Helen Yung is the co-founder of the artisan ice cream shop Sweet Republic, which has locations in Scottsdale and Phoenix, Arizona (including at Sky Harbor Airport). They offer flavors ranging from Malted Chocolate Chip and Salted Butter Caramel Swirl to Coconut Cashew Curry and Cabernet Pear Sorbet alongside freshly baked cookies and homemade almond and bacon brittles. The ice creams and sorbet are inventive and well executed, plus you can choose from three different types of spoons at the establishment. TCC sat down with Helen at the Scottsdale shop to chat about the path she took to become a professional ice cream maker.
The Chef’s Connection: I know your background is not originally in food, but did you go to culinary school at any point?
Helen Yung: Yes, I went to Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney. That was after about four years of investment banking. I quit and then moved to Singapore for a little bit and then went down to Sydney, Australia for Cordon Bleu. I did the basic cuisine and basic patisserie for about four months. Monday through Saturday for four months straight, it was pretty intense.
TCC: Four months for both of those?
HY: Yeah, so it was Monday and Wednesday one, Thursday and Saturday the other. It was intense.
TCC: From there where did you go?
HY: I went back to Hong Kong for a couple years. I got into personal training, it was just self-exploration at that point so I did a lot of working out, became a personal trainer.
TCC: That’s a good skill to have with this place!
HY: At the same time SARS was going on in Hong Kong, I don’t know if you remember the bird flu. I did a couple interviews but people weren’t really hiring, it was just not the greatest time to be working, and the economy wasn’t doing so well so I was just having fun, enjoying life, adopted two dogs and was just exploring business ideas, nothing that really took off. And then my partner and I moved to San Francisco and tried to open some kind of ice cream shop, not ice cream shop but we were thinking about ice cream sandwich wholesale originally, we didn’t want to do retail.
TCC: What year was this?
HY: So I graduated college in ’98, worked in investment banking until 2002. I was in New York during 9/11, when that happened. We were actually in the World Trade Center doing training. I was promoted to from analyst to associate so we were in New York for the summer so we were in the World Trade Center when it happened. So I was in New York for two years, I was in London for two years and then I was in Japan for about three months doing investment banking and all that. And then, after I went back to London, that’s when investment banking was kind of hitting a rough patch so they were offering pretty good packages for people to voluntarily resign, so I used that money to take my long break and go to culinary school and do personal training all that exploration stuff. And then San Francisco, sorry very long story, and then I worked at my first restaurant job. I worked at Eccolo in Berkeley. It was on Fourth Street, the owner was Chris Lee, he used to work at Chez Panisse. He was doing California/Italian kind of cooking, so I was there for about a year.
TCC: Were you doing pastry?
HY: No, I was doing lunches mainly. I was in charge of the French fries, crab cakes, all that good stuff. And then we moved here [Scottsdale, Arizona] to visit my business partner’s sister who was living here at that time, and she encouraged us to try opening our business here, apparently we were very distracted living in San Francisco.
TCC: San Francisco is also pretty ice cream saturated.
HY: It wasn’t at that time. It was still early on. So we opened here ten years ago so this was probably 2005, 2006 I’m guessing. So that’s before all the artisan stuff happened, all the ice cream stuff happened. I think Bi-Rite had not opened yet, still very early stages.
TCC: So then you came here, and you liked it?
HY: Yeah, we loved it. So this was our first location. We didn’t really know Phoenix/Scottsdale very well so we drove around and this seemed like a nice area.
TCC: How long before you opened the second one?
HY: I wanna say like four years ago. Five or six years in. We did the food truck thing for a while before that.
TCC: Were there food trucks out here then?
HY: We were one of the pioneers of the food trucks. When the first started food trucks, when the first had the food truck Fridays, we were the first ones.
TCC: Where are the food truck Fridays?
HY: It’s where the Phoenix Public Market is currently. Over on the Phoenix side. We were at the Scottsdale farmers’ market too, every Saturday. So yeah, we were definitely one of the first food trucks. But then, my business partner totaled the truck. It was perfect, it was beautiful. It was a 1959 Chevy milk van, and it was a beautiful truck. We were even on TLC with that truck featured but we had actually just done a brand new paint job and interior, everything was perfect and then she totaled it. It was maybe two years after that that we opened the Phoenix store. I don’t think we could have opened the Phoenix store if we were still doing the truck. It was very time consuming to do the truck.
