Chef Chris Yang runs the kitchen at the Walnut Creek location of Tender Greens, a fast-casual concept mini-chain with 12 locations throughout Southern California. The emphasis is on healthy food at these restaurants, and while most restaurants with more than one location tend to keep the menu the same at every outpost, creativity is the name of the game at Tender Greens. And none of their chefs have been more creative than Yang.
After battling his own weight issues and finding success with the ‘caveman-style’ Paleo Diet, he introduced ‘Lean & Green’ menu items to the location’s daily specials menu, offering dishes that contain lots of protein, are gluten-free, and low in sodium. He will also soon be launching a full lifestyle program through the restaurant, offering discounts on healthy menu items, classes with local gyms and yoga studios, and even personally leading some group exercise classes for the Tender Greens members.
Yang spoke with The Daily Meal, and our conversation touched on everything from food-related memories to things he’d never eat.
The Daily Meal: What was your first restaurant industry job?
Chris Yang: I got my first job while still attending culinary school at Lark Creek Steak in San Francisco as a garde manger cook and pastry cook.
TDM: When you first walk into a restaurant, what do you look for as signs that it’s well-run, will be a good experience, etc.?
CY: My first impression with a restaurant starts with its appearance from the outside and the general cleanliness. For example, I tend to look if there is trash or debris surrounding the entrance, if there are smudges and fingerprints on the windows and doors and if the employees are well groomed. Secondly, I notice if the employees make eye contact, genuinely smile, and approach the customer when they first enter the restaurant.
TDM: Is there anything you absolutely hate cooking?
CY: There is nothing I absolutely hate cooking, but I will say I am definitely not a fan of peeling shrimp!
TDM: If one chef from history could prepare one dish for you, what would it be?
CY: I would love the chance to sit with Chef Sukiyabashi Jiro. His documentary, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" should be watched by all aspiring culinarians to see the amount of dedication Jiro has given to his craft.
TDM: What do you consider to be your biggest success as a chef?
CY: I have been an athlete my whole life and I am currently studying to be a Certified Personal Trainer. I wanted to find a way to blend my love for culinary arts with living a healthy lifestyle, so I have started a Wellness and Lifestyle Program at Tender Greens Walnut Creek, which includes a “Lifestyle Menu” that is low glycemic, gluten free and is Paleo friendly (lean proteins, no refined sugars, no processed foods). We are also partnering with local yoga studios, gyms and Gumsaba Boot Camp to create a like-minded health conscious community in Walnut Creek. One of my goals is to show people through our Lifestyle Menu and our cooking classes that you don’t have to sacrifice taste and presentation for food that is healthy for you.
TDM: What do you consider to be your biggest failure as a chef?
CY: I was very stubborn earlier in my career. I thought I would be able to handle everything by myself without delegating responsibilities to my fellow cooks, which often landed me in the "weeds." I've come to learn that you can have all the best ideas, but without a strong supporting staff, all you have is words. Respect your employees!
TDM: What is the most transcendental dining experience you’ve ever had?
CY: To be honest, the best meals I have ever had to this date were family dinners cooked by my grandma. I still remember, as a little kid, sitting on the kitchen counter and watching my mother, aunts and grandma cook dinner almost every night. She is the fire behind my inspiration. I do not think I will have another meal that was perfect as when she was with us.
TDM: Are there any foods you will never eat?
CY: I really have no restrictions with what I will eat. Although I may not enjoy it, I will always try anything once.
TDM: Is there a story that, in your opinion, sums up how interesting the restaurant industry can be?
CY: There are so many chefs of different and diverse backgrounds. You can give 10 chefs the same 10 ingredients and have 10 completely different dishes. That is what I love about being a chef. You can pull from any aspect from your life that has influenced you and create a work of art. I love when my dish gets dropped in front of a customer and their eyes widen in awe of how pretty the plate is. They don't call it culinary arts for no reason!
Dan Myers is the Eat/Dine Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @sirmyers.