The Manifista Podcast with Portia Mount

From novels to noodles with Jen Lin-Liu

November 30, 2020 Portia Mount Season 1 Episode 7
The Manifista Podcast with Portia Mount
From novels to noodles with Jen Lin-Liu
Show Notes Transcript

“China is an amazingly diverse place in terms of food” - Jen Lin-Liu

Jen Lin-Liu is a journalist, memoirist and founder of Beijing based culinary school Black Sesame Kitchen. In this episode she talks about life as a journalist abroad and how she discovered cooking while writing her travel memoirs Serve the People and On the Noodle Road. Just before this episode was recorded Jen also opened her second restaurant, Qianmen Kitchen, inspired by her travels across Asia, The Middle East and Europe.

Have a question or comment? Email us at [email protected].

Topics discussed in this episode:

Cooking and the Chinese Cuisine 

  • I was the typical Chinese-American kid, becoming a chef or a restauranteur was definitely not in my cards. 
  • You rarely do see female chefs in professional kitchens in China.
  • China is an amazingly diverse place in terms of food.

Traveling and Expat-life

  • It's been a great experience for our children to understand that the world is not just their immediate community.
  • I traveled from Beijing to Rome, which is a trip I did overland 6000 miles.
  • I could spend my whole lifetime studying Chinese food.

Resources Mentioned:

Jen Lin-Liu (link)
Black Sesame Kitchen (link)
Qianmen Kitchen (link)
Peter Hessler trilogy (link)
Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu (link)
On The Noodle Road by Jen Lin-Liu (link)
Missionaries by Phil Klay (link)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (link)


TRANSCRIPT EP7 JEN LIN-LIU

Portia Mount  2:08  

So Jen, we need to set the record straight because I think you've been holding out on me when you and I were in Shanghai together which now is like, oh my god like more than 15 years ago, you did not cook and now you own two restaurants. So I'm kind of like I have so many questions about that, but we'll get to that in a minute. 

Jen Lin-Liu  3:23  

Yeah, was I? 

Portia Mount  3:25  

Well, you own two restaurants, but I don't ever remember you cooking. I have racked the atolls of my mind to think about when you cooked. And so we're going to get to like how you went from at least when I met not cooking. Although we did go out to a lot of great meals, I have to say and you always were very knowledgeable about all the regional cuisines of China. So I have to hand that to you. But we'll get to that part about how you ended up writing two books, travel memoirs and opening two restaurants. So first of all, you know, I want to talk about life as an expat and career woman. Your husband's a diplomat and you're an author and restaurateur, raising two young children. What has it been like raising children abroad and what's been the most rewarding thing about expat life?

Jen Lin-Liu  4:27  

Well, it sounds very glamorous when you put it all out there.

Portia Mount  4:34  

When you say it out loud, it does seem very glamorous. 

Jen Lin-Liu  4:37  

Yeah, no, I mean, look, we have raised our kids overseas. My daughter was born in Beijing.

Portia Mount  4:47  

And we have to say right now, you are in Beijing right now. We need listeners to know that I'm in the United States. It's the evening my time and it's first thing in the morning your time in Beijing. 

Jen Lin-Liu  5:02  

Kind of sort of midday for me, because I've been up since four in the morning. 

Portia Mount  5:08  

Oh, God. Okay. 

Jen Lin-Liu  5:11  

Yeah, but anyways, So, you know, we've been able to have very interesting experiences living overseas, especially with young kids. And I think it's been a great experience for our children to understand that the world is not just their immediate community. Their own, even their country, right? To have an international perspective to have friends. One of my daughter's first friends when we were living in Havana, Cuba a few years back, she was Russian. And we had no other, you know, and our son just has a very open and very outgoing personality. And he actually because of how outgoing he was at, at the age of three, introduced us to a person at our private club in Havana who ended up being the son of Fidel Castro. So a lot of doors are. And you know how it is with kids, like they're their friends. Parents become your friends. And yeah, so we've been able to have, you know, here in China, our daughter's best friend was from New Zealand. So we've been able to travel and visit them now that they're back in New Zealand and, you know, I just think it makes all the difference to have that experience of knowing that the community around them is not, is not the only community you know, and that we live in a world that's interconnected. And where, you know, things have consequences depending on where you are and what happens and how that's all connected. 

