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Haijing "Zing" Bai, a 35-year-old former lawyer, made an appointment with a real estate broker last June to check out a space in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, where she wanted to open a restaurant.
That first meeting turned out to be their last.
“He heard that it was my first restaurant, and he just walked away,” Bai told NBC News.
A month later, the Beijing-born business school graduate found herself another agent and came better prepared with a business plan she drafted in under a few hours. “I realized I needed something to show people that I’m serious about this, not just a bored law firm associate who’s joking around,” she said.
Bai’s pitch was to sell a healthier alternative to Chinese-style fried rice that would be ready in three-to-four minutes. Her “pan-seared rice,” as Bai calls it, would be a big hit on the Lower East Side, she predicted, where both the hip and the health-conscious live and visit.
The new broker took her to a cozy space on Ludlow Street, a former brick-oven pizza joint that can squeeze in around a dozen diners, and after observing foot traffic while day drinking at a wine bar across the street, Bai decided to sign the deal and open Zing’s Awesome Rice in November.
“I want the food to be awesome and eye-catching, and I hope it works,” said Bai, who chose her English name "Zing" because she likes the way it sounds.
Bai’s decision to build her eatery around rice came from her love of ramen. In many major American cities today, ramen shops are as ubiquitous as sushi restaurants, but before the Japanese noodle staple became the in-thing to eat in the U.S., many Americans’ knowledge of ramen started and ended with Cup Noodles, introduced to the American market in the early 1970s.
Bai wanted to do for greasy fried rice what ramen shops did for instant ramen. So in early 2015, Bai, who often cooked and invited her lawyer friends over for dinner, told her co-workers she planned to leave Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, a New York law firm, to become a restaurateur.
“They’re all like, ‘That’s so true, you’re so good at cooking, why are you being a lawyer?’” she said, laughing.
But to be successful, Bai needed to invent a process that quickly dried out steamed rice, which helps with stir frying. To eliminate the excess moisture, cooked rice is ordinarily stored in a refrigerator overnight, so to speed things up, Bai experimented with baking the rice at a high temperature right after it was steamed. Following a massage with a touch of olive oil — a necessary step for white rice, she said, but not for brown or purple rice which have husks — the kernels are spread on a tray and put in the oven for 10 minutes.
Bai discovered that this not only dried out the rice but also gave it the chewy texture desirable for fried rice. “This was the technical breakthrough,” she said, adding it took almost a year to figure it out.
“Watching people eat my food is the greatest satisfaction.”
One popular dish at Zing’s Awesome Rice is the Sausage Seared Rice. Bai uses lap cheong, a smoky and sweet Cantonese-style pork sausage that she often cooked while studying for her MBA at Hawaii Pacific University. Lap cheong is fatty, Bai said, so she removes its excess oils by first steaming it.
The dish is listed at the top of her palm card-sized menu, and it’s what 24-year-old Ahmed Ashour ordered on a late Tuesday afternoon in January. Ashour was in from Brooklyn to visit friends on the Lower East Side and was hungry because he had forgotten to eat lunch.
“So I Google-mapped ‘healthy food,’ and this was the closest one that popped up with really good reviews,” he said.
To prepare Ashour's order, Bai heated a non-stick frying pan and added a quick stream of olive oil from a squeeze bottle.
Reaching for ingredients stored in a salad bar-style counter off to the side of the stove, Bai added garlic followed by handfuls of lap cheong and carrots. Afterward came brown rice, celery, and red and green peppers. In another small pan, Bai scrambled an egg as she stirred the sizzling brown-rice medley. To prevent the rice from sticking, Bai dribbled in a few drops of water and added her secret sauce, whose ingredients she would not reveal.
As promised, Ashour’s meal was ready in less than four minutes. Bai packed it into a 26-ounce take-out container and sprinkled some raw scallions on top.
“The ingredients are really simple, but it’s really flavorful at the same time,” Ashour said as he tucked into his $12.99 meal. “The consistency is exactly what I expect in brown rice, and all of the peppers and vegetables actually complement the rice.”
Bai caught the tail-end of Ashour’s review, bringing a smile to her face, a reminder of why she enjoys cooking so much.
“I cannot cook for myself,” she said. “I feel that that process is very depressing. In the end, if it’s just me eating alone, it’s sad.”
As a little girl, Bai developed an appreciation for all things culinary from her father, an air force general in China. “The way he expressed love was by cooking for me,” Bai said.
But Bai’s parents also made sure their daughter learned the ropes of the kitchen. When Bai turned eight, it was her turn to make a meal — a dumpling party — for the family. Having mastered the different steps of dumpling making as she grew up, Bai prepared everything from scratch, including the dumpling skins and stuffing, she said. The result was a resounding success.
“Watching people eat my food is the greatest satisfaction,” Bai said.
Time will tell whether Bai’s pan-seared rice will catch on the way ramen has. It’s been only three months since Bai opened, but she’s already earning a profit, she said. In the future, Bai plans to let each employee draw a percentage of the profit, to make them feel a sense of ownership in the restaurant.
Bai also has a larger goal: she hopes to turn Zing’s Awesome Rice into a chain. She said she’s looking to open a second restaurant in downtown Brooklyn, Hell’s Kitchen, or the Financial District, where she lives. And if she expands outside New York, she said she’d consider bringing her pan-seared rice to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Charlotte, and Miami.
“I want to see every customer who has rice walk out the door looking happy,” Bai said.