Kelley Lee is celebrating a decade in Shanghai this August, and the Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef has a growing restaurant empire to show for her 10 years in China. Her award-winning microbrewery, Boxing Cat Brewery, has two outposts in Shanghai, as does her Mexican concept, Cantina Agave, with another in Beijing. Her salad joint Sproutworks has a third branch opening soon, too. Lee’s newest venture is Liquid Laundry, a grown-up grastropub that opened to rave reviews this spring.
Lee and her business partner Lee Tseng took over the second-floor space in Shanghai’s former French Concession from a Cantonese restaurant. What was once a plush-carpeted row of private dining rooms is now an expansive space, flooded with light thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows. From the kitchen pass come plates of housemade charcuterie, buttery seared yellowtail and, out of a gleaming two-ton oven, pizza with just the right chewy-crusty finish.
Just after Liquid Laundry’s soft opening in April, we sat down with Lee to hear all about the secret to her success — and find out where to get the best fried chicken in Shanghai.
Where does the name Liquid Laundry come from?
It actually doesn’t mean anything — we just liked the alliteration. We were having brainstorming sessions about what to call the restaurant and no one could agree. My business partner, Lee, said that he had gone to a really cool place in New York that was called Liquid Laundry, and we should find a place with good alliteration like that. A week and a half later, after more brainstorming, Lee looked online and found the restaurant didn’t actually exist. He had been somewhere else with a similar name. When he figured that out, we said, “Perfect, let’s take it!”
What were your biggest obstacles in opening Liquid Laundry?
The pre-existing tenant’s license was still occupying the space, and there ended up being a lot of red tape that we had to get through to open the space. Other than that, though, it’s been pretty smooth. [The space] is a 700-square-meter (about 7,534 feet) beast, though. The sheer size of the space for a Western concept is something you don’t really see from independent operators. Large restaurants like this generally open as Chinese concepts.
How has early reception been?
It has been fantastic. It’s amazing what social media can do in terms of promotion. You really see it here in China with the advent of [messaging program] WeChat, where people can post photos. In the three weeks leading up to soft opening, we’d been having family and friends coming in for tastings. They were taking photos and posting to social media. Because of their posts, people would ask about the restaurant and, thanks to that, we’ve been able to get a lot of word-of-mouth business. People have been asking us how we got the restaurant so packed within the first week of soft opening, and I really think it has to do with social media — it’s incredible.
Can you let us in on the secret to your success?
The secret of the success of my restaurants has been providing something that people find value in. Whether that’s based on the price of a product or whether we’re filling a niche with something authentic, we’re giving people something they value, and [something] that Shanghai didn’t have before.
What advice would you give aspiring restaurateurs?
The advice that I would give anyone who wants to get into the restaurant industry is to really evaluate the reasons why they want to open a restaurant. The restaurant industry is something hip and happening right now, and people love chefs, so there’s this phenomenon where people may be enamored with the cooking industry. They have this romanticized view of what it is to own and operate a restaurant, but you need to come in with the right reasons. For starters, you really have to believe in the concept you want to do, and you have to love hospitality. Without those two things, it’s really difficult to succeed, because the restaurant industry is very grueling.
What’s your favorite dish at Liquid Laundry?
The dish that I like to eat is a side — stewed black-eyed peas with Hunan bacon. We do make our own bacon here, but we’re using bacon from the Hunan province for this dish. It’s very hearty — not like Western bacon — but really smoky. My favorite dish to cook is our grilled romaine salad. It makes me happy when somebody orders it. It’s something that’s surprising to a lot of people, because it’s a grilled romaine salad versus fresh. This salad is not a healthy salad; we make the bagna càuda dressing with a butter and olive oil mix, and the romaine lettuce is slathered in it. But it’s so delicious!
Where are your favorite places to eat?
There’s a Korean fried chicken place in Minhang [District] that is a favorite of mine. There is really nothing that a chef wants to have after work like spicy Korean soup, excellent fried chicken, a cold beer and some soju (a vodka-like liquor). I also like going to my Japanese yakitori place, [Yakitori] Fukuchan, which is right around the corner from Liquid Laundry. They have these delicious and addictive chicken meatballs on a skewer, and all sorts of chicken parts that I adore. In Shanghai, the two Western restaurants I enjoy eating at are GoGa, by Brad Turley, and The Commune Social. I’m from L.A., so one of the first meals I have when I go back to the States is at In-N-Out Burger — a Double-Double, two kinds of onions, extra fixings. Then it’s always on to some kind of a taco stand. The last one I went to was called Tacos El Gordo, which had the best tripas tacos. When I’m in New York, I like Nomad, which is really approachable. Their foie gras and truffle-stuffed chicken breast was delicious.
Photos Courtesy of Toby Chu, Six Sixty Studios and Leo Liu