Getting to Know the Chin Sisters: Gloria and Emily
We’re thrilled to say that we’re back at it—sneaking behind the kitchen door once again to continue our Industry Chats series, getting the scoop from some of Boston’s best chefs and restaurant owners on how they do what they do. This time we’re featuring Double Chin, the modern Hong Kong style restaurant in Chinatown that is catching everyone’s attention. While it may appear that this spot strays from the traditional, the Chin sisters, Gloria and Emily, hence “Double Chin,” have rooted this restaurant in the traditions of their Asian-American upbringing. The menu is an homage to their childhood with a huge visual appeal for all of the Instagrammers out there.
The girls, who are now both in their mid-20s, grew up in Brookline and Chinatown in a Cantonese-speaking household. Unfortunately they no longer have their parents with them, but they were a huge influence on Gloria and Emily when it came to preparing a cohesive and tasty meal. Both girls have no formal culinary training, only home cooking backgrounds. When they were younger, starting at about the age of 10, they would cook for their family. They started off simply, making things like pasta, then their parents asked about appetizers and dessert, and over time they were making three- and four-course meals that were very technical. They tried to please their parents who would critique them each time. By high school they had a lot of dishes under their belts as they were always fighting for the approval of their parents.
I sat down in the cozy space and chatted with the Chin sisters at the end of their lunch rush on a Tuesday. Emily popped in and out of the conversation so that she could keep an eye on things. I learned a lot of new and interesting things about this hard-working power duo. Enjoy!
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
G: My background is in food blogging and has been since I was in college. Having a restaurant after I graduated was very organic, especially because the social media space is growing so much. Digital marketing has become such a big part of our day to day lives. Having a menu with tasty but photogenic foods was really important to me. I went to Northeastern and I went to Boston Latin and I studied social entrepreneurship and marketing. People always think social entrepreneurship is social media but it’s actually social impact. In my travel blog I try to promote ecotourism or clothing brands that donate to people who don’t have clothes.
*Emily is currently on the pre-med track in school
Tell me a little bit about your family. Who cooked in your house growing up?
G: My parents both loved eating food but my dad was definitely the chef. He could crack four eggs at once!
How has Chinatown changed over the years while you were growing up?
G: Everyone spoke Cantonese when we were growing up but there has been a recent influx of people who speak Mandarin. People from the north of China didn’t come over until recent years. In Chinatown there are more Mandarin-speaking people now while before there were none. In terms of Chinatown, there aren’t many places that offer cuisine outside of Chinese food besides us, Shojo, and BLR, because we’re owned by younger generations but everything else is still very traditional and old school. In terms of Chinatown, the food scene hasn’t changed too much but I do think the people who live here are different now.
What is it like working with your sister? What is the dynamic there? What roles do you each play?
G: It definitely took a while to get used to. We both have very similar personalities and we live together, and we work together, and we have similar friends, so I feel like I’m with my clone all day long. It can be a little much, but we’ve definitely been trying to figure out a way to work and live and survive together. It’s definitely easier now. In terms of strengths and weaknesses she’s definitely the logistics and practicality queen; she loves managing people, and I don’t, I’m very non-confrontational and I do all the creative stuff like all the photography, the marketing, and a lot of outreach. In terms of the food, that’s something that we both love to do together. A big part of our menu are Chinese staples.
Describe Double Chin in three words.
G: Fun, creative, crazy.
What is your favorite dish on the menu?
G: I love the cube toast!
E: The Chinwich. I remember when we first made it we were trying to think of a creative way to serve scallion pancake. So we were thinking, let’s try to make it in a sandwich. Then we were thinking, which ingredients? The creation of the Chinwich was such a beautiful process. The ingredients just go so well together. The char siu that we grew up eating and then to lighten it up with some fresh vegetables and pickled carrots and radish and sauce.
So, Cube Toast…
My family had Bao Bao Bakery from many years ago, I think it’s 15-plus years and the products there are amazing. We love the bread and we knew when we were opening up a restaurant, incorporating some of those items and showcasing our bread there would be really important to us. The brioche we use to make the cube toast is actually from the bakery and I love that because you literally can’t get more local than that. We wanted to have a really crazy, over the top dessert, something that people would travel to Boston for, something that was Insta worthy, and something that was just really fun to eat, because you can share it with your friends. It’s a social dessert and whenever you think of the dessert you’ll associate it with really good memories. So it was inspired by honey toast or Shibuya toast. There are many different versions of cube toast in Asia, primarily Taiwan and Japan, but their versions are a little bit different and not as over the top as ours; they’re usually half the size. For those they use honey toast, which has honey in the bread, but for us it’s French toast batter and we actually fry the whole thing to make it like a French toast.