Portia Mount  7:07  

Five combined years I spent as an expat that definitely nowhere near the number of years you have now, I was always really amazed at the children of expats because they always were usually multilingual, so worldly and really curious and adventurous. And I think those are all really good qualities in global citizens. We need more of that. Not less of that. 

Jen Lin-Liu  7:42  

Absolutely, unfortunately, with Coronavirus now, it's been hard to travel. And it was quite an odyssey to get back to China because we were stuck in the US from basically when the pandemic began to July. But those experiences are great to you know, being home and realizing that American is also really valuable. So, yeah, to have both perspectives, I think is great. 

Portia Mount  8:15  

Well, if it makes you feel any better, we in the US are also stuck in the US. Nobody as my son, my 10 year old frequently reminds me, nobody wants Americans to come and visit because we are like, an entire hot zone. We are 300 million people in a hot zone. And my son loves to travel. And so he is devastated that we haven't been on an airplane since December. And my last big trip was, I think, maybe to New York. And before that, I went to Turks and Caicos but, you know, we can't even go anywhere without being in quarantine someplace for two weeks. So hopefully things will be better this time next year. But let's pivot a bit because even though we physically can't travel, we can travel in our minds through food. And I want to ask you about the pivot you took from journalism. I remember you were a freelance journalist for a lot of different magazines to actually becoming a travel memoirist to a restauranteur. First of all that’s such a cool journey. And I'm curious if that was something you planned, or did it just kind of happen? Like, how did you get there?

Jen Lin-Liu  9:54  

Well, I had always wanted to be a writer and that's what I do. When we were living in Shanghai, I was a journalist and reporting for Newsweek.

Portia Mount  10:05  

And we had some various, while you were reporting on different stories I remember.

Jen Lin-Liu  10:10  

Oh, yeah, we had lots of fun. Lots of party invites. Everything was, you know, just opening up in China back then. So yeah, I always wanted to be a writer. And then, because I was reporting on so many different things in China and Asia actually.

Portia Mount  10:29  

Describe some of the things that you were working on? 

Jen Lin-Liu  10:32  

Oh, I mean, I covered everything. I would take any and every assignment at that age, I was the, you know, young 20 something who had just graduated from journalism school and had ended up in Shanghai and was writing for Newsweek. I would take all kinds of random assignments from, you know, the very obscure science journal that contacted me to, you know, the nation. All kinds of magazines probably don't even exist today sadly. So, yeah I took on all kinds of assignments, I traveled around a lot. I remember covering the Three Gorges Dam, and that was coming about. I remember reporting on higher education and colleges. And I remember reporting on the SARS epidemic actually, that was a big thing. 

Portia Mount  11:25  

That's so crazy. That was a huge thing.

Jen Lin-Liu  11:33  

Yes, and it actually, the fact that China went through that really prepared it for this outbreak. So yeah, I reported on all kinds of things. And I really wanted to just start focusing on one area after a while because it just got so exhausting to think about so many different topics. And food actually I was in Shanghai when I started becoming interested in food. I mean, of course, because the food scene was so amazing and it's just a very innovative place. There's always been sort of the mix of east and west. Shanghainese are huge eaters. So it was really there that I started thinking about food and tried to think, oh, well, if I was gonna write a book about something, what should I focus on? You know, the kind of the general memoir writing about China had already happened? Yeah. People like Peter Hessler, who's a good friend of mine. 

Portia Mount  12:39  

Right. There were a lot of good China memoirs, weren’t there? We'll link to that too, because it's one of the probably very notable ones from that time. 

Jen Lin-Liu  12:51  

Yes. And I wanted to focus on something. And I wanted a journey. So I, you know, I started writing about food for Newsweek and for other publications. And then I thought, well, if I'm really gonna learn this subject in and out, I really need to learn how to cook and you're right, I knew nothing about cooking. I was the typical, you know, Chinese American kid who was trying to become, you know, at some point a doctor or a lawyer or some kind of professional, and definitely being a chef or restauranteur, it was definitely not, not something that my parents had for me in the cards. And they were very surprised to find out that I wanted to go to a local cooking school, which is what I did shortly after you left, I left Shanghai too, not too long after you moved, up to Beijing and started going to a local cooking school here.

