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Lena Kwak Of Starday Foods On Chefs and Restaurateurs Helping To Promote Healthy Eating

An Interview With Martita Mestey

It is important to be flexible. Things will go wrong, it is bound to happen. What’s important is how you respond when things do.

As part of On “Chefs and Restaurateurs Helping To Promote Healthy Eating”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lena Kwak.

Lena Kwak is a culinary strategist, food innovator, former Research & Development Director at three-starred Michelin restaurant- French Laundry, Co-founder and former CEO of Cup4Cup, and Co-Founder of Starday Foods. She has been recognized as a rising food entrepreneur for her work in brand and product development, with 12 years of food and beverage CPG experience. Lena has been honored as one of Forbes “30under30”, Zagats “30under30”, Martha Stewart “American Made” Award Honoree, and named by Fortune Magazine as one of the most innovative women in Food + Wine.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

Being surrounded by a family of artists, I was born and raised around creativity. Art, in all forms, whether ceramics or cooking was the way my family expressed their love and care for one another. I was inspired to become a chef because it was a way for me to connect with others and express my love for them through food.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

When we think about the types of food we design, we like to think of the person — and most people are busy and don’t have the time to cook. All of our products at Starday are convenient, tasty yet healthy. There’s even an element of what’s going on with our climate — all of our products are plant-based and see through that lens; looking at Gooey, which doesn’t have palm oil, addresses deforestation.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that has happened to you since you started? What was the lesson or takeaway you took out of that story?

Of all the dishes I’ve cooked for family and friends over the years, the one I get the most compliments on that they remember time and time again is the simplest one. When I was on a camping trip with some friends, I made everyone avocado toast with kimchi on top. To this day everyone still raves about it. It’s funny because as a chef you would expect it to be a dish that takes hours to prepare and isn’t easy to execute, but it was the combination of two simple items that got everyone so excited. I think that’s the key to a successful dish, combining comfort and indulgence with a twist and it’s a winner.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

My mother has also been a hard-working professional, and typically in the Korean culture, we aren’t overly expressive with our emotions. Growing up, food and cooking was the way I felt emotional love from my mother and the way she expressed it. Expressing love and care is bread into my culture, and my mother is the one who influenced my desire to get into cooking and sharing food with others.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

If you mash together two unfamiliar items that people wouldn’t think would go well together, it is more often than not, a huge hit!

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal’ for you?

Personally, I like to eat quite simply myself. I follow a mostly vegan or pescatarian diet. I love raw crudité, especially fennel because it aids in digestion. My perfect meal would consist of salmon as it is high in Omega threes, whole grains most likely in the form of quinoa, and lightly cooked greens with a sprinkle of ALL DAY Poppin or Boom.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

Being part of a family full of artists, I draw inspiration from different mediums of art. I love playing around with flavor, texture, and color theory to explore different compositions of food. Being constantly open and flexible to what may be good works in surprising ways that allow my creativity the room to explore.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

I can’t give away too many specifics now, but Starday will have a handful of new brands launching throughout the year! I can say that I am really interested in gut health and how Starday products can bring a healthier lifestyle to our consumers.

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an initiative to help promote healthy eating. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Starday Foods is a data-driven umbrella company of responsible and better-for-you food brands. We launched in August 2021 with the first brand under the Starday umbrella, Gooey Snacks — bringing pleasure back to snacking by making responsible, better-for-you versions of chocolatey childhood favorites. The first Gooey product is an absurdly delicious chocolate hazelnut spread that is low-sugar, all-natural, vegan, gluten-free, and made without palm oil. ALL DAY is the latest addition to Starday’s suite of food brands focused on making home cooking easier and more satisfying with the most complete seasoning set bringing bold, complex flavors to every meal, mood, and season. All of Starday’s brands and products are developed through a lens of health and sustainability. We focus on plant-based shelf staples, and never make products that aren’t good for you and don’t taste good.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

My background is in nutrition science and I wanted to help develop products that make both your body and taste buds happy. I love designing products with the mindset of gifting. The perfect gift isn’t something you buy for yourself, it is something that reminds them they are truly seen and you understand who they are as a person.

Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was helped by your cause?

The other day, I received a comment about our ALL DAY spices. The consumer said “cooking in itself doesn’t make me happy, eating does. Using ALL DAY makes cooking fun for me and makes me even more excited to eat.” Knowing Starday brands make people feel more empowered to express themselves in the kitchen and that people are cooking on their own more brings me an immense amount of joy that inspires me to continue creating for others.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Eating is political. The most important thing consumers can do is support local farmers and businesses. Consumers get to define and influence businesses and policies around food by the choices they make. It is important to consider what values you want to see when you go out to buy things when you are choosing what brands to shop from.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Chef or Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

First, it is important to be flexible. Things will go wrong, it is bound to happen. What’s important is how you respond when things do. Second, is to make it a priority to have a work life balance. Burnout is real- trust me, and in order to be creative you need to have a space to feel and think so your creative energy can flow through. Third, is to remove yourself from the equation. It isn’t about you, it is for other people so focus on what they are thinking, feeling, and needing. Next, is to have self-care be a driving force. Surround yourself with things and practices that make you happy and keep you sane. Lastly, is to take a step back if you ever have a moment where your reason for drive is unclear, and ask yourself why you’re doing it.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

One of my favorite things to do is to take morning toast and switch it up. For example, topping your toast with nut butter and a sprinkle of ALL DAY Poppin or Fuego. Again, it is that mash of two things you might not think go together, but they create a combo people can’t get enough of.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Lizzo. Just as I am, she is really into plant-based eating and discovering new recipes that not only are healthy for you, but taste amazing. I’d also love to learn some dance moves from her and in exchange I’ll cook for her!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can follow my work on my website, as well as on Starday Foods, ALL DAY, and Gooey Snacks’ websites!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Lena Kwak Of Starday Foods On Chefs and Restaurateurs Helping To Promote Healthy Eating was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.