them a questionnaire, and I created a signature sandwich based on their answers.
I had all the research done, everything was tested, tried and true. I managed to perfect the bread in that time. When things finally started to open back up, I had a whole foundation, a body of work. I was able to basically say, “Hey, I’m ready.” I’d say a year later was when I was given the okay to start looking for spaces. It was a long search, but nine months later I managed to find the space that we’re now in.
You would think that landlords would be more eager to rent at a lower rate, but no. That definitely didn’t happen.It was a combination of myself and my investors being picky, being very selective of where we opened. And that’s really what led to the process taking so long.
We always knew from day one it was going to be in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That was a given. But one of our concerns was the history of the location. We didn’t want to go into a spot that had a lot of history of failed restaurants. Typically, turnkey places have a lot of history of failed restaurants. Another thing was really taking our time and making sure it felt right. What you would think would take a couple weeks multiplied into months and months and months. But I’m glad we did that, because I’m very happy with the location we ended up with. It was a laundromat prior to me taking over!
When it comes to managing my time—check in with me in two or three months, see if I’m in an asylum or not. To be honest, you have to make time. For example, I have my first paid partnership for my YouTube channel with Hello Fresh, so I have to just plan it out like I do everything else. I know that I can’t bang out this ad in one day. So I filmed the B-roll one day, I’m filming the monologue another day, and I farmed out the editing to someone else. It’s just about planning—making the time and committing for that time.
I purposely opened Mission Sandwich Social in the late winter or early spring so that I can rev up for the warmer months. Right now is a combination of watching my labor costs, my food costs, and hopefully start running some specials, because I’m really treating this project like a fine-dining restaurant where we have a seasonal menu, where we run specials, where I give the cook an opportunity to have some input on the menu and be collaborative.
Priority number one, aside from all the stuff that I named off, is customer experience and employee work culture. One thing that I’m very much an advocate of—and we’ll see if I made the right move in half a year to a year—is I want the restaurant work culture to be a more positive place. Back of the house can easily become very toxic … underpaid, underappreciated staff and harsh working conditions.
One thing that my investor told me about his philosophy of how he runs businesses is that no one’s job should ruin their day. I have really dived into that mindset. It’s making sure that our customers feel a lot of joy and love when they walk in there, and can see that joy and love passing through every staff member from the cook to the dishwasher. Happy staff equals happy customers, and happy customers equal even more happy customers.
I have the HR talk with everybody that I hire. Right now I am HR. I sit everyone down, and I tell them the whole philosophy that I don’t believe that your work should ruin your day. But also that it’s okay to make mistakes, because the successes of my career are built on the bricks of my failures. One of the most important things is that we’re there to prop each other up, that we’re there to make each other better. It’s very common in restaurant culture, especially back of the house, that there’s a lot of machismo, there’s a lot of shit-talking. And it’s hard. I do think that the culture can benefit from a bit more positive energy, a bit more collaborative energy, and propping one another up rather than looking to see what mistakes you are fucking up on and then pointing fingers.