Yey! Forgive my excitement, but my name on a byline in a magazine is a sight I have not seen in more than 10 years! (Not since my days in high school at Candy’s Council of Cool.) Back in the day, I thought I wanted to become a magazine editor when I grew up. I’m all grown up now and I am far from that… far from any dream I had when I was younger, actually. I guess I still have a lot more growing up to do, but that melodramatic stuff is best saved for another day.
Yey, I have a short article inside!
Anyway, so my good friend, Liz who actually DOES work for a magazine called Yummy back home in the Philippines, asked me back in October to help her out on an article about Filipinas who were making it abroad in the food business. My assignment led me to the door of The Queens Kickshaw in Astoria where I met Jen Lim and her partner and husband, Ben Sandler. I promised Jen I would go back (and I definitely want to, the grilled cheese sandwich I had there was amazing!) and now that the Yummy January issue is out, I have an excuse to get my butt over there and say hello with a copy of the article.
It’s the one on the left page.
I’m pretty pleased with how the article turned out overall (thanks of course to the magic hands of Liz and the other people at Yummy), but I have to agree with my sister that the last paragraph doesn’t seem like it really belongs. (Or maybe it’s also just a function of that paragraph being separated from the rest of the article by being on the next page?) Whatever the case, it’s not bad for a first attempt at writing in what seems like forever. I haven’t had to write anything like this since graduating from college in 2007 so this was actually something I missed. Soo.. if anyone wants to read the article, here it is! I’m also putting in a few pictures I’d taken from my trip there.
What do you get when you mix a grilled cheese sandwich bar, a coffee shop and a craft beer pub together? The Queens Kickshaw, a 9-month old shop in Astoria, Queens, New York owned by Filipino-Chinese Jennifer Lim and husband Ben Sandler. While espressos, fancy grilled cheese sandwiches and locally brewed craft beer make quite the unlikely trio, Jen and Ben have somehow made the union make sense.
“I never would have guessed that I would own a restaurant,” Jen says. Graduating from the University of Toronto with a degree in Socio-Cultural Anthropology and a Masters from Pratt Institute in New York in Library and Information Science, it didn’t seem like Jen was anywhere on the path to becoming a restaurant owner. But the trademark Filipino knack for hospitality and entertaining left its mark on this New York transplant. “My dad’s family in Manila and Zamboanga is huge, and we were always getting together for birthday parties and holidays. There would usually be tons of food and drink, with us cousins running around and playing games,” she recounts. Years later, Jen still sees food as something that brings people together and creates a sense of community. “Ben and I have always derived a lot of joy from making people happy, whether it’s having them over to our house for dinner or throwing parties.” Successfully managing and coordinating their wedding in September 2009 gave them the confidence that they could pull off a big event, perhaps run their own restaurant. “Maybe we just wanted an excuse to have more parties.” Jen laughs.
Ben, who at that time was a captain at renowned Nobu Fifty Seven and had been there for five years, was contemplating a career move. The more the couple thought about it, the more they realized that it was time for something bigger. “Ben comes from a family of great cooks. We both enjoy food and drink and he is especially picky about what he eats. In a way, he’s always already been in the restaurant business.” In April 2010, Ben quit his job and the couple worked for months on bringing their dream to life: creating a business plan, finding a space, hiring designers, getting building permits and actually constructing the place. The Queens Kickshaw finally opened in late March 2011.
At 5:40 on a Saturday afternoon, The Queens Kickshaw is already abuzz with couples sharing bowls of Mac & Cheese (the pub’s take combines of cheddar, Gruyère, smoked mozzarella and French beans) and students typing on Macs while sipping lattes. Jen has her short black hair in a ponytail and is busy behind the counter with her staff, serving customers at the bar. Ben, with his apron and bearded smile, enters the store carrying a box from his latest run to the market. Jen meets him on his way in and asks about a curious long stick jutting out of the box of fresh produce. “It’s burdock,” Ben explains with a twinkle in his eye. “I’m going to be experimenting in the kitchen later.”
The restaurant interiors – exposed brick walls, wooden tables with legs made out of bolts and black pipes, industrial stools and wire-frame pendant lights – all exude a cool, understated yet layered sensibility that also extends to the menu. The shop serves up cheesy concoctions like Gouda grilled cheese sandwich with black bean hummus, guava jam, and pickled jalapenos or ricotta with egg, Gruyère crisp, thyme and maple hot sauce on brioche. The couple is constantly looking for ways to reinvent the grilled cheese sandwich. “We’ve always wanted our shop to be cheese-focused because it makes you happy when you eat it. The grilled cheese sandwich is so relatable to people. You can make it as simple or as complicated as you want it to be,” Jen says. “We’re working on putting new menu items in; hopefully some with Filipino or Chinese influences too.” Who knows, maybe one day we will find longganisa chunks among layers of gooey cheese.
Being still new to the business, Jen acknowledges that they’re learning as they go, but they are excited to see where their hard work can take them. “My parents had their own business, building homes and townhouse complexes in Manila. They started this on their own and became successful in a few years. I saw their ability to take calculated risks and succeed through focused, hard work.” Still working full-time as a photo library coordinator at The Associated Press, Jen goes to Astoria straightaway at six p.m. on weekdays and works at the pub all day on weekends. Marketing and social media are under Jen’s wing, and based on the rave reviews they’ve been getting in New York, it seems to be coming to her quite intuitively. Managing people and training them properly is another process she is continually learning about. Coming from the Philippines and later living in Canada and the US however, has given her a unique point of view and an appreciation for different cultures. “It’s given me a better understanding of people,” she says. Ben, of course, also brings his own unique perspective to the table. “At the heart of it, we just really want to be good and do good,” says Jen. And if things keep going the way they are for The Queens Kickshaw, then they are doing very well indeed.
from Yummy (January/February 2012)