On Friday, February 27th, I opened the door into a small apartment in the Taft. In a dim room there was a table set for ten, glowing from the line of tall candles atop it. Wineglasses and silverware were set and guests trickle in slowly. Light shined from the kitchen, where Lucas Sin, DC ’15 and Kay Teo, DC’16, both clad in chef’s whites, were working in a controlled frenzy. Aromas wafted out of the kitchen as they would for the rest of the evening, making my mouth water in anticipation of the next course.
This was Just the Two of Us, an invitation-only off-campus supper club that diners purchase tickets for in advance. I had the privilege of experiencing their maiden voyage. Over the course of three hours (and for $40), I enjoyed a seven-course tasting menu (plus amuse bouche) that featured ingredients both familiar and unfamiliar in inventive combinations. Who knew that ginger and enoki mushrooms paired so well with local flounder, or a torched black sesame marshmallow nestled into a walnut crumble?
Sin and Teo would. Back in 2012, when Teo was a freshman and Sin a sophomore, the pair began Y Pop-Up, a student-run group that operates different pop-up eateries within Yale residential college butteries. Each semester since then has brought in new concepts, new chefs, and new spaces. Y Pop-Up has met the need of a young population that is suddenly more attuned to the importance of good food.
People who love to cook have found guidance under Sin. Some students who have worked in his kitchens (the chef team) have even gone on to culinary school. On the business team, aspiring restaurateurs learn the ins and outs of training a wait staff and managing expenses. I, who came to Yale searching for a way to express the importance food held in my life, began freshman year as a business manager of Ash & Honey, last semester’s fall project. With only the qualifications of a one-time hostess gig and a love of eating, I was soon operating Square (the credit card app) and managing reservations. You don’t have to work on Y Pop-Up, though, to be a part of what Sin calls “a community through food.” You just have to show up and eat.
But what Sin and Teo are embarking on now is not a Y Pop-Up project. It is off-campus, personal, intimate. One of my fellow diners said: “I am so bringing a date next time.” The optional wine pairing featured a carefully selected Riesling, Malbec, and Sauternes. Although both Sin and Teo want to maintain an informal air, the experience of dishes placed lovingly in front of my awaiting maw is undoubtedly special.
It is intimate for the chefs too. Sin described the menu as “autobiographical,” with one course a take on Oyakodon, a dish from Teo’s childhood. Instead of the traditional chicken-and-egg rice bowl, Just the Two of Us served a bowl of ancient grains with traditional toppings of sous-vide egg, seaweed, ginger, shitake mushroom. Another nostalgic course was Claypot Rice, a nod to Lucas’s first venture in Hong-Kong. His first pop-up derived its name from this traditional dish of rice cooked in a ceramic pot with sausage and spices. For our table of ten, it was done with braised pork hock, Chinese sausage, onions, and spices including Szechuan peppercorn and ginger. When Sin removed the lid of the large pot tableside, his guests closed their eyes, and breathed in.
It is dishes like this that are examples of the “freedom to create” that the pair yearned for as a mean to round out their partnership. Sin described their first venture, the Underground Noodle Collective, as initially “just kids messing around in the kitchen making delicious food.” As Y Pop-Up matured, a little more foresight was required. Sin couldn’t just go to the farmer’s market and see what looked good, as a fine-dining chef might. When you’re cooking for fifty, you can’t take a chance on a new type of mushroom, or expensive cut of fish.
This semester, though, he can say to the table of ten: “check out what I can do to this piece of duck.” Because of this freedom, I get to bite into thinly sliced tender duck breast with its perfect layer of crisp, fatty skin. I tried to restrain myself from inhaling the entire course in one bite. As I chewed, I tried to remind myself of the deeper meaning of each bite beyond culinary hedonism. There’s something surreal about ten people—who didn’t know each other before, for the most part—willing to devote both money and time to tasting food created by a couple students in their early twenties.
There’s also something surreal about the two people that fluttered around the table all night, busing plates and putting the finishing garnishes on their dishes in clear sight of their audience. After ushering dozens of students into the food-service experience, the two mentors relinquished control. “Because it started as the two of us,” Teo said, they “thought it would be nice to end it with the two of us.” When the meal was over and each sat down with a glass of wine, their content expressions made it clear there was no better way to bring their time at Yale to a close.
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Though Teo and Sin may no longer dominate Yale’s food scene, neither has plans of slowing down. Teo, who is currently a junior, told me that when Y Pop-Up started, she thought of it “as a sort of side project.” It something to do for fun, and would not encroach on her plan to go “into the corporate world.” But after continuously running Y Pop-Up for two years, she realized that contrary to popular belief, she could be an entrepreneur without a programming background. But, she said, “until this year I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur.” Only after exposure to the corporate world during a summer job did she realize her “side project” was far more than a few students messing around in the buttery. Now, confident in her experience, she maintains that her new goal is “to be an entrepreneur in the food scene.” Just as Y Pop-Up aimed to bring food-lovers together at Yale, Teo sees her unique position as a Yale student with a “global mindset” as one perfectly poised to “bring Japan to the world though food.” Japan has a lot of really innovative things, Teo laments, but few Japanese have any interest in bringing such innovation beyond Japan’s borders. But “one of the easiest ways to start,” according to Teo, “is though food.”
Sin, who is graduating this spring, has already found the next step in his culinary journey. He has landed the chef and culinary director position at Junzi Kitchen (opening late April), a restaurant that is the brainchild of three Yale graduate students. Sin, who “always knew that food was something [he] was very interested in an interdisciplinary sense,” sees Junzi as a haven for “philosophical, ethical, and historical aspects of a cuisine.” It’s not just a “Chinese chipotle,” but is “very much grounded in a deep understanding of how Chinese food has evolved in America.” That understanding is an essential component of Sin’s mantra: “to tell stories through voices that haven’t been heard before.” Like Teo, he knows that food brings people together and can tell stories in itself. Just think of the Clay-Pot rice and Oyakodon. From the ten people who sat at his private table on a Friday in February, to the many he looks forward to cooking for in the future, I have no doubt that Sin will accomplish his goal of “making people think about how to eat.”