Portia Mount  13:56  

So one of the things that people may not know is that so first of all, China has an unbelievable culinary history. And many of the chefs, most are men. Is that right? 

Jen Lin-Liu  14:13  

That's correct. Yes, it's a very male dominated industry. You rarely do see female chefs in professional kitchens a little bit more and more today, but I am very proud to say that two of our chefs at Black Sesame Kitchen are females and they're strong, you know, physically and mentally. So I was entering a field that was very, you know, as professions go in China definitely wasn't anywhere near, you know, in the US it had achieved some kind of celebrity status to become a chef, but that hadn't happened in China back then. More than 10 years ago, so it was definitely a strange choice, at least from the Chinese perspective.

Portia Mount  15:03  

Did they think it was weird? Like, what is this American Chinese woman trying to do going to a local cooking school?

Jen Lin-Liu  15:12  

Oh, I mean, they thought...

Portia Mount  15:13  

What was the reaction to you?

Jen Lin-Liu  15:14  

I was a spy, they thought I was trying to. Well, when I went to work in restaurants, they thought, what is this woman doing? She's got to be wanting to open her own restaurant. And actually, at that point, I had no interest in opening a restaurant. I was just interested in learning how to cook. So actually, when it did happen that I opened my own place, It was kind of...

Portia Mount  15:15  

They were kind of right, right?

Jen Lin-Liu  15:39  

They were kind of right. They were right in the end.

Portia Mount  15:43  

And so what was that process like? Maybe just describe a little bit about what it's like to go to cooking school in China? Are there basics that you're learning? Like, if you go to culinary school, you're learning certain knife techniques, sauces, things like that. What's that like?

Jen Lin-Liu  16:02  

The big surprise here is that there's actually very little time spent in the kitchen cooking. It's mostly sitting in a classroom. Facing a blackboard, copying things down into a notebook and then taking a test.

Portia Mount  16:19  

Oh, that's interesting. So going to cooking school, but you're actually not cooking anything? 

Jen Lin-Liu  16:25  

This is how it was at least 15 years ago. Exactly. It was theoretical, right. So many things in China are this way. Like learning how to drive a car is also theoretical. We have many bad drivers here.

Portia Mount  16:39  

I have to say and I feel like the time from when I was in China to when I went back last year. I don't feel like the driving has improved. But there were like literally a million more cars on the road though. 

Jen Lin-Liu  16:53  

Yes, yes. Probably more than that.

Portia Mount  16:55  

Probably more than that. But you're taking us to your place in a classroom facing a blackboard and what do they teach? Are they teaching you the basics of sauces? Or how to make noodles? Break that down a bit.

Jen Lin-Liu  17:08  

Yeah, as I described in my first book, Serve the People, it was about, basically, you know, just a really weird mix of pop psychology, of, you know, about the four big cuisines in China like all these theories about what people like to eat, like women liked lighter flavors, men like spicier flavors. And, you know, just food safety was a big one. Yeah, trying to, you know, sort of instill that in people. At what temperature for example, a cockroach can live under for many days. That was apparently one of one of the test questions that I had to study for. 

Portia Mount  18:00  

Oh, my gosh. 

Jen Lin-Liu  18:02  

And then there was a practical part. So basically, once a week, we would go into the kitchen and watch somebody cook.

Portia Mount  18:10  

So once you got into the kitchen, you actually still weren't cooking yourself, you were watching someone else cook? 

Jen Lin-Liu  18:14  

Oh no, absolutely not. So that was what I wrote in my book about how I had gone through these classes, watched the cooking. And then I, because there wasn't any cooking going on, I befriended this woman, who's this lovely character in my book named Chairman Wang, who ended up becoming my cooking mentor.

Portia Mount  18:35  

I remember that. 

Jen Lin-Liu  18:36  

I said, look, I really want to learn how to cook. Can you teach me on the side and so she started teaching me and that was my first, those were my first cooking experiences in China. 

