Chris Ying has his plate full these days.
If you don't know, Ying is editor in chief of Lucky Peach, the quarterly food magazine with a cult following; cofounder of the nonprofit Zero Foodprint; and author of various cookbooks, including The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook and, most recently, The Wurst of Lucky Peach. He is also helping put on MAD, Rene Redzepi's food symposium in Copenhagen. But like so many of his contemporaries, Ying's path into the food world was more spontaneous than by the book.
Ying grew up in Southern California with Chinese immigrant parents—an engineer father and a pharmacist/entrepreneur mother who owned two Baskin Robins franchises as well as a Mexican restaurant. The family never went to fancy eateries; he grew up on Chinese standbys like Lion's head meatballs and steamed fish with ginger and soy.
But it wasn't until he moved away to college (Ying attended UC Berkeley) that he realized all that ice cream, tacos, and Chinese food had made an impact on him.
"Like a lot of first-generation American kids, I didn't really have a conscious understanding of how my upbringing might be particularly useful—none of that really registered until college, when I started cooking for my friends for fun. This foodie culture started emerging and, all of a sudden, I discovered that my slightly enhanced knowledge of food had this social capital."
This newfound appreciation for food quickly turned into an obsession, and Ying spent countless hours binge-watching Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse cooking on the Food Network. He got a job as a line cook at the now-shuttered Downtown Restaurant in Berkeley, where he worked throughout college.
Ying majored in English and moved to San Francisco after graduation, where he took an internship with the indie publisher McSweeney's. He also worked a short stint at Foreign Cinema, where he got to know Anthony Myint, who would later become cofounder of Zero Foodprint, Mission Chinese Food, and The Perennial. Ying was let go from FC within a week, but would continue on, honing his design and editing skills, at McSweeney's for the next five years.
One day, while working on a project for McSweeney's founder Dave Eggers, Ying got a call from Peter Meehan, a former New York Times food writer and coauthor, with chef David Chang, of The Momofuku Cookbook. Meehan asked whether Ying and McSweeney's wanted to start a food magazine. There was no hesitation.
Five years later, Lucky Peach is an incredible success, winning 2016 James Beard Award for Publication of the Year.
"I never thought that food would be my thing, and I had no idea at the time that working at Lucky Peach would ultimately change my whole career, that it was going to become everything I do. It's weird to think about now that my whole life is about food writing, and restaurants, and food stories," Ying says.
Yep, you never know what you're gonna get.
7x7: Why do you think Lucky Peach has been so successful?
CY: We try to see food as the common thread between art, politics, science, travel, relationships—everything. I think it's an outlook that speaks to readers who like food but also have other interests, as well as to people for whom food is the be all, end all. Put another way: We make a magazine and books and a website that we'd want to read, and thankfully it turns out there are other people like us.
LP is now publishing online. How will the site differ from the mag?
I want the Lucky Peach site to offer a different dimension to our readers—more guides, frequent updates, timeliness, video, more recipes, content that speaks to the way it's consumed. It's important to me that whatever form LP takes, it's always aware of the medium. I really believe that print and digital media are not adversaries. Sure there's overlap, but there's also a lot of room for them to coexist.
What's your average day like?
Day to day, it's pretty straightforward. I work in an office downtown, come in and do a standard 9 to 6:30. We work super closely with the office in New York in a real-time way. But that's punctuated with crazy spells of travel where I'm gone for three-quarters of the month. It's a pretty standard existence, with a lot of non-standard experiences.
How do you decide on the theme of each issue?
It's like a combination of spitballing, arguing, then vigorously agreeing on something. We throw a lot of ideas at the wall, then see which theoretically might work as a theme, then there's a lot of wiggling and adjusting.
Your nonprofit, Zero Foodprint, aims to make restaurants leaders in the fight against climate change. How's that going?
The main obstacle to Zero Foodprint has always been my lack of time. We recently brought on an executive director, Elizabeth Singleton, to resolve this, and she's been doing a great job of getting new restaurants involved at all sorts of different levels. That being said, I don't believe in a concrete measure of success for the project—climate change is an immensely important fight. I just don't see a point where I can wipe my hands and say, cool, we're all done with that. I mean, I really hope that some grand scientific solution presents itself, but I'm not holding my breath.
Any more books in the works?
I really like the cookbooks we're doing at Lucky Peach, and I'd like to keep doing deep dives on more subjects. I would love to do another book with the Mission Chinese guys, and another book with Ivan Orkin (Ivan Ramen). I really want to write a book with Karen Taylor from El Molino Central. Her recipes would truly destroy the world. And I kind of want to write something for mysel— something that's less of a cookbook. I'd like to exercise other parts of my brain.
Let's talk about San Francisco for a sec. What your...
Mr. Bing's, RIP
Place for a solid cocktail:
The bar at The Perennial
What kind of music do you listen to while cooking?
I guess I listen to a lot of Drake while cooking. Our playlists at work are totally bonkers and genre-blind.
You're tired, you're lazy, you're hungry, but you need to cook a meal. What do you make?
Rice, soy sauce, egg yolk, furikake.
Tacos or burritos?
Tacos in the daytime, burritos at night.
Favorite taco in the Bay Area?
El Molino Central fish tacos
La Taqueria, dorado style
Most memorable thing you've eaten this year?
Caviar course at Saison
Culinary destination on your mind:
I'm embarrassed to say I haven't been to Vietnam.
Your last meal—what would it be?
Ying resides in Glen Park with his wife, dog, and is soon to be a father come October.