Raised in San Francisco by Chinese immigrant parents, Jessica Lau's upbringing seemed to pave the way for continued duality in her life. At multiple junctures she's faced two clear paths: one that made rational sense and one that connected her to her heart.
Her most recent path has led her to Amsterdam and the opening of True Story Juicery, one of the city's first cold-pressed juice bars. We chatted with her to see where her heart's at now and why she's most like a piece of baklava.
Cropbox: Let's start by you telling me your story and how you got here.
Jessica Lau: I grew up in San Francisco and I lived there for 18 years. I grew up in a Catholic environment, so throughout the whole process there were a lot of beliefs and values that were placed on me via school and my parents. My parents were also immigrants to California which added a different dynamic to my identity.
CB: Where are they from?
JL: They're from Hong Kong.
There is this secondary experience, or layer of experience that you have as a Chinese American and at times there is a lot of questioning about identity. For example, when I was growing up I didn't really know anything about China, I didn't grow up there, I'd never been there until high school or college. So in my mind I thought, “Okay, well I'm American just like everybody else.” And I have this very vivid experience of being in 8th grade, crossing the street with my brother after school and this guy spit at me from his car and called me a "chink" and it was just so... it was really just disturbing to me because it led me to question myself. [I wondered] “Okay so how do I associate then with a group of people that maybe doesn't accept me.” And at the same time, the first time I went to visit Hong Kong and China, I remember I loved it there but they knew I was an outsider. There is actually this thing called identity displacement that I studied in college and it's just fascinating because you're neither here nor there.
When I went to LA [for university] it was the first time I left home and I loved it. I'd never met such a diverse group of people in one place. Living in LA had me question everything: “So what am I trying to prove, who am I, what do I actually love doing, what are my hobbies?” I just kind of started from scratch, like who is this person and what is the world?
I guess I just always ask myself am I living the life that I want and what do I not know that I don't know... and that's what is the magic question that makes life exciting for me.
CB: So you were in LA for university, what was next?
JL: I graduated from college and I saw very clearly two paths before me and one was, at the time, following my heart. I wanted to volunteer in Tanzinia with kids with AIDS because I did a lot of work in college fundraising for kids with AIDS. It was a lot of work but it was so rewarding because you could see the change that you're able to make. You just feel like you're adding value to something you believe in and to a life that matters.
So I really wanted to go to Tanzinia and volunteer but on the other hand my left brain said “Okay if you don't start your career path now you're always going to be behind, time is money, so if don't invest in a house and do this and that…” So at the time I kind of chickened out and chose the corporate path.
And I always thought it would just be temporary, that I was going to be able to do what I love. And the thing was I really did love a lot of what I was doing.
But there is a distinct moment that I remember, I was on a project in New York and I was on the 42nd floor of an apartment that was five blocks from Time Square, overlooking the city. I had floor-to-ceiling windows and I was looking out and I just thought “Okay, this should be what it feels like to make it.” But I didn't feel like I had made it, in any sense of the world. And that's when I realized, maybe there is a lot more [to life] than just money and I realized that I was living this lifestyle that wasn't connected with my heart.
So that's when I decided to quit my job and really it was the scariest thing I'd ever done. Because again, here were the same two paths. There was one path that was very safe but also came with a big exchange. And then on this other path, I had no idea what it was going to look like. But I wanted to see what it was.
So I ended up going to Oxford because they have a social impact program and I thought if anything is going to connect me with my heart, this was it. At this point my dream had evolved into wanting to work with women entrepreneurs and teach them how to build businesses. And so I went and explored and then realized that I would probably need some business experience myself if I was going to teach anyone else how to do it. So then I was deciding between Berlin, London or Amsterdam because I wanted to stay abroad and expand my perspective, especially from a business standpoint. So I came to Amsterdam about a year and half ago and started True Story Juices around then.
CB: How did you land on the juice concept?
JL: When I was at Oxford, it was something that I really missed, especially coming from New York. I think in the whole city there was one green juice. It wasn't cold-pressed, it was like a smoothie, and it was at the train station. And the more I looked into it the more that I saw that Europe didn't really have a big market for cold-pressed juices yet. And when I got here, there were really just two other juice shops that had just opened up so I thought because the market was just starting, that it made sense. And it's something I know and love. And the big thing for us is about empowering people to be healthy.
CB: What or who has been your biggest inspiration?
JL: I'm constantly inspired so that's kind of a hard one. I think, lately, the person who comes to mind first is my boyfriend. Because in black and white he's someone who kind of has it all, in the sense that everything he touches works out for him. He's an Olympic athlete, he worked for the best consulting firm in the world. But the thing that I love about him the most is that none of that matters. He's so humble, he's a really genuine person. He doesn't live by his ego and that's what I strove to achieve when I started True story because it's a story of passion and following your heart and he's someone that does that.
CB: What is comfort to you?
JL: Family, definitely. And I say that because they are my safe place and sort of my anchor in the world. No matter where I travel, no matter how much I challenge my own identity, there are people that care about me waiting on the other end. And I think that's total comfort. It fills my heart.
CB: What is your favorite food?
JL: Sushi. Wait noooo, this is hard. Do you know what my favorite food is? It's creative expression of some kind, that's my favorite food. So living in San Francisco you get to try so much fusion stuff and so many innovative things, I miss that a lot. So it's not like I can look at sushi and say that's my favorite. It's a blend of expression. It's art. My favorite food is art, if that makes sense.
CB: So how did you eat when you were growing up?
JL: Well I think Asians love food (laughing). We ate a lot of Chinese, the food that my mom cooked would usually be greens, some protein and rice. But then once or twice a week we would have pizza or spaghetti, something American. And those were always treats. But for the most part, fresh healthy, pure foods.
CB: If you had to describe yourself as one food what would it be?
JL: I'm going to say baklava. I have many layers... and I try to be structured but I'm not... so there's just stuff everywhere.
CB: What was the last gift you gave someone?
JL: I think the last gift would be a compliment. I see gifts as an exchange of energy so if I can brighten someone's day up or do something like that, that is a gift.
CB: Okay, now for some rapid fire...
1. Dinner in front of the TV, okay or not okay? Okay, for sure
2. Breakfast for dinner or dinner for breakfast? Breakfast for dinner
3. Champagne or martini? Champagne
4. Food on a skewer or food on a tiny spoon? Skewer
5. Would you rather have a coffee or red-wine spill on your favorite outfit? Coffee
6. Buffet or sit-down dinner? Sit-down dinner
7. Soup or salad? Salad
8. Nutella or Speculoos? Nutella
9. Worst food to get stuck in your teeth: Kale or poppy seeds? Poppy seeds
10. Edible flowers or edible gold? Edible gold
11. Crushed ice or cubed ice? Crushed
12. Pizza or pasta? Pasta
13. Sing in the shower or sing in the car? Shower
14. Are you a hunter or a gatherer? Hunter
In the box today:
Maple-roasted fennel, leek and beetroot with lime
Wokked snow peas
Fresh rice papaer wraps with green papaya and asparagus
Sticky rice with mango
Gingery soy tahini dipping sauce