TCC: Before you went to culinary school had you had any jobs in food?
HY: No, never.
TCC: You just said “I’m gonna go for it”?
HY: Yeah. I liked to eat, I ate out a lot. I cooked for myself at home, nothing elaborate but I like to cook healthy meals for myself at home just lots of vegetables. In college, I went to Penn in Philly, I would walk over to Reading Terminal Market like every weekend and do all my shopping, catch the bus back or train back and then I would cook for myself and evenings we would go out with friends, we ate out a lot. I did work at Susanna Foo, she’s kind of, everything’s so early back then! She has a Chinese/French restaurant, so it’s high end Chinese, I think it was Chinese…I was the hostess there in college. I guess that was my first job…I didn’t think about that. That’s when you didn’t have OpenTable when you actually had to call and confirm reservations.
TCC: When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
HY: I don’t think I knew. I’m not one of those people who thinks forwards too much. I’m a pretty happy in the moment kind of person.
TCC: So how did you end up in Finance?
HY: Good question! I tried international relations at John’s Hopkins for a year and wasn’t into it. I think of all the different things I studied I prefer economics to poli-sci, history, all that stuff, maybe it’s all the reading, I’m not a big reader, I realize I prefer the numbers. So I guess the numbers I was more comfortable with, I was at Wharton at Penn for my last three years and then went into investment banking. Plus it was all the rage back then, everyone did investment banking. You know you’re a fish in the river just following the current.
TCC: What is your favorite part about being in this industry?
HY: The connections that we make with people. I’m really good friends with a lot of chefs.
TCC: You have a great Instagram!
HY: It was better before I had the baby, now with the baby I just stare at him all day long. I guess I’ll probably get into baby food once he starts eating solids.
TCC: How old is he?
HY: He’s coming on six months. It’s a pretty small community, I’m part of a group called Les Dames d’Escoffier International here. All the female chefs here, it’s a really great group of people. It’s a big city but it’s really tightly knit at the same time, all the chefs know each other.
TCC: Are there a lot of female chefs in the area?
HY: I would say the same percentage as any other city, it’s still a small percentage but we have our share, of course mainly in pastry and that side. But we have a couple like Charleen Badman’s pretty famous, she’s at FnB in Old Town. So we have a couple, and then pastry there’s Eugenia [Theodosopoulos of Essence Bakery], she studied in Paris and probably has one of the best croissants I’ve had anywhere. I mean we have a few and they’re good, just a few.
TCC: Was there a moment in between culinary school and then moving to the US that was an “I want to go into food” moment?
HY: I think when I went to culinary school there was always the thought of going into food, I didn’t know what. I don’t think I’d thought of ice cream at that point, it was probably more restaurant. I played with bakery for a while. I guess I knew I didn’t want to run a full on restaurant, I knew that that was out of my limit, a little too over my head. I wanted something I could control. That’s why I think ice cream is good, you can do everything ahead of time and put it in the freezer.
TCC: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
HY: I don’t think anyone’s ever given me advice. You just learn as you go. I mean of course people give you stuff along the way but I don’t think anything’s huge.
TCC: What is the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten or put in ice cream?
HY: I think we tried garlic, that’s not that strange. We’ve done activated charcoal recently, that’s not that strange. Squid ink.
TCC: Was that in a sweet one?
HY: Yeah, I don’t think it worked so well. I think squid ink needs to be savory. It didn’t come out black enough either. You know, coming from Hong Kong you eat all kinds of things, snakes and turtles, it’s not really that common. I don’t know, eels? They’re pretty common. Frog legs? I can’t really think of anything.
TCC: What’s your favorite ingredient?
HY: Salt and sugar. Seasoning, it’s all about seasoning, bring the flavors out. I know that’s boring. And acid, lemon. Lemon, salt and sugar, you can do anything with those three.
TCC: Whom would you like to meet?
HY: I’m not the most aspirational person when you ask these questions! I’m pretty happy where I am right now, changing diapers all day long.
TCC: Whom would you like to cook for or serve ice cream to?