Portia Mount  18:49  

So first of all, maybe it's just because I'm hungry, but most Americans probably are not super familiar with what we call real Chinese food. A lot of the Chinese food we have here is sort of Americanized Cantonese food. Right? Like highly Americanized Cantonese food. And I wonder if you could just really briefly kind of break down Chinese cuisines? Chinese cuisine is so diverse. It's absolutely delicious. But depending on where you are in the country, it is wildly different from one region to the next.

Jen Lin-Liu  19:31  

Yes, it is. You're correct. Well, here in Beijing, for example. It's northern China. So there's a lot more wheat based staples. So for example, we don't actually most Northerners don't eat that much rice. It's not something they have every day. Noodles, savory pancakes. You know, buns. That type of thing is much more common here. The food tends to be a little bit heavier in flavor. There's different kinds of vinegar, for example, they use a wheat based vinegar. That's kind of like a dark balsamic in a way. And whereas in southern China, there's, you know, it's more of a rice culture. So you've got not only just your rice, but your rice noodles, your rice vinegar. It's a much more rice based culture. And then, of course, in Shanghai, you've got all kinds of sweet flavors in Sichuan Province, it's all spicy. Many other, you know, parts near Sichuan or have very spicy cuisine. And then of course, you've got Yunnan, which is its own totally different place where there are all kinds of like Thai based flavors, because it's close to Southeast Asia.

Portia Mount  20:52  

Incredibly beautiful place, one of the most beautiful parts of China.

Jen Lin-Liu  20:57  

Yes, and they use you know, goat cheese and mushrooms. And it just is a totally different culture of its own. And then we've got Northwestern China, which is Uyghur. So that's the Muslim dominated area with all kinds of lamb dishes, delicious kinds of samosa type baked goods. 

Portia Mount  21:23  

Yeah, flat bread.

Jen Lin-Liu  21:24  

Flat bread. Yeah, so it's an amazingly diverse place in terms of food. And really, I could spend my whole lifetime studying Chinese food.

Portia Mount  21:33  

I'm actually kind of celebrating listening to you describe it again, because it's just one of the most awesome things about China is the cuisine. So you write the travel book, you go to cooking school. Take me to the journey from deciding to go to cooking school, going to cooking school, Chairman Wong teaches you actually how to cook. When and how did you decide to open Black Sesame Kitchen, which is your first restaurant?

Jen Lin-Liu  22:08  

So after I had gone to the local cooking school here and interned in a few restaurants, friends of mine here in Beijing, expat friends, started asking me for cooking lessons. And there weren't any cooking schools back then for foreigners. And so I just basically started, you know, I just put my friends and the chef's that I had met together, we started to go into our friends homes. At this point, I lived in the old traditional back alleys of Beijing. They're called the Hutongs. So I found a little studio, a little cooking space. Back in this courtyard that was shared among eight families. And we started doing cooking classes there.

Portia Mount  23:13  

You were like a speakeasy. 

Jen Lin-Liu  23:16  

We are a back alley, yes, speakeasy type of place where people were... 

Portia Mount  23:21  

Which is so cool. 

Jen Lin-Liu  23:22  

...taking cooking classes. And then we added this other component because at this point, I had met my husband, we had just gotten married. And he is not a cook at all. He thinks I slander him every time I talk about his lack of interest in food. But he actually really helped me with the cooking school because I wanted to attract people like him who weren't, who wouldn't necessarily be interested in going to a cooking class. So we added this other component to the cooking school, which was like a communal dinner, like a wine and dine event, we called it, where people, you know, different people would sign up for a night, get together, sit in our open kitchen, where we had our cooking classes, and basically watch the cooking kind of like we did in cooking school, right? In my local cooking school, but with you know, 10 dishes coming out to wine pairings. And that was kind of my way of bringing my husband into it.

Portia Mount  24:30  

That's so cool. And that was also sort of a chef's table concept too, right? 

Jen Lin-Liu  24:34  

Yes, it's a chef's table. So that actually to this day is still going on.

Portia Mount  24:39  

Are you still in the same place?

Jen Lin-Liu  24:41  

We are not no, we've upgraded to a nicer courtyard. Near the Forbidden City. We have our own private courtyard. 