E: It’s like bite-sized French toast with all these other toppings that people love like Frosted Flakes and fresh fruit and chocolate syrup and condensed milk.
What are some of the most nostalgic foods that are incorporated into your menu from growing up that you remember eating?
G: Chicken and broccoli!
E: Some of the soups—the wonton noodle soup and pickled pork and veggie noodle soup. Those are more traditional things that my mom would make for the morning. For Cantonese people we love having soup. Soup is seen as very healing and nourishing. When my mom cooked she always tried to have a soup to go with the dinner because it is a very important part.
Talk to me about Spam and how you remember eating it growing up.
E: I mostly remember eating it in ramen. My aunt would slice it and pan fry it and put it on top of ramen.
What was the process to opening Double Chin like from the first thought to opening day?
G: What’s funny is that when we were first thinking about restaurant names we thought about a bunch of them and randomly I was like, “what about Double Chin?” And we were actually questioning whether or not it would be a good name, and looking back on it now I wonder why I was even questioning it for one second.
E: The Chinese name of Double Chin is also a pun. It means for, food, family. Together it means different things. It can mean foodie family, it could also mean expert, foodie expert, or foodie family. It means always wanting to eat or munch on stuff, insatiable. So you can mix and match the words to have a lot of different meanings.
The story backtracks to our bakery next door. When the lease across the street ended my mom really wanted to continue the bakery and so we found this space and my mom signed the lease and then we were committed. And we were thinking, the space is so large what are we going to do with it? We were both taking some time off to take care of our mom and run our businesses and so we were both thinking of ideas of what to do with this large space and whether we should open a really large bakery and cafe. We decided to cut the space in half and open Double Chin and Bao Bao Bakery. This felt so natural to us to open a Hong Kong style cafe and restaurant but with American fusion.
*A Hong Kong cafe is kind of like the American equivalent of a diner with a big menu where people go for food that is quick and not too complex.
G: Something really fun is that we have a special license that lets us stay open until 4am so when people get out of the clubs they come here. When we first opened and I was a little younger I thought it would be cool to come back and hangout with friends at our restaurant after going out. I’m also really into electronic music so DJs who are playing in the area come in after and that is so cool!
And we both love desserts, and we love Asian desserts, and there’s not really that many places in Boston where you could get that so we really want to showcase that here.
E: When we decided on the name Double Chin, we wanted our place to tell a story, not just through our food, because the food embodies our Asian-American identity, but also because we’re sisters. We wanted our logo to have a house in it. We also wanted the ambiance here and the decor to showcase that as well, which is why we have a bookshelf and a swing chair, and our bathroom is decorated like a kitchen. In the beginning it was tough because people were like why do they have this stupid swing chair here? It takes up so much space….they could have a table here instead. For us it’s really cute and cozy.
Has social media played a role in the success of the restaurant?
G: Honestly, enormously. We’ve gotten so much outreach because of it too from big companies like Thrillist, The Travel Channel, Insider Food. It was all inbound too, we never had to reach out to anyone or pay anyone. And I feel like as young entrepreneurs that’s impossible without social media.
What is it like being female business owners in the Boston restaurant industry?
G: Very empowering. We hope to inspire people in the community.
You mentioned growing up in an Asian-American household, what does the term “Asian-American” mean to you?
E: The movie Crazy Rich Asians actually showcases well the differences between an American identity and an Asian identity. As an Asian-American going to Asia, we’re still seen as outsiders, and kind of no matter where we are we’re an outsider until we’ve embraced our identity as either an American or an Asian-American. We’re just seen as, oh, they’re so American. In terms of what it means to be Asian-American it really depends on the person and how much they embrace their Asian identity or their American identity. It’s unfortunate because I feel like a lot of people do this, and I’m guilty of this as well, for a long time I’ve rejected the Asian side of my identity to try to fit into school. I’ve rejected my mom’s lunches that she’s packed for me. I tried to not learn Chinese to fit in. And the moment that I’ve come to embrace my culture and my identity has been very empowering and definitely gave us a lot of inspiration with opening up Double Chin and having fusion foods. I think it’s clear which items are just Hong Kong dishes but there are so many dishes that really define our childhood, like the mac and cheese that’s made with Chinese ingredients and the poutine that’s made with Asian ingredients.
