“It was far from easy,” says Kyeong Joo Lee, 41, of her career change three years ago. Sitting in Henkes, one of Shanghai’s restaurants that uses her custom mozzarella, she presents a plate of sliced baguette dripping with fresh Italian mozzarella, drizzled with olive oil and lightly sprinkled with walnuts and beads of pomegranate. “An Italian would have given up a long time ago … Like my husband said, only a stubborn Korean, like myself, doesn’t know how or when to give up,” she says, laughing.
Born and raised in South Korea, Lee worked as an architect her whole professional life, having moved to Milan to study and launch her career there with a major firm. When her husband transferred to Shanghai in 2007 for his job, she started working for an architecture firm in Shanghai but soon grew nostalgic for Italy and good Italian food. “I was unhappy at first, but the unhappiness gave me a second chance to start something new,” Lee recalls. She decided to quit her job to take on bringing authentic mozzarella cheese to China and starting her business Solo Latte.
Like Lee, Celeste Montanaro, 31, showed early interest in another profession. “I just loved rhythms and being able to create a rhythm with my feet,” Montanaro says of her childhood. “I couldn’t walk from one side of the house to the other without tap dancing my way across the floor, to the point that my dad had to rip up the floorboards about three or four times.” After competitions across Australia and graduation from a performing arts high school, she became a full-time professional performer for Fox Studios Australia. It wasn’t until she moved to London and took a side gig as a bartender that she took a few mixology courses and started to get really interested in the craft. What was it about cocktails? “The science and creativity you can put into it,” she says. For Montanaro, who has bartended with Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts since 2005, beverage mixing—all the different methods, distilling liquors, balancing flavors and proportions—is just another form of expression like dance or art.
Watching her spin and clash colorful liquors, flames, ice, sugars and spices behind the bar at the Kerry Hotel Pudong is like watching a wondrous scene out of Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine. “When you are a bartender, you’re on show all the time. Your guests are in front of you, and you’ve got to continuously perform, do the best you can, with a big smile on your face, and that is exactly what stage work is about,” the assistant F&B director relates. “It’s a great feeling seeing people enjoying themselves, experiencing something different. I like being able to give people an experience they won’t forget—that is what entertaining is for me.”
Businessman Gavin Lin, 29, went from taxes to macaroons and cupcakes. Raised in a family of farmers in rural Anhui, he was the first person in his village to go to college, where he studied biomedical engineering. The love for food began when he moved to Sydney in 2006 for postgraduate studies in business and later became a tax accountant. In his spare time, he watched cooking channels. “Not a lot of locals in China use ovens, so it really fascinated me. I got inspired and cooked all the time for myself, my friends and my flatmates, and when I was invited to parties, I always came with something baked, never empty-handed,” he says, chuckling. From then on, Lin took baking lessons on weekends at local bakeries before moving onto private cupcake lessons and even traveling to Paris to research macarons and packaging. When he came back, Cupcakes Cafe was born.
As dream-like as the three stories may sound, it wasn’t all made-from-scratch pistachio macaroons or maple bacon bourbon cocktails, of course. “The challenge was harder than I could ever imagine,” says Lee. “We worked very long hours every day, teaching the staff, getting the technique right for each and every mozzarella and dealing with a lot of criticism. We were spending a fortune every day, and I didn’t know how to start to successfully export the business, and that’s when I said to myself, ‘Oh my God ... what I have I started?’ I knew there was no way I could give up after all that work and investment.”
Lin also struggled immensely with the launch phase of Cupcake Cafe when he began in late July of this year. “The first two months were very, very tough. There were far more negative responses than positive ones, and I was working about 14 hours a day. My family was very worried for my health,” Lin remembers.
Coincidentally, one evening Lee heard an Italian-speaking couple inside her building, so she went to speak with them and offer samples of her mozzarella. The next day, the man came back and introduced himself as an executive chef of a restaurant in Shanghai and said he wanted to use her mozzarella, as well as consult her business. Today, Lee ships regularly to about 40 restaurants in Shanghai, like T8, el Willy, Mr. Willis and Mercato, as well as many individual clients.
Lin credits abundant support from friends and family, “With their help I pulled through,” he attests. “And make no mistake, the business is doing very well now. It surprised me. I have a lot of return customers; even fans of Cupcake Cafe are growing everyday on Weibo. So I will continue to do this. I see a future. I’m always meeting so many supportive, interesting people and I love what I do everyday. There were hesitations at first, but now I can say I don’t have any regrets.”
Lee adds, “The first time I knew that I was doing something great was when an Italian woman who ordered my mozzarella sent me a letter that said, ‘When I eat your mozzarella in my house, in my kitchen, I feel like I’m at home again,’ and I know how she feels, just as when I was living in Milan, and my husband once brought home a can of imported Korean kimchee.” Lee says she wanted to give that feeling to people. “Even if it can sometimes be an economic struggle, I know now that it was worth it. Also, now we have amazing fresh Italian mozzarella every morning for breakfast,” she reports, laughing. “The one thing that I always say to my staff every day is, ‘We are not the best mozzarella maker but our goal is to make the best mozzarella outside of Italy.’”
Despite boasting an amazing product and learning experience, she confirms that her passion for architecture will always be there, just like Montanaro has for performance and Lin with accounting. “I loved my job,” says Lin, “but even so, I just felt I needed to make a change. I wanted to create something, and do something more challenging. I wanted to fulfill my desire of starting my own business, and I wanted to bring that business to China, to inspire other people like myself, to appreciate and recognize something new and innovative.”
“I made a choice and sacrifices,” Montanaro concludes. “But I wouldn’t change it for anything, because I know where I want to go and where I want to be. I’m super happy with my career choice, and also that I chose to stay in Shanghai. It’s easy to find friends here and connect with people in the same position as you.”
Adding one final thought, she shares, “If there is one thing I could take from this whole experience, it’s that it is never too late to do what you want—it’s just putting your mind to it and working hard. Just accept things as they come along, and take every opportunity that comes your way.”
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