Portia Mount  24:50  

Oh, that's amazing. So it's probably gonna be really nice and for listeners we will link to the Forbidden City. It's obviously a landmark in the whole country, but particularly in Beijing, and to be close to that is pretty special.

Jen Lin-Liu  25:03  

Yeah. So we now have our own private courtyard with no neighbors, we're not sharing the same courtyard. 

Portia Mount  25:14  

Sharing a courtyard or walls.

Jen Lin-Liu  25:15  

No, no. And yeah, we still do our wine and dine dinners, unfortunately, because of Coronavirus, which isn't so much an issue in China itself. But you know, we're still taking precautions here.

Portia Mount  25:30  

Sure, sure. 

Jen Lin-Liu  25:31  

We're not doing a communal style as much. But we are doing that for private events. And tons of people come to celebrate their birthdays, you know, we're kind of like a special event kind of place. Or even if you just want to have a romantic dinner, we can do smaller meals, and we still do our cooking classes. Yeah. So it's been going for 12 years now. 

Portia Mount  25:53  

Oh, that's amazing. And I remember when I was in business school, some of my business school classmates went to Black Sesame Kitchen and sent me photos and just had such a lovely time. So it really is, it's a very special experience. One because of the location. A lot of those Hutong have been torn down. Although it sounds like, in many of the big cities they're kind of being recreated again, because they are really unique locations. 

Jen Lin-Liu  26:36  

That's right. 

Portia Mount  26:37  

And then also just the food was exquisite. And people love getting a really intimate experience with Chinese cuisine. It's like being at a great dinner party, is what it is. 

Jen Lin-Liu  26:52  

Yes, that's right. That's right. Exactly.

Portia Mount  26:55  

Was that your intent and kind of designing the experience? 

Jen Lin-Liu  26:59  

Yeah, I mean, well, you know, I started it just for my friends. And so it was just my friends who came in the beginning. I guess I didn't have qualms about charging...

Portia Mount  27:13  

Charging your friends for a fee? For a small fee. 

Jen Lin-Liu  27:17  

But then, you know, after a while, even my friends couldn't get in because we were so packed. 

Portia Mount  27:22  

It's amazing. And you have all these amazing reviews too like on TripAdvisor.

Jen Lin-Liu  27:32  

Yeah, that's right. We were number one for many years on TripAdvisor, we have fallen down a little bit because there's, you know, it's China. So there are all kinds of ways that hotels have hacked into TripAdvisor and boosted their ratings, unfortunately. 

Portia Mount  27:47  

Okay, I was gonna ask if you've experienced copycats?

Jen Lin-Liu  27:56  

We actually have had a sort of a revolving door of employees who have tried to copy our model I love to say, former employees, okay, but nobody has been able to do it successfully. So we're very open about what we do. And we're a cooking school. So we provide recipes. So I mean, we have no secrets. 

Portia Mount  28:23  

Yeah, you've got an awesome website, too, that we'll link to. Before we talk about your second, as if one restaurant is not enough, you're opening a second. What's it like? What's the business of operating a restaurant in China? In the United States, we know restaurants, obviously, are taking a beating right now because of COVID and I'm hoping, you know, I'm really hoping there will be some kind of bailout because restaurants are just especially the non chain ones, right? All those little independent restaurants. They're just disappearing. They're trying to hang in there. But restaurant business is typically known for being pretty low margin. And it's just, it's hard to make money in restaurants. And David Chang, who's one of my favorite Korean American chefs has spent a lot of time in his podcast talking about the business of operating a restaurant in the United States and why it's so important to support restaurants, but just how hard it is even without a pandemic, but now it's even harder. So, I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about what you learned about the restaurant business in China in particular, that maybe surprised you?

Jen Lin-Liu  29:44  

Well, you know, it's, I think for the entrepreneurs doing it, you know, it does start with a good idea and the ability to execute that idea. But the people who are really struggling are the ones who are cooking, who are serving who are doing all the hard work that goes into the restaurant. Those are the people who are struggling and those are the people that deserve a bailout, you know, that deserve some kind of compensation, more compensation than what they're getting. I don't really have a lot of sympathy for the owners.