And as you’ve gotten older do you still feel that internal controversy?
E: I definitely feel more proud to be Asian, or Chinese, and American. I think my identity is always evolving. Everyone else’s too. I think in certain social circumstances I feel like, oh I’m more Chinese in this moment, or I’m more American in this moment. Sometimes I try to hide certain parts of the identity. And I wish that wasn’t true.
How does this translate into the foods you’re serving?
G: Our menu is a combination of Asian fusion foods with more of the traditional stuff. Most of the first half of the menu, like the savory bites section, is more of the fun and creative stuff, and the stuff in the back like the stir fries, noodle soups, and rice plates are more traditional.
*Rapid Fire Questions*
What do you eat late night/early morning after a long shift?
G: I love pizza. And I love vegan nuggets, the frozen ones. And I love peanut butter (right out of the jar).
E: I usually make ramen with a poached egg on top. My boyfriend and I have this thing called late night yummy noodles. It’s all I crave at night and in the morning.
What is your one go-to dish that you can make in your sleep? Who taught you to make it?
G: I love doing stir fries and I love cooking what’s in season; so for me it would really depend on what I find when I go to the grocery store. I love buying local produce because I really believe in eating locally. For our family parties I love making some spring salad with fruit or nuts, something that has bright flavors but also crunchy aspects.
E: Probably a poached fish of some sort. I think my aunt taught me how to make it. A lot of our cooking here was inspired by my aunt. My mom’s sister raised us and she’s an incredible cook and so for a lot of our dishes I give credit to her.
What is your favorite dish in Boston?…Not from your own restaurant.
G: The lobster roe pasta from Island Creek Oyster Bar, the chicken quesadilla from Anna’s, and the fried clams from Burke’s.
E: I love the Mexican street corn from Toro. I love, love, love corn so that’s a big thing for me. And also the corn pancakes from Alden and Harlow. I hate to just focus on corn but it’s corn season right now!
Are there any foods you hate?
G: I would always say that I liked to eat everything, and then there was this one time that I didn’t like this one ingredient and it was just like see you don’t eat everything and I was like OK sorry I don’t eat this one ingredient that appears in dishes .01% of the time! I also don’t like dried shrimp.
E: I always write down a list of things I don’t like, because honestly it’s just chicken liver. We had goat brain at an Indian restaurant once and that was quite hard to eat. I also don’t like pig feet.
Who is/was your biggest food inspiration?
G: I think Anthony Bourdain for me personally. Just from the media perspective and also his personality. I remember watching so much Anthony Bourdain with my father growing up so I think that’s why Anthony Bourdain stuck out in my head. Even prior to his death he always had the special spot in my heart. I loved that he was very cultured and he was not some dude trying food at places. He was a true traveler.
E: My dad had a very strong influence on me. There were just a few dishes that stand out very strongly in my memory, like napa cabbage that’s cooked with evaporated milk. I remember when I told my boyfriend he said, “that’s sounds gross.” I’ve tried to make it and it’s just not the same. There was also another, it was a steamed fish that he would slice raw and layer with prosciutto and shiitake mushrooms and ginger and it was just so fragrant. I never had anything like that. I’ve never heard of these things anywhere else. Another person who is inspirational to me is Joanne Chang. These Asian-American women from Boston who are just killing it in the kitchen.
E: Food shouldn’t have boarders, and while it can be confusing if a menu has different ingredients, I think the evolution of food shows that food is influenced by so many different cultures. Our Hong Kong food is pretty much British influenced and Portuguese influenced because of Mação. Food is just so eclectic. As long as we are treating these ingredients with respect and we’re cognizant of how we use these ingredients and the stories behind these ingredients I think it’s OK to have a bit of everything.
Be sure to check out Gloria’s food and travel blog, Princess Travelries as well!
Tags: asian-american, boston chefs, boston restaurant owners, Boston's Chinatown, Double Chin, industry chats
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