"Both my parents were very good at cooking. They gave us healthy, homemade food while we were growing up. Some people think Chinese food is greasy, but really that’s not true."
Cindy Liu and Fan Jia are on a mission to change Londoners’ midday meals. Rather than settle for a rubbery sandwich or a boxed salad, they would prefer the city’s office workers experience the wonder of wok-fried barbecue lamb, Taiwanese Japanese dumplings, or Cantonese poached chicken.
These Chinese expatriates both worked in finance before founding EatFan, their east Asian lunchbox delivery service, last summer. Since then they’ve established an excellent reputation for brightening up lunches around Canary Wharf and are about to expand, with a restaurant inside Greenwich Peninsula’s new community building Aperture. Here they describe their first food loves, what Deliveroo has taught them, and how they make a great, low-odour lunchbox that won’t annoy your co-workers.
Where does your passion for food come from?
Cindy: I grew up in Beijing, and both my parents were very good at cooking. They gave us healthy, homemade food while we were growing up. Some people think Chinese food is greasy, but really that’s not true. Besides, food in Beijing is really interesting. You get Sichuan food, Shanghai cuisine, everyone brings a little of their regional cookery to the capital.
Fan: When I was a child my parents were a busy working couple, and I was always left with some money, and told to eat out at our local market; eating out in China was very cheap! I tried almost every sort of food available in my town. The traditional dish in my hometown is noodles, made from wheat. However, I didn’t like noodles when I was a kid; I always went for rice paired with a Sichuan dish, as my hometown was very close to Sichuan Province.
How did you two come to work together?
Cindy: We actually met through Fan’s wife. She was a friend of mine. We both loved food; I love cooking it, and I think Fan loves eating it! [laughs]
Fan: Before setting up the business, I was a software developer at Societe Generale, the French bank. My undergraduate and postgraduate degrees were both in computer science, and I’m still passionate about the world of computing. Playing computer games is also part of my life; I am a regular [online game] Dota 2 player, and I also play [online game] Unknown Battlegrounds when I’m free.
Who are your favourite gaming characters?
Fan: I don’t really have a favourite game character to be honest. Playing games just helps me to relax after working in the kitchen, ten hours every day!
You’re a big cinema lover, Cindy. What is your favourite food scene from a movie?
Cindy: The Chinese Feast is my favourite film. It is a funny film about a chef cooking in Hong Kong in the 90s. He has to recreate the Manhan Imperial Feast, one of the most famous meals ever documented in Chinese cuisine, in order to save his friend’s restaurant. The meal has at least 108 unique dishes, from the Manchu and Han Chinese culture during Qing dynasty. It is only served for the Emperors. The scene capturing the cooking of the feast is amazing.
East Asian lunchboxes are a little different from the sort of thing more commonly eaten at a desk in London, aren’t they?
Cindy: Yes, we love to share, so six or seven people might get together for lunch and spend a full hour together. The food is high-quality and healthy; it’s not like the kind of Chinese takeaway food some people might be used to.
Cindy, you live on Greenwich Peninsula. What made you decide to open up a restaurant here also?
Cindy: I actually asked after the space in the Aperture building for a friend of mine, who wanted to have a yoga studio. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it was assigned as a restaurant space. I love living here, and we took it because we thought it would be good to have a storefront. It’s good to reach so many residents; and it’s a nice building to be in, because there is a nursery and a gym. It’s a very good place, socially; we’ll get an evening trade there. We’ll apply for an alcohol license. I think the next nearest east Asian place is by the O2, so there’s a good gap for us locally too.
You both worked in finance before launching EatFan as a lunchbox service. You must have been slightly crestfallen when you saw the kind of foods people ate at their desks in London?
Cindy: A little bit. It’s so boring to see people bring the same salad or sandwich every day. You go to Pret or somewhere, and that’s about it, or you might eat lunch out on a Friday. A lot of people love Chinese food, but they don’t want to go out and sit down for lunch, because it’s inconvenient. And they don’t want to order out, because a lot of the restaurants close to Canary Wharf in, say, Mile End, really aren’t that good. Plus there’s the smell; it might taste good, but the odour of the food might upset colleagues.
Deliveroo and Uber Eats have really changed the way people order fresh food in London. What have you learned from those services?
Cindy: You have to be careful with a dish’s name. On Deliveroo, people don’t see a picture, they can only read about it. They’re going to feel more comfortable ordering something like Hong Kong Chicken, rather than something with an unusual Chinese name. You have to bear that in mind.
Aside from EatFan, where do you like to eat in London?
Cindy: Dragon Inn Club in Victoria is good. So is the dim sum at Yauatcha in Oxford Circus, and there’s a newly opened place in London Bridge called Duddell’s, which is really nice. It’s inside an old church and looks incredible.
Fan: I really like II Bordello at Wapping; my wife and I used to live close by and that is our favourite spot. I also like Po Cha, a Korean restaurant at Waterloo. It used to be at Tottenham Court Road. It serves great, authentic Korean food.
Summer is coming. What’s your ideal sunny day in London?
Fan: For me it would be a day beside the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park with my friends and family.
Cindy: Mine is to drink Pimms by the Thames in the sun!