Portia Mount  30:26  

For the big time chefs?

Jen Lin-Liu  30:30  

No, I don't have, I mean, I love them and I am in and I hope you know, Jose Andres, for example. Yeah, we have actually worked with, our chef has worked with him.

Portia Mount  30:40  

Yeah. And he's doing a lot of stuff right now.

Jen Lin-Liu  30:43  

So yeah, I mean, that's what we need to be focusing on. The entrepreneurs are important, investment is important. But, you know, when I think about the people who are going to suffer the most out of this, it's the ones who are washing dishes, who were cleaning the restaurants who were cooking who were waitressing. And that is really, I mean, the staff for us, they work so hard. I don't have a heart, I could never imagine a harder working staff than mine. And they show up every day and they work, you know, 12 hour days. They do not complain, they just have this can-do, you know, self motivated attitude that I have just been so lucky to be blessed with and that's really what makes our locations work.

Portia Mount  31:40  

But that's really I appreciate that perspective a lot, right. Because we think about the owners and you know, especially some of your tonier restaurants are financed by big investment groups, right? And, well, so talk about your second restaurant. Has it opened yet? The last time you and I talked you were in the process of opening it. 

Jen Lin-Liu  32:07  

Yeah, it has actually opened and we got one of our first reviews over the weekend. 

Portia Mount  32:11  

What's it called? 

Jen Lin-Liu  32:12  

It's called Qianmen Kitchen. So you know, my first one is called Black Sesame Kitchen. So Qianmen is the front gate of Beijing or actually the front gates to the Forbidden City, basically. So we're located just south of the Forbidden City, Black Sesame Kitchen is located just to the north and this one is located just to the south. So we've got a great tourist location. And we are basically an ala carte dining experience with also set menus. So it's a little bit different than our original model, which was reservations only, you know, private dinners, sort of much more upscale. And this is kind of a mid market place. That is also very small and intimate. We've only got 30 seats.

Portia Mount  33:09  

That sounds big. But that's definitely small for Chinese restaurants. And again, for listeners, many Chinese restaurants are cavernous. They can serve hundreds and hundreds of people. You know, in addition, of course, the little mom and pops you would walk into so 30 seat sounds, you know, it could be a sort of mid size here in the United States. But it's small for what we're talking about.

Jen Lin-Liu  33:44  

That's right. And so we have, you know, half of our menu is sort of the best of Black Sesame Kitchen with lots of our favorite stir fries and red braised pork and our pan fried dumplings, which are very popular. And then the other half of the menu is, you have one side of the menu, which is all Chinese and you flip it over. And it is a silk road menu. So from Beijing to Rome, which is a trip I did overland 6000 miles, and wrote my second book about On The Noodle Road. 

Jen Lin-Liu  34:31  

That's right. And so that side of the menu is different dishes I came across along the Silk Road, including many noodle recipes that span from Beijing, through the middle east to Turkey, all the way to Italy. So in kind of illustrating the commonality of pasta and noodles and the method is actually virtually the same. So my chefs now who are very adept at Chinese noodles are now making Italian pasta as well. 

Portia Mount  35:08  

It's amazing. That's fantastic. What's popular? So, I know you haven't been open that long, but what seems to be, you know, a couple of your most popular dishes?

Jen Lin-Liu  35:20  

Well, so Italian food is becoming more and more common in China, especially in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. So I didn't really want to do, you know, your normal spaghetti Milanese. I wanted to do dishes that had a personal link to my travels and that are just amazing. So one of my favorite Italian dishes on the menu is orecchiette, which in Italy, it would be turnip tops and anchovies. But here we are using Chinese kale and an anchovy sauce.

Portia Mount  35:57  

Oh, that's, so it's like a super kind of savory, umami kind of flavor?

Jen Lin-Liu  36:03  

Yes, sprinkled with the breadcrumbs, which my chefs just found really bizarre.

Portia Mount  36:09  

Yeah, you don't do breadcrumbs in Chinese cuisine.

