If Jenny Gao were a tech bro, the headlines would say she was trying to disrupt the hot sauce industry—perhaps purporting that her brand is the Uber of Chinese condiments.
But instead, as an immigrant woman chef, Gao is forging her own quiet path toward her dream: creating a conversation about the flavors of her native Sichuan through healthful, high-quality packaged foods.
Gao’s Fly by Jing brand—which currently makes Sichuan Chili Crisp, Zhong Dumpling Sauce, and Mala Spice Mix—was Kickstarter’s highest-funded craft-food project, has sold over $200,000 in preorders, and has increased direct-to-consumer sales each month since launching in February. With Gao’s solid background in consumer packaged goods, expertise in Chinese cooking, and big-thinking ambition, Fly by Jing seems destined to soar into kitchens across the country.
The flagship product, Sichuan Chili Crisp, is a multi-textured sauce that requires you dig in with a spoon to get at the big bright flavors from tribute peppers—an ingredient almost never found outside China. The chili crisp is a dip, sauce, condiment, or brine, depending on the day. It’s designed to be versatile. It works atop eggs or noodles, roasted into vegetables, or mixed with cream cheese and spread on a bagel.
The umami-heavy flavor even boosts sweets—in chocolate chip cookies or spooned over ice cream (really!). Above everything, it offers the kind of beguiling flavor that keeps you coming back for one spoonful after another until suddenly the jar is gone—and you’re no closer to being able to explain how the gentle heat and oily crunch pair so well.
Customers are intrigued, and to Gao, that’s part of the point. “I want to have a dialogue,” she says, to share the flavors she loves, to exchange and engage with people about them. “I wish I could sit down and tell each customer the backstory.” Gao created the sauce to help people taste Sichuan cuisine in a way they might not have before, to get them talking about the flavors and quality they might not have associated with it previously. The sauce’s creation also stemmed from her own realization that she’d drifted away from the cooking of her native Chengdu.
After growing up all over the world, Gao returned to Asia as an adult, working for Procter & Gamble, and realized she wasn’t the only one missing out on those specific flavors. “There’s so much depth and complexity to Chinese food, and nobody knew about it,” she says.
Gao founded an award-winning fast-casual restaurant in Shanghai, then moved on to cooking the foods she remembered in her private kitchen restaurant. As she took her pop-up dinners from Shanghai to New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and the U.S., Gao says she saw the reactions people had to ingredients and dishes they hadn’t tasted before—at least in part because so much of the cuisine never even made it out of China. At the same time, she saw how Westerners looked at Chinese food—why they expected everything to be cheap and made from low-budget filler ingredients—and the systemic biases that prevented the conversation around this cuisine from being about quality, rather than price.
Gao decided to make a product that would blow that conversation up. Her products use peppers acquired only through the mining of sources and connections she’s developed during her years as a chef and restaurateur. But beyond the coveted chili peppers rarely seen outside Sichuan, the ingredient list is simple and natural: non-GMO oils and natural sources of umami, such as mushroom powder, seaweed, and fermented black beans. The brand is vegan, gluten-free, and all-natural—fitting the bill for what Gao’s millennial peers often look for in a product.
So it’s unsurprising that most of her products have sold via her own website to a loyal customer base. But Gao sits now on the precipice of wider success. Her brand is expanding rapidly: arriving in Macy’s for the holiday season, raising a seed round of funding to grow her team, and then heading quickly into natural foods channels. Fly by Jing is already on the path to be on Amazon and in Whole Foods soon, in hot pursuit of her goal—to become a household name associated with high-quality Sichuan foods.
As she dives headlong into a wider audience, that growth means overcoming questions of authenticity and deflecting the inevitable comparison to Lao Gan Ma, the beloved and well-established brand of chili crisp and Chinese-style hot sauce. She says that is like comparing Cholula to Frank’s RedHot because they are both vinegar-based hot sauces. The only similarity between her sauce and Lao Gan Ma is that they’re both oil-based chili sauces. But people compare them because there aren’t many on sale here.
Gao stresses her product is about her own expression of Chinese flavor. “I’m not saying this is what Sichuan food is,” she says. “Everything is authentic to someone’s experience.” It’s about a conversation, one that Gao wants to have with anyone and everyone, about Sichuan cuisine: “It’s about bringing people around the table for a shared understanding, uniting them with amazing flavors.”
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