Work hard and be nice. Daphne Cheng, a plant-based chef who is making waves in the New York City vegetarian, restaurant, and health scenes, is living proof of this adage.
The best way to meet this well-connected entrepreneur is by snagging an invitation to one of her opening parties or girlboss potlucks, which are invariably so packed with health scene luminaries, that you can barely hear her soft voice over the din. But don’t be fooled by her quiet demeanor; she’s the very definition of scrappy, fighting her way through an eating disorder, academic malaise, and New York City real estate disasters to become the powerhouse that she is.
And it’s clear this is only the beginning of her career. Consider this her first full profile, one of what I’m sure will be many.
I met up with her one afternoon at Mother of Pearl, a jewel-box tiki bar in the East Village that serves outlandish crushed-ice cocktails in silver cups in a setting reminiscent of a tropical plantation. I was long overdue to interview her for EcoCult. But I was glad I waited, because her career keeps growing, mutating, and expanding. The longer I wait, the more interesting things happen. I set up my recorder, and asked her to speak up. “Sure,” she said, then kept talking in the same, tiny voice, belying her gutsy entrepreneurial spirit.
Daphne grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Starting at 12 years old, she became anorexic. “Food was the enemy,” she says. “I tried to avoid it as much as I could.” She was 30, maybe 40 pounds lighter than she is now, which is painful to imagine, as lithe and petite as she is.
It was her freshman year of high school when she saw, really saw, a photo of herself. “We were on a cruise, and I was wearing a dress. And for some reason I was able to see in that photo what I actually was, versus the distorted version I saw everyday in the mirror. My face was sunken in and you could see all my bones.” She also was frightened by “thinspiration” websites, where proud girls with eating disorders encourage other girls in their sickness. “I ran into these websites, and was like, whoa, this is really scary. They posted pictures of models with their ribs sticking out, saying, ‘This is beautiful.'”
So she embraced food. “In the disorder I was already reading a lot about food and nutrition, but in the mindset of weight loss. When I woke up and wanted to be healthy, I could use all that information and apply it in a healthy way. I started playing around in the kitchen and reading a lot of cookbooks, and experimenting with recipes. And I realized I really liked it.”
Having seen videos of slaughterhouses, Daphne was already vegetarian. But when she found The China Study, an influential book that studied the diet and health of various groups of people in China and promotes the vegan diet as the most healthful, she started going vegan as well. When I asked her if the fact that she’s of Chinese heritage drew her to the book, she was thoughtful. “I’m a bad Asian. I can listen and understand the language, enough to get by, but speaking it … I don’t know the history and culture.” But she conceded, “It’s definitely important to consider where you are from for your diet. Because most Asians are lactose intolerant.”
She got into UC Berkeley and studied nutrition, but then dropped out. “I had already learned a lot of the stuff on my own so I wasn’t motivated to go to class. And I didn’t know which direction I was going. When you’re in high school you’re motivated to do well so you can get into college. That is your goal. But once I got to college, I didn’t have a goal. I was interested in food, but I didn’t take it seriously as a career, because I come from an Asian family where you have to be a lawyer or doctor, something traditional, safe, and respected. A chef is not one of those things.”
Adrift, Daphne ran an underground nightclub in Oakland for a year, in a sketchy part of town. The ground floor was an art gallery, the basement the nightclub, and upstairs had apartments, where Daphne lived. When she got fed up with that, her sister, who was already in New York, told her about the Natural Gourmet Institute’s professional training program. Daphne signed up for the year-long, part-time program and came to the big city.
She became a real estate agent to support herself while she studied, a skill set that would serve her well later in finding spaces for her food ventures, and started a vegan Meet-Up group, hosting potlucks. She graduated a certified vegan chef. “I don’t know how to cook meat; I don’t know how to cook fish,” she says. “If I ever went non-vegan, I would be in trouble.”
She launched a catering company with a classmate (she left a few months later to do her own thing), catering weddings and private parties. She also started hosting dinner parties for 12 people once a month in her backyard garden in the East Village, and a brunch series in a nearby park. “I was drawn to an intimate dinner setting instead of catering a dinner for a hundred people,” she says. Meanwhile, she was getting sick of having a mobile kitchen and hauling all the place settings and food from venue to venue. So two years in, she gave up the catering business, used her realtor’s license to secure an apartment space in February of 2013, and opened the supper club in May. It was called Suite ThreeOhSix.
Her friend, a freelance journalist, wrote up the grand opening in the Wall Street Journal, and people starting booking seats. “That was a relief, because before I had struggled to fill a 12-person dinner once a month,” she says. She was listed on the (now offline) site Underground Eats, and Well + Good wrote about Suite ThreeOhSix too.