Jen Lin-Liu  36:14  

Well, you do find them in the supermarket here, because they do a lot of, you know, deep frying with shrimp or other things. So that wasn't too hard to find. I also wanted to find ingredients that would work well with a Chinese audience. And then another really popular one is Turkish Mati, which are kind of the Turkish version of Chinese dumplings, of course, because they don't eat pork there. And we've added a little bit of zucchini, which is a very common ingredient I found in Turkey, to kind of lighten it up a little bit. And it comes with the yogurt sauce with walnuts and paprika and butter. So it's, you know, instead of your normal dipping sauces, vinegar and chili and soy sauce that you'd have with Chinese dumplings. So yeah, I think they're, what's been great is to see my chefs take their knowledge of Chinese cooking and apply it to other types of cooking. And so we've been working very hard on the menu over the last two months, and we're just about to start publicizing. We just had our first review and yeah, it's coming along well.

Portia Mount  40:17  

So your husband's an American diplomat, you've mentioned, you did a stint in Cuba, diplomats tend to move around the world for the bulk of their careers. Any plans to come back to the United States? Or do you have a sense of where you might be stationed next? 

Jen Lin-Liu  40:49  

Well, my husband's been talking about Sydney, Australia.

Portia Mount  40:53  

Also a culinary hotspot? 

Jen Lin-Liu  40:55  

Yes. He's also been talking about Lima, Peru. So we'll see what the future has in store. We never really know until a year or so before we move. So I will have to keep you posted on that.

Portia Mount  41:21  

Yeah, definitely. We'll have to do a part two. And, of course, especially for being an American diplomat right now. I'm curious, I'm no longer an expat, which I loved being but I travel a lot internationally for my job. It's always interesting to me, talking to a taxi driver, for example, in Brussels, just the perception of the United States. And I'm just curious, what's it like? What's it been like to be an American abroad right now? Without getting overly political. But this is a pretty unique and different time, especially in the political diplomatic role. And I'm just curious, what's it been like to be an American looking from the outside?

Jen Lin-Liu  42:27  

Yeah. It makes me very sad. Yeah, I mean, we've really gone from being like, the most respected country in the world to probably one of the least. And it is really sad. It makes me very, just very worried about our children's future. And, yeah, sorry, I get emotional.

Portia Mount  42:59  

I appreciate it. I tell my European friends all the time, please don't think this is all Americans, like, most of us want to engage in the world, we want to be part of a global community, we want to be able to travel and to connect and to engage. 

Jen Lin-Liu  43:55  

Yeah. Well, it was really interesting going back to the States this time and being there for the early stages of the pandemic, because, you know, the irony was, we were supposed to come back to China, right when the outbreak was getting really bad here. We're actually on a flight scheduled on February 1. So that was about six weeks before it kind of dawned on us in the United States that it was going to be a problem. And...

Portia Mount  44:25  

And you were posting what I remember is like you were posting like we're sort of in lockdown and all the while you were posting recipes. I thought you were being quite, you know, ingenious about using your quarantine time.

Jen Lin-Liu  44:44  

Yeah, so you know what was really sad for me was kind of like a wake up call was the fact that we had, you know, stayed in the United States to escape this epidemic. Make this pandemic, thinking that it wasn't going to reach our borders. And then to realize that we were actually not safe at all. And the irony is now we're back in China, which is absolutely safe. And has actually dealt with it. They didn't deal with it well in the beginning with the lack of transparency and letting it spread, but they have, you know, as we see, with the numbers in the United States, 80,000 a day. 80,000 is the total number of cases that have happened in China since the pandemic began.

Portia Mount  45:43  

We are over a million and I always, you know, especially for people who maybe don't understand China, or maybe sort of get the view of China from sort of one person, you know, when sort of news perspective, the thing that China does exceptionally well, is that, whether it's deciding to host the Olympics, erect a whole city, or wipe out a pandemic, the whole country can mobilize. And, you know, there's something to be said, that's probably one of the very few benefits of authoritarian governments, right? Not a lot of benefits there, but when China decides to mobilize it just, things happen. 

