Brian Chau – Food Mercenary and Entrepreneur
Any time is Chau Time as long as Brian Chau is here. Brian Chau is a food systems analyst, fungal fanatic, and charismatic chemist. He evaluates the food system through the lens of food democracy by looking into methods of reducing barriers of entry for entrepreneurs and food businesses to enter and scale in the food industry. With his experience in the food space, he has come to combine his food science knowledge with his love and obsession for fungi to co-found a mushroom company. MycoKind, a kindness that grows on you, focuses on building communities around appreciating fungi. The company is hosting a mushroom pop-up in collaboration with local farmers, foragers, fungal fanatics, brands, and chefs to showcase and promote a fun-filled fungal feast!
1. What has your experience been like as an Asian in America?
While growing up in San Jose, California, the heart of Silicon Valley, I was surrounded by mostly Asians and members of the Latinx community. I did not grow up in an environment where I felt like a minority. In essence, I grew up in this bubble that is uniquely different than what some Asian Americans experience in other parts of the country and US territories.
The only time I did feel different based on skin color was when I traveled outside of the San Francisco Bay Area. I recall a family vacation more than a decade ago where my parents were fortunate enough to book a room at some luxury hotel on the way to Catalina Island. While getting off a SUV and being surrounded by mostly older, white, wealthy men, there was this feeling of not belonging. That feeling is something I would never forget and is hard to describe because there were no words spoken or physical interactions. It felt like gravity pulled me and my family down during all the leering, as if to communicate “get out of here; you don’t belong”. I never knew a collective stare could have so much weight of uncomfortableness.
2. What led you to pursue a Bachelors in Food Science and Technology at UC Davis? How much influence, if any, did being Asian or having Asian parents influence your decision?
Serendipity. My father graduated from UC Davis for his undergrad as well. He studied some sort of engineering. Anyway, he lived through 3 strikes and several layoffs while working in hardware before and after the dot com boom. He told me not to become an engineer, which is surprising for many Asian Americans who live around Silicon Valley. Instead, like most immigrant parents, my parents pushed me to become a pharmacist or a doctor. I chose to compromise and look into nutrition programs. While applying to UC Davis, I had two options to pick for majors. I put nutrition as my first choice and scrolled up and down the list to stumble upon food science. I didn’t think much of it and put it down as a second option. I got accepted into Davis and was placed as a food science major. I didn’t know what it was and had to do some quick research. I liked the idea of playing around with food in a scientific sense. After some intro classes and research assistantship as an undergrad, I never looked back on choosing to have fun while learning about food.
3. What did you do after graduation that ultimately led you to become a food consultant? What do you enjoy most about food consulting and what do you find most challenging?
I jumped around from job to job in the San Francisco Bay Area. The food manufacturing scene in the area is limited and being pushed out because more money can be made through software and digital applications. Except for working for a startup, which I did from time to time, I had very limited options besides working for a food manufacturing company. In short, I worked in quality assurance (QA), research and development (R&D), confections, meal kit delivery, chocolate, juices, baked bars, and a couple of consulting firms working on a wide range of products. Every opportunity was a showcase of the oldest form of oppression and exploitation in the food industry. If you recall the history lessons of the industrial revolution and the lessons from The Jungle by Sinclair, the oppressive manner is still alive and well to this day. I mean it is applicable in any industry, but if California, and especially, the San Francisco Bay Area is this revered progressive state, then how is it that there are no discussions around oppression in the food industry? After experiencing racial injustice, sexual harassment, ridicule by an employer about being sexually harassed, exploitation for labor and being underpaid for my work, and getting laid off, I felt frustrated and disenfranchised. Nevertheless, I managed to go from unemployment checks to jumpstart my own consulting practice and completed a Master’s of Science in food systems and society with a focus on social justice through evaluating neoliberalism in Silicon Valley food and tech culture.
As I worked in independent food consultation and wrote my thesis, I observed and experienced the trials and tribulations of many hard-working entrepreneurs. There are a lot of barriers to entry in the food industry for about 80% of my clients. Each challenge is a puzzle that requires technical, socioeconomic, geopolitical, and regulatory knowledge. I may not know everything about the whole system, but I stick to the basic principles of people matter and it is the relationship that defines the working project as worthwhile to tackle. I connect the dots and help solve issues, whether it is supply chain for kukus, a Persian frittata for Oyna Natural Foods, or development of frozen yogurt for a Miami non-profit, GLOW. I learn and quickly adapt to challenges from keto chocolate truffles from Skinny Me Chocolates to a complex blend of herbal and medicinal mushroom infused syrups from Inveev. I find working with people from concept to commercialization of their products to be fulfilling.
4. How do you think Asian food products are perceived in the U.S. food industry and to what extent are those perceptions shaped by Asians?
