Yiming Wang and Xian Zhang have made a name for themselves in the Chinese culinary scene with their Michelin-starred restaurant Café China, and the sequel restaurant China Blue. Their newest concept, Birds of Feather, is capturing the hearts of folks all across the Williamsburg area and beyond. Upon entering the space, you’ll be wowed by Yiming’s skill for interior design along with exceptional service and food. We sat down with Yiming and Xian to hear what made them take the leap to the restaurant industry from their stable careers in finance.
Tell me a little bit about the three restaurants and how Birds of a Feather is different.
Yiming: Both Café China and China Blue reflect the 1930’s Shanghai. Birds of a Feather is a refreshing take on what we did before, but with a modern twist. So it reflects some modernism – it’s where we are now. It’s not 1930’s Shanghai, it’s America, it’s Brooklyn – it’s still an authentic Chinese restaurant, but it’s definitely about the story of our current days.
For people coming to Birds of a Feater for the first time, are there any standouts on the menu they should try?
Xian: I think the point of our menu is that we try to make it so that every item is good. So that if I just go in there and pick something, it’s going to be good. We don’t do fillers – we don’t want to just have something because people are going to complain if we don’t have it. If it’s not good, we’d rather just have it off the menu.
Tell me about your journey of immigrating to the United States.
Yiming: I came to the United States for graduate school. I wanted to come here because I think I’m one of those people who loves everything in the West. It’s my guilty obsession. I love the food here – I love the music, the film, you know… the food, especially. I think everything looks very simple and very spot on – very purposefully, well designed. The entire system is well designed. So I can fancy all that, but I think it’s also because when I was a child, I grew up eating Western food. It feels very simple and very clean; very cool. So initially, when I came in, I really loved everything here, but after a few years of school and working, I felt it wasn’t sufficient anymore.
So I looked back to my own culture and my own food, and that’s what inspired us to package this up as a business idea.
Another – I came here for graduate school and dreamed of living a brand new life. But a few years after, I realized I was living a life that my parents dreamed of. I worked in a glossy high-rise investment banking office, but I felt that it wasn’t who I was or what I wanted to do.
Xian: I came here at a very early age – I was 13 at the time. I came because my parents lied to me. They told me that I was going to come to America for travel – to visit, but we ended up staying here. So I think my journey is probably more American than hers. Career-wise, I changed careers three times. First, I was in technology. Then, I went to banking.
I graduated in ‘98 and people who grew up in that era; I think we all dream about being an owner of a dot com. That was before the dot com crash of 2001. So everybody’s talking about entrepreneurship – that kind of idea never really left.
We felt that there was, at the time, a lack of good, authentic, well-run Chinese restaurants. We were having difficulty finding a good place to go eat. So that was kind of the realization; if we ever get a chance to open our own restaurant, this can be different.
It’s really incredible that you’ve built three very successful restaurants without any experience in the industry. Was there ever a time where you felt like this was just too much of an undertaking?
Yiming: Absolutely. But we are used to that because we are immigrants.
Xian: We were pretty stress-tested before we started the restaurant because we worked on Wall Street, and it’s a stress environment also. But there are moments where I felt like, this is too much. But you always go through it.
To hear more of Yiming and Xian’s story, check out Season Two, Episode Seven of the Open Belly podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
191 GRAND STREET, BROOKLYN, NY 11211
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Images by Chris Dolt | Edited by Emily Neudorf & Kristen Reames