Early this year when I read that Ravi DeRossi was turning all of his fifteen restaurants vegan, I decided I would need to visit them all. After a very satisfying meal at Avant Garden this past winter, I’m finally going with my husband this Thursday to try Mother of Pearl. It seems like an appropriate summer spot, what with the tropical tiki cocktails and all.
Alden over at EcoCult recently sat down with Daphne Cheng, current chef of Mother of Pearl and rising star within the health and veg-focused foodie scene, so I thought it was timely to share her interview here.
Photo by Rachel M. Fry
Work hard and be nice. Daphne Cheng, a plant-based chef who is making waves in the New York City vegetarian, restaurant, and health scenes, is living proof of this adage.
The best way to meet this well-connected entrepreneur is by snagging an invitation to one of her opening parties or girlboss potlucks, which are invariably so packed with health scene luminaries, that you can barely hear her soft voice over the din. But don’t be fooled by her quiet demeanor; she’s the very definition of scrappy, fighting her way through an eating disorder, academic malaise, and New York City real estate disasters to become the powerhouse that she is.
And it’s clear this is only the beginning of her career. Consider this her first full profile, one of what I’m sure will be many.
I met up with her one afternoon at Mother of Pearl, a jewel-box tiki bar in the East Village that serves outlandish crushed-ice cocktails in silver cups in a setting reminiscent of a tropical plantation. I was long overdue to interview her for EcoCult. But I was glad I waited, because her career keeps growing, mutating, and expanding. The longer I wait, the more interesting things happen. I set up my recorder, and asked her to speak up. “Sure,” she said, then kept talking in the same, tiny voice, belying her gutsy entrepreneurial spirit.
Daphne grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Starting at 12 years old, she became anorexic. “Food was the enemy,” she says. “I tried to avoid it as much as I could.” She was 30, maybe 40 pounds lighter than she is now, which is painful to imagine, as lithe and petite as she is.
It was her freshman year of high school when she saw, really saw, a photo of herself. “We were on a cruise, and I was wearing a dress. And for some reason I was able to see in that photo what I actually was, versus the distorted version I saw everyday in the mirror. My face was sunken in and you could see all my bones.” She also was frightened by “thinspiration” websites, where proud girls with eating disorders encourage other girls in their sickness. “I ran into these websites, and was like, whoa, this is really scary. They posted pictures of models with their ribs sticking out, saying, ‘This is beautiful.’”
So she embraced food. “In the disorder I was already reading a lot about food and nutrition, but in the mindset of weight loss. When I woke up and wanted to be healthy, I could use all that information and apply it in a healthy way. I started playing around in the kitchen and reading a lot of cookbooks, and experimenting with recipes. And I realized I really liked it.”
Photo by Rachel M. Fry
Having seen videos of slaughterhouses, Daphne was already vegetarian. But when she found The China Study, an influential book that studied the diet and health of various groups of people in China and promotes the vegan diet as the most healthful, she started going vegan as well. When I asked her if the fact that she’s of Chinese heritage drew her to the book, she was thoughtful. “I’m a bad Asian. I can listen and understand the language, enough to get by, but speaking it … I don’t know the history and culture.” But she conceded, “It’s definitely important to consider where you are from for your diet. Because most Asians are lactose intolerant.”
She got into UC Berkeley and studied nutrition, but then dropped out. “I had already learned a lot of the stuff on my own so I wasn’t motivated to go to class. And I didn’t know which direction I was going. When you’re in high school you’re motivated to do well so you can get into college. That is your goal. But once I got to college, I didn’t have a goal. I was interested in food, but I didn’t take it seriously as a career, because I come from an Asian family where you have to be a lawyer or doctor, something traditional, safe, and respected. A chef is not one of those things.”
Adrift, Daphne ran an underground nightclub in Oakland for a year, in a sketchy part of town. The ground floor was an art gallery, the basement the nightclub, and upstairs had apartments, where Daphne lived. When she got fed up with that, her sister, who was already in New York, told her about the Natural Gourmet Institute’s professional training program. Daphne signed up for the year-long, part-time program and came to the big city.
She became a real estate agent to support herself while she studied, a skill set that would serve her well later in finding spaces for her food ventures, and started a vegan Meet-Up group, hosting potlucks. She graduated a certified vegan chef. “I don’t know how to cook meat; I don’t know how to cook fish,” she says. “If I ever went non-vegan, I would be in trouble.”
She launched a catering company with a classmate (she left a few months later to do her own thing), catering weddings and private parties. She also started hosting dinner parties for 12 people once a month in her backyard garden in the East Village, and a brunch series in a nearby park. “I was drawn to an intimate dinner setting instead of catering a dinner for a hundred people,” she says. Meanwhile, she was getting sick of having a mobile kitchen and hauling all the place settings and food from venue to venue. So two years in, she gave up the catering business, used her realtor’s license to secure an apartment space in February of 2013, and opened the supper club in May. It was called Suite ThreeOhSix.
Her friend, a freelance journalist, wrote up the grand opening in the Wall Street Journal, and people starting booking seats. “That was a relief, because before I had struggled to fill a 12-person dinner once a month,” she says. She was listed on the (now offline) site Underground Eats, and Well + Good wrote about Suite ThreeOhSix too.
Continue reading the rest of the interview over at Eco Cult