The category of Asian foods in the US is seen through the perspective of a Eurocentric or Western lens meaning that Asian foods are perceived in juxtaposition to Westernized foods. That is to say that Asian foods are all lumped into one category, which they shouldn’t be. Furthermore, Asian foods are also seen as synonymous to Asian American foods, which they are not. Overall, Asian foods are considered “other” and are casted as secondary to that of whatever defines American foods. Of course, any other foods outside the scope of American food, including indigenous cuisines of the natives of the Americas, Latinx cuisines, Middle Eastern cuisines, Afro-influenced cuisines, and others, are classified as second to that of American cuisine as well. We can make note of that observation by visiting the general supermarket or grocery store. Most items stocked are not necessarily Asian. As a matter of fact, there is a specific aisle for international foods where Asian foods are stocked. Unless you go to a specifically Asian themed store, you won’t necessarily get what you need that is considered Asian foods and products. In other words, Asian foods, much like other culturally-different-from-western-cuisine-foods, are still casted aside as exotic or foreign.
I recently visited MOFAD, the Museum of Food and Drink, in Brooklyn, NY, where they exhibited the evolution of Chinese American cuisine. The historic racism depicted toward Chinese American cuisine still exist to this day in areas of the US where certain foods are perceived as smelly or weird. Chinese Restaurant Syndrome with respect to the use of MSG is also still alive and well to this day in many parts of the US. Not too long ago, a well known food magazine released two highly controversial clickbait articles about how to eat pho and how to make halo halo that mischaracterized the cuisines. This is all to say that the industry as a whole still considers Asian foods and products as second class and have the power to decide what is or is not valued in the American markets. We still have a systemic issue that permeates the American culture surrounding the idea that we can put a set of cuisines over others. That is not to say that we cannot have preferences or different opinions, but in terms of trying new foods or trying new restaurants, there is a distinct bias toward treating Asian foods and products unequally due to unfamiliarity. In other words, if we consider the US as a great melting pot of cultures and identities, then we should consider equitable, respectable, and dignifying treatment of said cultures and identities, including cultures and identities of food.
I will say that despite the demoralizing reality of how Asian foods are perceived in America as a whole, there is still some hope for change. There is an extent to which Asians are shaping food perceptions. Asians have used food as a form of culinary capital that leverages their culture. As seen in metropolitan areas, culinary capital is used to bolster the voice of marginalized groups. Pop ups have been a popular form of introducing cuisines in new formats and allow for creativity and understanding of so-called “peasant food” by other groups. For example, pop ups have allowed Het Say Cali and Kinnits to experiment with Asian influences and infuse those ideas into telling a story of Vietnamese or Asian inspired cuisine. In addition, Japanese culture has pushed for matcha, mochi, taiyaki, sushi, yuzu, sake, ramen, and more to help bridge the divide between tensions post WWII. Snacks from abroad including whole mushroom chips, shrimp chips, and rice crackers to name a few have helped to shape snacking culture. Brands and businesses including Mommy’s Banh Mi, Oxtale, Cali Poke & Pop Churros, and Three Gems Tea/Gwan Im Shop/Jia! cookbook are pushing to participate in a space that is highly competitive in the food industry. Each business promotes their own unique message, overtly or subtly, which is an opportunity to discuss what it means to be influencing the perception of Asian foods.
I have been waiting for this question to espouse more about my love of fungi. Look, I thought everyone loved mushrooms as much as I do when I was little. I thought my fascination was normal. I think the exposure to mushroom’s variety of applications helped kickstart my love. I describe myself as the Bubba Gump of mushrooms. You can fry mushrooms, bake mushrooms, sautee mushrooms, puree mushrooms, put them on a pizza, turn them into powder for an umami salt blend, pickle mushrooms, forage for mushrooms, cultivate mushrooms, kill a tree with mushrooms, make a broth out of them, and so much more. Ultimately, fungi are not understood as well as plants or animals, but I think the fungi kingdom has a place in our lives as cuisine or medicine. Without yeasts, we wouldn’t have beer or wine and a lot of alcohol for that matter…
Let me put it this way, foraging for mushrooms is a free treasure hunt. You don’t need to eat the mushrooms you find. You can simply admire the experience of finding mushrooms, the hidden gems of the forests. If you are surrounded by experts or have enough experience under your belt, then you are participating in one of the oldest forms of collecting food.
6. In fact, you’re launching a mushroom-themed popup! Tell us more about the event.
I talked a lot about the social nature of food and food systems work. The next progressive step for me is to look into creating an event to encourage discussion and fun around fungi. I am working with chefs, brands, farmers, foragers, and fellow food industry members to create a 5 course, 3 beverage all-inclusive meal in San Francisco. There is also a VIP ticket sale for added courses based on foraged items. The meal is vegan to highlight mushrooms and their umami flavor profile. There is no alcohol because alcohol permits in San Francisco is limited and catering licenses defeat the purpose of having a pop up. Also, some foraged mushrooms like the honey mushroom induce vomiting or nausea if consumed with alcohol. Honey mushrooms may or may not be on the menu. The dates are set for December 6 to 8 of 2019 because that Sunday lines up with the Mycological Society of San Francisco’s annual Fungus Fair. From now until then, there is a lot of planning, organizing, tasting, and foraging!
