Born in an Ontario town called Kitchener, it’s almost as if Lucas Sin ’15 was destined to love food. Though Lucas and his family relocated to Hong Kong when he was young, his attraction to the kitchen remained. By the time he was 16 years old, he had already opened his first restaurant.
“Most families in Hong Kong have Filipino maids, and I wanted to take Western gourmet food and make it cheap and accessible to the maids of Hong Kong,” he said. Lucas had a friend who owned a private club with a semi-professional kitchen. Together, the two of them grew Lucas’s little idea into a full-blown business.
He decided to name the restaurant Bo Zai, which means “clay pot” in Cantonese. It’s a nod to his signature dish: clay pot rice. The budding restauranteur served “reinvented Hong Kong cuisine” and taught friends how to hold plates, cook, and discuss wine. Customers paid between $30 to $45 per person for a 13-course meal served at the one table in the establishment. For the two summers that he ran Bo Zai, Lucas would visit the market in the morning to sort out exactly what he wanted for the menu that night. At around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, he’d pick up the food from the market and spend the rest of the night preparing the meal.
But like any good entrepreneur, Lucas is a risk-taker. Instead of continuing to rent out space for Bo Zai, he transformed it into a “pop-up” restaurant and ran the business without a license or a marketing strategy. It became what he called “laundry basket operation.” Lucas carried the ingredients and equipment in a laundry basket and catered in other people’s kitchens. He cooked for teachers and friends of friends. “Part of the excitement,” he said, “was the possibility that you might get shut down by the cops one night.” This thrill-seeking chef was clearly in it for more than the food, but he also did not keep any of his hard-earned money. Half of the profits were spent on the ingredients, while the other half went to charity.
Lucas has since passed on the operation and only runs it when he is back in Hong Kong. When he arrived at Yale, he was unsure whether he wanted to use his cooking skills for anything outside of treating friends to meals in his room. Last year in Biology, however, Kay Teo ’16 struck up a conversation with him, and, after learning of his passion for food, pushed him to start a restaurant. Together they established Yale Pop-Up, a project that opens a new restaurant each semester. Kay is the owner, or as Lucas puts it, “she does everything not related to food. The idea is that I have all the time in the world to concentrate on food.”
The project kicked off with the Underground Noodle Collective run out of the Davenport Dive last year. “It was much more of an assembly operation,” said Lucas. “I spent all of Thursday and Friday assembling everything for Friday night. ‘nom.’ [this semester’s pop-up restaurant] is more execution based. I trained a team to cook for a month, and there’s much more collaboration. This year I am much more of a teacher because I am the only one with restaurant experience.” They serve small $3 plates with the idea that customers order several and pass them around family-style. “We serve Asian drunk food. It’s a controlled chaos. Refined messy food.” The dishes are usually accompanied by indie music and smiles, all of which contributes to the fun ambience of the Dive on Friday nights that Lucas, Kay, and company have created.
Lucas loves cooking because he’s able to express his creativity through the dishes he creates. “Last year with the Underground Noodle Collective,” he said, “it was about putting together tasty food for people who enjoy it. At this point it’s about building my own brand of food, my own cuisine, figuring out what sort of food I want to put out as a representation of myself.”
From a 16-year-old experimenting with Hong Kong cuisine in an abandoned warehouse to a chef defining himself in a college basement, Lucas has maintained his passion for the kitchen. Working the line at a restaurant, he said, is one of few things he loves most in life. As a chef, he writes the menu, comes up with the flavor profiles, and determines the recipes; but the adrenaline rush while working fuels him through the night. He admitted, “I spend all of Friday cooking, and by the end I am exhausted and never want to cook again. But by Thursday I’m ready to go.”
Lucas knows that a cook’s life is difficult, which is why he is not necessarily looking to go straight to the kitchen after graduation. He is convinced that he “can apply the privilege of [his] education to cuisine in a way that can be impactful and meaningful.” Although nom. has closed for the year, we can all look forward to tasting Lucas’s love for food in next semester’s Yale Pop-Up restaurant.
Photo Credit: nom.