by vivian kim
“Jenna doesn’t know how to cook 1-2 portions. She always cooks a lot for a lot of people.”
Min grins and motions rapidly with his hand around a large imaginary wok.
It’s an old inside joke but Jenna smiles anyway. “Now that I think about it, my mom used to do the same thing. We would always have people over and she’d be feeding them. You know, it’s the Korean way.”
The young couple behind Jenna’s Asian Kitchen in Austin, TX is taking a break from the commotion behind them. The restaurant is buzzing with activity even though it’s 2 pm on a Monday. The Presidents’ Day crowd took them by surprise and they are just starting to catch their breath.
Jenna and Min sit side by side at the massive, spotless table in the restaurant’s private dining room. The room is immaculate, with elegant, long-backed chairs positioned just so. They’ve spent the last few hours on their feet, crisscrossing the restaurant to make sure their customers are happy, but still take the time to ask if I wanted freshly brewed coffee or Italian spring water. I somehow end up with both.
It feels like a visit to a good friend’s house, so I start getting personal right away.
So, how did you guys meet?
M: You want to tell this one, Jenna?
J: We had mutual friends, and we were out once at a karaoke party and met there.
M: Yup, karaoke.
J: And after a few months we decided we should start dating.
M: We both had a lot of energy and were thin back then. (laughs)
How is it working together?
J: Really good, actually. I know people say that it can be hard working with someone and then seeing them at home, 24/7, but that’s not the case for us. We don’t mind seeing each other all the time.
M: It’s not like we don’t fight, but we do work well together. I think it’s because we respect each other’s talents. I don’t go into the kitchen and tell her how to make a dish. And I’m comfortable managing the business. Plus Ha Na, my sister, is our general manager and has a great eye.
J: It’s the definition of a family restaurant!
Right, I think you mentioned that Ha Na does all the plating.
J: Yep, I make a big pot of stew and hand it to her to make it look good.
M: Jenna is always very giving of credit, even though she’s executive chef, and she’ll be the first to tell you that her dishes are jointly created by the three of us.
I like that you guys decided to do your own thing, instead of just working a 9 to 5. Fear stops a lot of people from doing their own thing.
J: That’s what a lot of our friends say, that we have no fear. But that’s not true.
M: Jenna’s definitely more conservative.
J: More cautious.
M: But that’s good, she keeps me in check.
J: But I trust him 100%. If he wants to do something and feels strongly about it, then I’m behind him all the way.
It sounds like you guys have a lot of support for each other.
M: I feel like I’m at a marriage counseling session right now! But yes, there’s a lot of support between us. And it’s true, whenever we talk about what we want to do, it’s always with the idea that we’ll do it together.
Is that what you think the secret is, what makes you guys unique? That level of support?
M: I think what it comes down to is that this restaurant is the result of our blood, sweat and tears. The build-out of Jenna’s took us 9 months. Normally, for a renovation of this space, with a good contractor, it should have taken 4 months. But we had a vision for what we wanted it to be, and we took care with every detail. Every piece in this restaurant has a story behind it. For instance, these light fixtures in this room – they were going to cost us $150-300 for each fixture, and we didn’t want to spend $3,000 on light fixtures so we did it ourselves.
J: Also, our work ethic. And our passion. Even when we were doing the food truck, a lot of food trucks just work whenever they want. But we made sure we had business hours.
How did you come up with the name Jenna’s Asian Kitchen?
M: We emphasize comfort food. Jenna really didn’t want her name to be on the restaurant but her name makes it more personal. We called it a “kitchen” because that’s where the family gathers nowadays, even at home. In our home, that’s where we gather as well.
We wanted to emphasize the family aspect, too. We have a really big office in the back, 500 square feet. That’s one of the main things we wanted to have. Usually restaurants don’t have big offices because the space is valuable, but we knew that our kids would be coming to the restaurant with us a lot and wanted them to have a good time here.
Are they usually here with you?
M: Yes, they’re here now. We have a nice couch and a TV so they enjoy it.
J: They love coming here. They always ask, “Are we going to Jenna’s?”
That’s great, so you guys can spend more time with them – how old are they again?
M: Six, five and one.
What’s the thing you like most about owning your own business?
M: We get to meet a lot of people and it’s actually helped us make a lot of friends. We didn’t go out much before – not that we’re very introverted, but…
J: We were just comfortable in our own circle of friends.
M: But we had to learn to go out and talk to people. We don’t usually like small talk, but it was something we learned to connect with our customers. We weren’t used to the response when we started greeting people in the dining area. People got really excited! It took awhile to get used to it.
J: I’m still not used to it. I don’t like to be in the spotlight, I just like feeding people.
Well, most people don’t get to meet the chef when they go to a nice restaurant!
J: Yeah, they get excited, and I’m not used to it because I don’t think I’m special. I go around and refill their waters and ask how they like everything. I don’t like to say, “I’m Jenna” (in a diva tone). But now we have a lot of regulars, and it’s good to see them.
M: Some people may come in and feel like they might be underdressed because we have a high-end feel, but then we’ll be on the floor, greeting everyone, and they realize that it’s not like that.
J: I’m busing tables, pouring water. I still do everything around the restaurant.
M: It’s funny because sometimes Jenna will pour water for people and later on they realize, “Oh wait, I think that was Jenna!”
Sounds like a nice treat for people. Is there anything you don’t like about owning your own restaurant?
M: I wonder if we’ll say the same thing. You go first.
J: It’s not being able to spend as much time as I want with my kids. Normally, parents will have weekends to take their kids out and do things, but we can’t.
M: That’s exactly what I was going to say.
As if on cue, we get a surprise visit from the kids. Jordyn, the 6-year old, sashays in holding a Valentine’s Day card high for the adults. Joah, the 5-year old, wants badly to be included on his sister’s card and softly entreats his mother for support. Ha Na comes in and briskly ushers the kids outside to work on the card.
It’s great that Ha Na’s here to help with the kids, too. I guess this goes to the next question, who has really helped you along the way?
J: Oh, definitely family and friends. We have a great support system.
M: Ha Na deserves a lot of credit. She sacrificed a lot. She was in New York City and she moved back to Austin to help out.
J: Yeah, we called her back.
M: Yes, it was a big sacrifice. I promised Ha Na that in 5 years, I’d help her open her own restaurant.
Awesome! Okay, last question per NextSeed tradition – what’s your favorite Disney movie?
J: Finding Nemo!
M: No way. That was my answer too. Finding Nemo.
Oh! How come?
M: For me it’s a bit personal because I didn’t have the best relationship with my father. And seeing Marlin travel the entire ocean to find his son, I can relate to that because I think that’s something I would do.
J: Yeah, and the kids love it. They’ve watched it 50 times and don’t get sick of it. It’s a good movie! I think because we’re parents, we like it for different reasons. But there are a lot of lessons in there.
M: Right, definitely a lot of good lessons.
I like the part where the baby turtle falls out of the current and the dad’s just like, keep calm, he’ll find his way back.
J & M (in unison): Yeah.
M (wistfully): I hope Finding Dory is just as good…
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