Flying High with Jing Gao
With CRUDE Founder & CEO Denise Cartwright
It’s Founder Friday! I’m writing my interview questions for Jing Gao, founder of Fly By Jing, as I eat a delicious bowl of Sichuan Chili Crisp Ramen, made perfectly spicy by Jing’s famous Chili Crisp sauce. It’s a rare day that I don’t use either Fly By Jing’s Sichuan Chili Crisp or Zhong Sauce on at least one of my meals—it’s delicious on noodles, soups, omelets, rice bowls, pizza, even ice cream. I’m a huge fan of Fly By Jing’s products, but I’m also a big fan of their founder, Jing Gao. I look up to Jing as a CEO and brand builder, and ever since I read her 2020 Medium post, How I Built a Radically Personal Hot Sauce Brand and Found Myself in the Process, I’ve been itching to have a conversation and share her story on SOUL. Let’s meet the woman behind the sauce and hear about how she lets her nature thrive!
Why did you start Fly By Jing?
I was born in Chengdu, but grew up all over the world. It wasn’t until a tech job in my 20s brought me back to China that I really started to connect to the food of the Sichuan region — and I became absolutely enamored with the flavor and textures and nuances of the cuisine. I studied with Chinese master chefs, wrote about food, and ultimately helped to open a restaurant in Shanghai. I first launched Fly By Jing as a traveling supperclub, where I’d stuff all these ingredients into a suitcase (because you couldn’t find them anywhere else!) and cook all over the world. After seeing people’s reactions and sheer enjoyment of the food, I knew there was an opportunity to introduce more people to these special flavors. A visit to Expo West, the U.S.’s largest natural foods show, really confirmed that there was a dearth of Asian flavors in packaged foods in the West. So I decided to launch my all-natural Sichuan Chili Crisp, made with ingredients you can only find in China, on Kickstarter as a first foray into the CPG space.
Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! Of course, your heritage is something you’re celebrating year-round, but are there any events or orgs you’re supporting this month in particular?
We teamed up with our friends at Sundae School, a Korean inspired streetwear brand, to create some limited edition products and an amazing event in LA to celebrate the best way we know how. May 29th, we’ll be popping up for one day only at Smorgasburg LA as Chili Sundae, where we’ll be serving up Wanderlust ice cream topped with chili crisp and our limited edition FBJ x SS Yuzu Chili gummy along with event exclusive merch, sponsored by Puma. We’re super excited to hang with our friends and connect with community!
I’d love to know more about your hometown, Chengdu, and its food culture!
Chengdu is known as the “flavor capital of China,” and it’s true! You can find some of the most iconic Sichuan foods (mapo tofu, hot pot, dan dan mian) at restaurants all over the city. One of the aspects of the food culture I’m obsessed with is the city’s “fly” restaurants — or little hole-in-the-wall restaurants that are so popular that they attract people like flies. It’s where the name Fly By Jing came from.
You recently changed your name back to your given name, Jing. Can you tell us about that experience and what motivated it?
As I mentioned, my family moved around a lot when I was a kid. When we lived in Europe, I started to go by Jenny as a way to fit in. Through diving really deep into studying Chinese cuisine when I moved to Shanghai, I began developing deeply personal connections to the flavors of where I came from — and I realized how I’d been minimizing myself all those years by hiding behind a Western name. For years, I had to fight for acceptance, even as a founder who faced dismissal about the perceived value of Chinese food from investors and the public. Last year, I decided to reclaim my birth name, which was a radical form of self-acceptance. I no longer have to hide behind a name that isn’t my own, and it’s been really freeing.
Your chili sauce isn’t just any chili sauce. Tell us about your product development story and why your ingredients are so special!
We’ve always said that our flavors are “not traditional, but personal.” For me, part of making the Sichuan Chili Crisp so personal was always going to be using ingredients that are native to Chengdu and can’t be found anywhere else. For example, the Tribute Peppers that give the chili crisp its floral, tingly notes are so highly prized that they were offered as tribute to the emperor. They’re only grown in one small village and are painstakingly hand-picked — so they’re super rare and really special. When I launched Fly By Jing, I set out to introduce the Western palate to these highly specific flavors that can’t be found anywhere else, and I think it’s one of the reasons the chili crisp has resonated with so many people.
You’ve done such a great job of putting yourself out there and being the face of Fly By Jing. Does this come naturally to you? I lean introverted and this can be a struggle for me! Any tips?
It hasn’t always come naturally! Making myself the face of the company actually goes hand in hand with reclaiming my birth name. I think it also goes hand in hand with standing behind the product we make and how personal it is. This is my own interpretation of Sichuan flavors and no one else’s.
I love your mission and your willingness to speak out about who you are, what you value, and the injustices in your industry. In your Medium piece, you share a few examples of pushback you’ve received from business leaders and investors who advised you to tone down your mission and just focus on the product. You mention white investors telling you they had a hard time believing Chinese food faced any prejudice at all, because “that wasn’t their experience.”
What motivates you to keep pushing forward when others (or yourself) have moments of doubt? What role do you think businesses have in shaping a more equitable and sustainable future?
My long-term dream for FLY BY JING is to be the next generation modern Asian household name in food, and to demystify and destigmatize Chinese flavors in the West. We’re always working with other AAPI founders, whether it’s on partnerships and or giveaways on social media, because we are all connected and one company's wins are everyone’s wins. So our hope is that, by taking up space with our radically personal and singular story, charging through doors and keeping them open, and building a table for us all to sit at, we are helping create space for all marginalized cultures and cuisines to belong and thrive. Knowing that we’re doing this for something bigger than ourselves is a huge part in pushing through when the going gets tough and is how we play our part creating a better future for the next generation.
At CRUDE we think a lot about finding homeostasis, and the magic that happens when you get out of the way and ‘let your nature thrive’. How do you let your nature thrive?
I’ve learned to let my nature thrive by not just tolerating the ebbs and flows in my own energy—but celebrating them. As I’ve grown older and gotten to know myself better, I know that there are periods of time where I have high energy levels and then I may need to retreat and be more internal for a period. I’ve learned to work with those shifts and make sure to build flexibility into my life so that I don’t need to overextend and always expect myself to be going 100mph all day every day. Those moments of quiet are just as important to making me a good leader as when I’m going full speed.
About the Founders
Jing Gao founded Fly By Jing in 2018, inspired the flavors of her hometown Chengdu in the Sichuan Province of China. Since then, her sauce has made it to the shelves of major retailers like Whole Foods and Target, and can be found in the cupboards of discerning eaters worldwide. Follow her on IG @jingtheory.
Denise Cartwright is the Founder and CEO of CRUDE, and a Master Esthetician with 12+ years of experience. A Utah native, she's passionate about the natural world, plant medicine, and wellness. Check her out on IG @dkcartwright.