We are collaborating with other Asian-Americans, and brands and products, such as mushroom chips from Gina Shi at Munchrooms and koji dips from Eleana Hsu from Shared Cultures. I have a good Filipino American friend, Keith Calara, who went from being a bartender to a minister of a youth group at a Presbyterian church in Napa, who is willing to help create 3 mocktails using mushrooms as an ingredient to pair with the meals. I also have a food scientist who is born in Taiwan, but moved to the states around high school who is working on the desserts.
The front of the house is staffed and led by my good friend, Leonor Mendoza. Tinker Kitchen, founded by Dan Mills and a makerspace for all things food, was gracious enough to let us have a venue space. The menu is developed by a great chef whom I was introduced to by his wife while I worked in the chocolate industry. Their wedding hashtag was Mac and Bri. You know you have committed food enthusiasts when you see a wedding hashtag about food! I am also working with fellow mycologists, Will Goss and Jake Keller, who are avid foragers that I met at a radical mycology course. Both are doing interesting work. Will is fighting for psychedelics to be legalized beyond Oakland, California and is looking into cultivation of edible mushrooms, not psychedelics. Jake has a lot of experience in fermentation and biotech. He holds independent classes to democratize scientific processes on the side too.
I saved the last for the best, my co-founders, Hung Doan and Stephen Young. Both are amazing individuals in their own right and down right fungal fanatics. Hung has a PhD in plant pathology, manages a lot of the mushroom R&D, and has a deep connection with the environment. Stephen has a PhD in food science and technology with a focus in encapsulation. With this entire ensemble of fungal fanatics, we come together to create an experience that is meant to promote the people in the space, the food, and the dialogue between each other about fungi.
7. Why have you decided to pursue a PhD at this point in your career?
I have always wanted to look into being a professor, and I have an opportunity to go to Vietnam and teach at the University of Can Tho City on food and ag, but need a PhD to do so. At the same time, I felt that I was not qualified to do the level of research I need to do within food systems work. After graduating with a Master’s in food systems and applying to a Mathematica (a social policy think tank) position in Oakland, California, I didn’t feel confident in what I wanted to do nor did I have the necessary support. Thus, I plan to try out the academia track and then make a decision of whether to go that route or participate in a social think tank with proper connections to move food systems in a progressive direction. The 4 years will allow me to assess and balance both the theory that I gain from the PhD and the application that I have observed and applied through my entrepreneurial experience. In other words, the PhD program is a test to figure out what is the next path for me with full acknowledgment that I won’t be making a lot of money. That is fine. I just need to know what is the next progressive step and move out of California to gain a different perspective.
8. What advice would you give someone who is interested in being a part of the food industry or wants to study food science?
Be humble. Working in food does not always pay well. There is a lot of love put in food, but also a lot of work. Food requires energy to make and in return energy is given back when consumed. Understand that food is not just food. There is a story behind it all. Politics, social ramifications, technology, means of production, supply chain, science, art, economics, religion, philosophy, and more are involved. At the end of the day, the choice is yours and your participation in the food industry makes a small, but impactful contribution on its direction in an ever changing, ever complicated system. What you believe and what you do moves the discourse around food in how it is made and how it is defined. You and your working relationships are what shape the involvement of food issues large and small. Whether you want to focus on the local or the global, top-down or bottom-up approach, liberal or conservative, scientific or holistic, simple or complex, and culturally appropriate or taboo, your actions are what shape your voice in the food system.
For those who want to study food science and technology, specifically, you can review my colleague’s podcast, My Food Job Rocks with Adam Yee. He covers at length through interviews with many different people in the industry on what it means to be a food scientist/food technologist because there are so many positions that can be held in the food industry from regulatory to quality assurance, from research and development to supply chain, from marketing to operations, from procurement to sales, from laboratory work to field work, from sensory and consumer sciences to engineering, and from packaging to large manufacturing equipment. You have to think about the skills you gain from the experience as a food scientist related to business and mass production. It is not culinary arts nor nutrition. There are elements of each, but food science is distinct. Also, take a look into food systems work since there are overlaps between food science, food systems, nutrition, culinary arts, and agriculture.
9. What are you currently reading? / What book has been the most impactful on your career or life?
Currently, I am in the middle of 3 books. All of which are non-fiction and heavy reads: Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, Memory for Forgetfulness, and The Mushrooms at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Even though I am trying to contemplate about deeper systemic issues, the simpler books I read are what have made an impact. I guess the top 3 stemmed from what I read way back in junior year of high school: Tuesdays with Morrie, Siddhartha, and Fahrenheit 451. There are other books that come close and I am sure books will rotate in and out based on my current mood and life situation.
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