Jen Lin-Liu  46:48  

There is a lot of trust in the government here that does not exist in the United States. So and there has been a government that has been more heavy handed. The government in this case has really erred hugely on the side of caution, which has been great, which is, again, that means that we don't have to second guess. And in fact, we can be a little bit, take it a little bit easier. Whereas in the States you can't trust what is being said, what is being told to you, what is safe, what is not, and you have to make those decisions on your own. And that, to me, has been just, you know, at your own discretion is not the way that something like a pandemic can be handled.

Portia Mount  47:52  

You obviously have a really full life, raising kids, running businesses and writing. How do you, what do you do to take care of yourself? How are you finding time for yourself? Do you exercise? The thing I always loved about being in Shanghai were all the messages that I would get all the time. But what do you do to relax and to take care of yourself? 

Jen Lin-Liu  50:10  

So I play tennis at least once or twice a week. That is a huge passion of mine and two times is really not enough a week but that's all I can do right now. We have sort of a Chinese peloton setup. I've got a peloton app. I've got a bicycle so I do that as well. I try to work out at least every day. Which is more important the older you get. And just spending time with my kids, you know, just realizing that this time is so precious and they're getting so big so quickly. 

Portia Mount  50:54  

Yeah. How old are your kids? How old are they now?

Jen Lin-Liu  50:58  

They are six and eight. And we just got a puppy. Two months ago. 

Portia Mount  51:03  

Oh, okay. So which is like having a toddler? 

Jen Lin-Liu  51:06  

Oh, he's actually just amazing. And it hasn't been nearly as hard as I thought. So that's also keeping us busy. So between that my husband, the kids, exercise. That's all I can really keep up with for now.

Portia Mount  51:24  

So any books you're reading, podcasts you're listening to

Jen Lin-Liu  51:32  

Well, I just started a book called The Missionaries last night. I just finished chapter one. So I can't really tell you much about it, except that it's an author who wrote nonfiction and has moved to fiction, which is something I'm interested in doing.

Portia Mount  51:47  

Oh, a little foreshadowing that we may see a fiction book coming.

Jen Lin-Liu  51:54  

What else have I read lately that I love? I love this book called The Sellout. Oh, I think you would like it too. I don't know if you've seen it, but it's probably from 2015. 

Portia Mount  52:03  

I feel like I've seen this book somewhere. Just recently.

Jen Lin-Liu  52:06  

Yeah. So great satire. Great, great satire.

Portia Mount  52:08  

Okay. We'll have to look for that. 

Jen Lin-Liu  52:11  

Los Angeles, sort of LA in the 1980s. Kind of almost like my childhood growing up in San Diego.

Portia Mount  52:20  

Yeah. And we're both Californians too. So.

Jen Lin-Liu  52:23  

Right, with a very different twist. I mean, it's actually an African American sort of neighborhood. So that was fantastic. I highly recommend that book.

Portia Mount  52:33  

Okay, well definitely, I'm gonna add that to my list. And we'll link to it. So final question for you, Jen. What advice would you give to 20 year old Jen? 

Jen Lin-Liu  53:43  

Oh, I love that question. It's a great question. Oh, gosh, I don't know, just stay the course. I guess. You know, I mean, I think you can have a lot of doubt when you're young. And notch, you're not sure what you're doing or where it's going. But you know, I just think back on the decisions, for example, writing my book On The Noodle Road, which was a really tough thing to do right after I'd just gotten married. And, you know, I hadn't had children yet. And I thought this is my last sort of big chance to do something. And I was absolutely correct. 

Portia Mount  54:31  

I mean, everything is harder as a parent and absolutely, I think especially as a mother. My own experience is that we are the center of gravity for our children for a really long time. Which is wonderful, but it's also hard.

Jen Lin-Liu  54:48  

I wouldn't say the center of gravity. I would just say you know,  it just dawned on me the other day that I am a really good personal valet.

Portia Mount  54:59  

Especially because right now, and I think we shared this, we're in the high contact period of parenting. So it does seem like, now that you describe it that way, I'm like, yeah, that really is kind of accurate. 

Jen Lin-Liu  55:28  

Yeah, that's what we are, but with love.

Portia Mount  55:32  

A personal valet with love. Well, Jen, it's been terrific to talk to you. Thank you.

Jen Lin-Liu  55:42  

Really great to talk to you too.