That’s when I met her, at a Well + Good dinner party. I remember her as mysterious, working in the kitchen that was separated from the dining room by a glass partition, sending out artistic creations: tiny piles of vegetables with a slash of brightly colored vegetable puree, vegan ice cream topped with edible flower petals. It was veritable vegan food porn. She emerged at the end to quietly thank everyone. I was intimidated by this gorgeous, talented entrepreneur.
Daphne started out with one dinner a week for 12 people, but it grew until she was doing two dinners a week for 40. “A lot of people ask me, ‘If you were only doing two dinners a week, what were you doing the rest of the time?’ Everything. Marketing, PR, the hiring, the cooking, the admin. It was a full time job.” The other days, the space was available for people to have dinners and host parties. Despite her success, she ran into obstacles.
“The supper club was supposed to be a proof of concept for a restaurant,” Daphne says. “I was trying to raise money for a restaurant, but one of the main investors got arrested for fraud. I trusted that something was going to work out with him for way too long.” Meanwhile, two years into Suite ThreeOhSix, Daphne found out she would be forced out of the building, because it was slated to be demolished. Despite these setbacks, she forged on. She found a spacious gallery on the Lower East Side, and set about renovating it. She wanted to do something larger.
That summer she reached out to me on Facebook, and invited me to a potluck dinner on her rooftop in the East Village, a consortium of successful women in the health space. I brought Lindsay Mueller of Well/Aware to the potluck, and out of that came an insightful Well/Aware podcast. This is Daphne’s M.O.: bringing together amazing women and forging friendships. “When I started the supper club, it was just about food. But I met so many amazing people through it, all my good friends, and people met people there who are still friends.”
By October, she had opened Exhibit C., a gorgeous event space on the Lower East Side. The grand opening was packed with New York’s health, food, and creative set. It became a hub not just for food events, but art, film screenings, panel discussions, tastings, and fundraisers. (I often posted about and attended events there.)
If that wasn’t enough, in January Daphne was tapped by restaurateur Ravi DeRossi to help him turn all of his 15 restaurants (Bourgeois Pig, Cienfuegos, Death & Company, for example) vegan. “When I saw the news that he opened Avant Garden last summer as a vegan restaurant, I Facebook messaged him and said, ‘Congratulations! Let me know if I can ever be of help.'” When I wonder out loud about her proclivity for reaching out to people via Facebook, she denies it. “It’s not totally in character to cold-reach out to people,” she says. “I do it rarely. He actually answered me, we met up, stayed in touch, became friends, and on January 1st he called me.”
So she got to work completely overhauling the menu and training the kitchen staff of Mother of Pearl. “I never imagined I would be the chef of this place,” she said as we sat at one of the round tables in the front, while the bartenders and cooks joked and talked in the back, getting ready for dinner service. She’s not in the kitchen every day – that’s not her job. “I oversee it, to make sure the quality stays up to par. I can’t be in the kitchen every day, because I’m working on the next menus. Plus, that would kill my soul. I can’t cook the same thing every day.”
The menu now contains lots of enticing small bites, like lychee pot stickers, apple and oyster mushroom skewers, and green mango poke. (After the interview was over, she disappeared into the kitchen and emerged 15 minutes later with shiitake mushroom buns and orange guacamole and papaya salsa, taro and plantain chips lightly resting on top. They were delicious.) I went to dinner there on a Thursday night with my fiancé, and it was packed, the energy convivial and raucous. The fact that food sales doubled after Daphne overhauled the menu is proof that the demand for inventive, tasty vegan food is there. “People are loving the food and talking about it. That’s what makes it all worth it, if you are making people happy with what you’re serving,” she says.
She’s also been popping out to the Hamptons to do food for The Path retreats, and did a sit-down dinner at the upscale music and art festival Further Future outside of Vegas in April. She’s preparing to do a dinner in China soon, with a popular blog run by her former intern. This past weekend, her second project for Ravi opened: Ladybird, a vegan revamp of the Bourgeois Pig with global tapas dishes inside an ornate white, gold, and emerald green space.
But Daphne isn’t done yet. She’s working on finding a space that is ten times bigger than Exhibit C. for her next project, Society C. “I can’t say too much, but it’s sort of like the SoHo House, members only, but it’s not just about hanging out and being seen. It’s for social entrepreneurs, people who are working on making the world more sustainable. How amazing would it be to have an all-in-one space where you could eat, work, and have fun events?”
Daphne – petite, soft spoken, idealistic – runs up against all our modern notions of what a successful chef looks like. “I would love to change that perception,” she says. “The whole chef image right now is tattooed and muscular and angry, demanding, aggressive. But you don’t need to be any of those things to be a good chef and run a kitchen.”