HY: Maybe the Obamas?
TCC: I feel like they’d probably have really good taste in ice cream.
HY: Yeah, they seem like really smart, cool and fun people. It would be great to meet Barack and Michelle Obama.
TCC: What was the hardest thing for you to learn, or is there something you can’t get right?
HY: The ice cream can always be better. We’re still working on a good dark chocolate ice cream, we’re not there yet. Everything we make can be better, for sure.
TCC: How has having the baby affected your role in the business?
TCC: Are you still in shop a lot?
HY: No, I hope to be back in the shop a couple months more. Right now he’s very young and I’m breastfeeding so. I’m still working on sleep training!
TCC: How did going into this industry change your life direction? Do you think you would have ended up in the US if you weren’t doing food?
HY: I mean, I was here for school. I was here for boarding school in high school and college. I was at Exeter for two years and between Hopkins and Penn that was another four years. So I didn’t see it as moving, I was just all over the place. I didn’t have roots anywhere, I didn’t feel like I did. But now I feel like I have roots here, especially with a family now, I’m going to be here for a little while. I don’t know about being in Scottsdale forever but it’s an affordable city. The weather’s good half the year, the other half is brutal but you get used to it. And it’s good for ice cream year round. It’s a really good place to open a business, I can’t imagine being in New York or San Francisco with the kind of traffic you have to deal with and high rents and competition, that’s hard. Here is just a lot more chill, it’s a great place to live and do business. It may not be as intense or profitable as in a city, you know you do, well you do well but if you don’t do well you really bomb and you crash, so here it’s much more forgiving. It’s just less stressful, fewer white hairs out here!
TCC: What ingredient turns you off the most?
HY: Truffle oil. Bacon a little bit, everyone’s over bacon now.
TCC: What’s your favorite tool in the kitchen?
HY: Knife. Chef’s knife, you can do anything with that.
TCC: What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not cooking and making ice cream?
HY: I like to hike. When the baby’s older I would like to take him hiking, it’s so beautiful out here. It’s a great time to think and get ideas and be inspired.
TCC: What would you like to do before you get to old to do it?
HY: Oh wow, I feel like I’ve done it. Having the baby, I might have a second baby before I get to old to do that. Otherwise, I feel like age is not a barrier to doing most things. I think childbearing is one of the few things that’s really hard to do when you get older, but business-wise you can do anything at any age. I’ve seen people much older than me do all kinds of things.
TCC: Tell me a secret!
HY: Then it wouldn’t be a secret! I don’t have any secrets, I’m a pretty open person.
TCC: How did you deal with the stress of this industry when you were starting up the business?
HY: Yeah it was stressful. Youth was great, being younger, being able to not sleep, it’s very physical this industry. We were doing everything ourselves: making ice cream, washing the dishes, serving. We had very few employees so we did everything front to back all by ourselves, deliveries, end to end. Now I have employees who do all of that. Definitely youth and physical endurance and all that stuff is huge when you’re starting a business. If you don’t have a lot of money, if you have money you just pay people to do that stuff.
TCC: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
HY: The success we’ve had with the business, the recognition we’ve had both locally and nationally.
TCC: Do you have goals beyond these shops?
HY: Not really, we just want to grow Sweet Republic to other parts of the valley, both retail and do more wholesale.
TCC: Are you doing wholesale in other states at all?
HY: No, the transportation of ice cream is the main issue, it’s challenging. When you get those transportation companies to bring your stuff everywhere they take a huge cut, it’s so hard to make money that way. You have to be huge volume, you probably want to use a co-packer at that point. I don’t think we could ever get to the scale needed to go that cheap.
TCC: Do you make it all at this location?
HY: Yeah, our kitchen is in the back.
TCC: Do you have a cooking tip that people at home should use for making ice cream?
HY: I think make sure whatever you’re putting something into is pre-cooled or pre-heated. So if you’re going to scoop ice cream into a bowl, make sure that’s cool ahead of time. Just think ahead, if you’re going to cook something in the oven make sure the oven is preheated. Something as simple as that but it could really affect the quality of what you’re doing.
TCC: Anything else you want to share?
HY: Come to Scottsdale and eat ice cream!