Ning “Amelie” Kang came to the United States to attend the Culinary Institute of America and moved to New York in 2014. Upon graduating, Amelie had just one year left on her Visa to legally work in the US, and when her year was up, she was forced to either open her own business or move back to China. At the young age of 23, she leapt into entrepreneurship with the opening of her trendy East Village restaurant, Málà Project. We had the opportunity to chat with Amelie about her journey as a young food entrepreneur.
Tell me a little bit about your restaurant, Málà Project.
The ambiance is kind of inspired by 90’s China, and in terms of the cuisine, we specialize in something called “Dry Pot”. On the menu, we have about 70 different ingredients that the customer can choose from. You have your beef, sliced fish, fish fillet, chicken thigh, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, and everything is stir-fried with 24 different spices and chili peppers. It’s brought out in a bamboo bowl and it comes with a side of rice.
I could compare dry pot to a younger cousin of hot pot. It’s stir-fried in a wok, but the format and the experience is quite similar to hot pot because you’re choosing all the ingredients and designing your own dish.
The only difference is that for a hot pot, everything is brought out raw and you cook it right there. Dry pot is much faster and it’s brought out already cooked with no broth.
How did you end up in NYC?
My family moved to Beijing when I was in high school. I went to an international school, and all of the kids either moved to America or Canada [once graduated]. I was looking at my major and my parents wanted me to work in either media or marketing, but I decided to go for culinary arts management. It took me almost two months to convince my mom.
And your dad was kind of always entrepreneurial himself, so he’s a little more open-minded to that path?
Yeah, my dad is a great entrepreneur and he’s a great leader as well. Growing up, he never made me do anything, and he didn’t even give me a lot of suggestions. So whenever I asked him what I should do, he would say only one thing; “Do whatever you want, but just do it well.”
What was your experience like, immigrating to the United States and diving into the culinary arts profession?
The first year of school was – you’re just always crying. I remember my roommate Christina and I, the first year we would just go home and cry. At the beginning, we felt bad and we comforted each other, but after a while, it just kind of became our ritual. People in the industry all know that if you need to take a minute, you just go into the little walk-in and close the door.
You can yell, you can cry, or whatever you need to do. And when you come back out, you just have to carry on.
So that was the mentality that I had to learn, and I was really grateful for it because I liked that part of the kitchen life.
So after culinary school, you had just one year to work in the United States. Were you ready to open a restaurant at that point in your life?
It was definitely in my plan to open up my own restaurant, but I didn’t know it was going to be that fast. So I called my dad I said, “Dad, what do I do?” and he was like, “Do whatever.” I actually think there was a lot of benefit to go into something without knowing much because when you know nothing, you can be anything. I guess I didn’t know how hard it was going to be. If I knew that, of course, I wouldn’t have done it. But when you’re not prepared at all, you just kind of evolve as things happen.
What advice would you give to people who are considering opening a restaurant?
Don’t do it (just kidding). I think it’s a great industry to be in and I don’t think there’s anything more fulfilling than feeding people and seeing how your food can change a person. I think in terms of the restaurant business, there’s a lot of competition.
I would just tell people, “Don’t look at the competition, because then you would just be as good as your competitors. Be yourself, and actualize that idea that you have.”
Then, there is a chance to succeed.
To hear more of Amelie’s story, check out Season Two, Episode Four of the Open Belly podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
122 1st Ave, New York, NY 10009
41 W 46th Street, New York, NY 10036
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Images by Alyssa Broadus (@littlefixations) and Chris Dolt (@cdoltbike) | Edited by Erin Doll & Kristen Reames