Exploring the first principle of doing small, simple things with as much care and attention as the fancy stuff.
By Judy Ni as told to Chris Mohney
After beginning her career in business, a growing obsession with food drew Judy Ni to start over at the bottom of the restaurant world. She quickly became an accomplished front-of-house operator, and by chance landed a choice job at the legendary Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Increasingly convinced that her family’s Taiwanese cuisine needed space on American tables, she and her husband Andy Tessier (himself a veteran of Daniel Boulud’s kitchens) opened fast-casual baology in Philadelphia in 2017. Since then Ni has also cofounded Hospitality Together, a nonprofit that helps people find jobs in hospitality while earning college credit on a flexible schedule.
When I was growing up in New Jersey, restaurants were not a worthy endeavor for Taiwanese people to pursue. It was considered for uneducated people—and especially in America, with the way that people treat most, for lack of a better way of saying it, non-mainstream American cuisines—a choice that you were forced into.
When I went into the corporate world, I was fortunate to have the means to continue exploring eating very well. I fully took advantage of my expense account and corporate events. It was a very privileged way of being able to enjoy my early 20s. I thought, why isn’t there Taiwanese food? It was something that people didn’t know about. You could go to Flushing, and you could find it in the markets there because of the large Taiwanese population. But in Manhattan or even Brooklyn at the time, there was no place to find it. It made me sad and made me miss a lot of the foods that I grew up with.
I was so lucky to have access to Taiwanese food for such a long time. My parents would cook for me, or my grandmothers would cook for me, or my aunts would cook for me, or I would go back to Taiwan for months and hang out there. I didn’t appreciate what I had until I couldn’t have it easily.
I spent a few years working at a Taiwanese-owned operations company and improved my Chinese because I was reading, writing, and typing it all day. I felt closer to Taiwanese culture than I had, and understood it in a way that I didn’t appreciate when I was younger. The experience stoked that fire in me that kept wondering why there wasn’t more Taiwanese food available. You can find certain Taiwanese foods in certain places. But for me, Taiwanese food is inherently such a wonderful cuisine. It’s built on the idea of comfort. It’s taking care of people and showing how you respect your body and take care of others by actually feeding people. I missed that.
So I had this wonderful idea of opening a restaurant, which at first I thought should be fine dining. I told my parents, and I think the best way to describe it is, they were horrified. I told my mom it could be a really great thing. We could showcase Taiwanese and really give it a voice in this country. And she was like, “No, you can’t do this. This is not what we do.” Very harsh.
We had one family friend who was connected to the restaurant business. My mom called Uncle Harry and said, “Hey, do you want to show Judy your kitchen?” They did American Chinese food. They did very well, but it was not a Taiwanese place at all. I told him my idea, and he was like, “Can I just suggest that you keep on the track that you’re on? It’s going to be a lot better.” But I saw his kitchen, and the energy in it was amazing. I came out of it even more convinced that I had to open a restaurant. And my mother was like, “I think this backfired completely on me.”
After I got well into the restaurant business, I worked at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and it was wonderful and an amazing experience. But it’s not Taiwanese. People don’t spend $250 on a meal in Taiwan. And from a Taiwanese perspective, what’s missing in traditional fine dining is the idea of community.
Realizing this shifted the way I thought about our business model for what eventually became baology. I didn’t want it to be a tasting menu place. I didn’t want it to be fine dining. Taiwanese food is not, at its core, fancy. The best part about it is the care that goes into it.
You can’t actually change a food system if you don’t make it more egalitarian. If your price point is $250 a person, it’s such a rarefied air that people exist in. It needs to come to a more everyday basis if we’re going to change the way people eat, and if we’re going to change the support that we offer to our local farming partners and our community. That became something that we wanted to focus on—having well-sourced, well-made food at a fair price.
One thing I find crazy is how people feel that non-fine-dining food is somehow less valuable. I can tell you, having worked at literally one of the best restaurants in the world, there’s no lack of quality or technique in our food. We’re just doing it in a setup that allows it to be enjoyed on a more regular basis.
That’s how baology came about: all the small things that people love to eat. We started with three basics. Potstickers. Gua baos, which are the buns. Thank you to David Chang for popularizing them. But I’d like to say on behalf of the Taiwanese people, you’re welcome. And the last one was something called a ruen bing. Very much a Taiwanese thing. You talk to people from China, they don’t necessarily know what ruen bings are. You go to someone’s house. Everyone spreads out all these veggies and all this peanut powder, these sauces, and these proteins, and you mix and match and make your own.
My family’s from a town in Taiwan called Hsin Chu. There’s a very famous market there called Chenghuang Miao, which basically translates as “City God Temple.” The most famous place for ruen bing in Taiwan is that temple. It’s two blocks from my grandmother’s house, so I grew up eating it all the time. You always waited if someone would make it for you fresh. It was something I wanted to put on the menu because I love it. And my mom was like, “Don’t put it on the menu. No one’s going to eat that.” I said, “I don’t care. I want to eat that.”