Quincy native Jimmy Liang came to the United States from China when he was 4. At 14, got his start in the food business as a dishwasher at the Tokyo restaurant in Cambridge. Now 44, he’s built a small restaurant empire with the JP Fuji Group: There are Fuji sushi restaurants throughout the area, including at the new High Street Place food hall. There’s also Shabu & Mein, a hot pot restaurant in Kendall Square, plus YoCha and B Café, offering casual bubble tea and frozen yogurt in his hometown. In a month or so, he’ll open another Fuji in Newton. Down the road, he’s envisioning a tasting counter in Quincy, as well as a French bakery.
His mom was an assembly worker, making fire alarms during the week while spending weekends cooking at a senior center. His dad was a chef at Quincy’s Cathay Pacific. Liang is still loyal to his hometown — “I try to drag everybody I know to come into Quincy,” he laughs — where he supports many causes, such as the South Shore YMCA.
From an Asian American perspective, what could Boston do better? What’s going well? What are your thoughts as part of the community?
We’re no different than any other immigrant community. Everybody who comes here, they sort of keep to themselves and then they put their heads down. They work hard, try to make a living, try to raise kids, that kind of stuff. I don’t want to say something that could be seen as controversial.
I just think that the Asian community is a little closed off in a way. But I think, with a lot of social awareness, things that have been happening, especially during COVID. Everybody’s been a lot more outspoken. I myself was invited to the State House to give a little speech, right before COVID officially started, to condemn racism. I was very proud to be involved with that.
I think the Asian community is making a lot of progress. There have been a lot more Asian community leaders who have emerged, such as my own cousin [Quincy City Councilor] Nina Liang, and Mayor Michelle Wu, just to name a few. Whether it’s business-wise, socially, or politically, I think everybody’s rising to the occasion.
Could you reflect on growing up in the area? What’s different between then and now in the restaurant world? How has Boston changed?
I think Boston has become more accepting of everything and everyone, and that’s what we really are. We’re a melting pot. I think Boston is a very good example of that. Boston is extremely diverse. When I was a kid growing up in Quincy, I was maybe one of a handful of Asian kids. And, now, the same elementary school that I went to? The minority has become the majority, and that’s spilled over into the middle school as well as the high school population. It just means Quincy has grown, with a lot of Asians involved.
When I first moved here, there weren’t that many Asian restaurants. They certainly weren’t that many Asian households. All of a sudden, in today’s Quincy, there are so many. I remember years ago, the Patriot Ledger tried to dub Quincy a small Chinatown. That was probably 10 years ago.
A lot of people got into the industry trying to make a better living and trying to pursue a better life for their families.
My great-grandfather was here in the United States building railroads. They settled in Boston. We had a laundry service. My great-grandpa got into a bit of a gambling issue, and my great-great grandpa kicked everybody back home: “You’re not coming back here until you resolve your issues!” Unfortunately, my great-great grandpa died here in Boston alone, and my great-grandpa ended up dying in China. My grandfather didn’t realize he was born in the States until he was in his 50s.
How did you get involved in working in restaurants?
I got a job at a Japanese restaurant in Cambridge, the Tokyo, washing dishes there. A typical restaurant story; I just worked my way up. I was 14, 15 years old. After that, I just kept my head down, kept working. And then one of the chefs quit, and I was moved to a full chef. From there, I actually went to work at a place called Yoshi on Boylston Street. It’s also no longer there. And then, after that, I became head chef at the Apollo in Chinatown, which is also no longer there.
How has Chinatown changed over the years?
The biggest and most obvious changes are the nice big buildings, the hotels. With gentrification happening, Chinatown has been encroached upon. This actually goes back to SARS. Chinatown was never the same after SARS, to be honest with you. A lot of the population left.
I remember when SARS happened. That was our first COVID, if you think about it. There were a lot of rumors about people going to Asia and coming back with all sorts of SARS-type stuff. But it was just rumors. I remember Mayor Menino had to come on TV to tell people that restaurants in Boston were not being infected with SARS. It wasn’t any different than when COVID happened.
The original population Chinatown, I think they kind of slowly moved out to the suburbs and were replaced by the newer population, new immigrants coming in from China who first settled in New York. The Fujianese population was the big turnover, to be honest with you. It went from traditional Cantonese to Fujianese.
How did you acquire your own mini restaurant empire?
It was just putting my head down, working, trying to put out our best product. I started my first place when I was 19. In Quincy, we were the first Japanese restaurant. I spent a lot of time educating the public on sushi, because sushi wasn’t popular at the time, and we were the first Japanese restaurant in the city of Quincy in 1998.
I started working at Japanese restaurants, and I just kind of made my way into learning how to do sushi. Out of all the different cuisines, sushi was expensive. It was very insulated. Most Japanese chefs didn’t want to teach anybody else who wasn’t Japanese.
Somehow, the Japanese chefs who I worked with really liked me. They thought I was a stupid American kid who looked like them. I sounded like a Bostonian, but I looked like them, and they kind of made a very special place for me in their heart. So I’ve been mentored by a lot of different sushi chefs in Boston. I got my first head chef job in Chinatown at the Apollo when I was 18.
I just kind of got thrown into it and did well. Within that same stretch of time, I said to myself and a couple of my friends, “Let’s do a Japanese restaurant.” And so we pooled our money together; we got it done. There were three partners. Two weeks after we opened, the third one left. He said he didn’t believe in it.
I was 19; my co-founder was the same age as me. I said to my best friend, Peter [Tse], “I still believe in this. If you don’t believe in it, I’ll buy it from you, too, and keep on doing it.”
He said, “If you believe in it, I believe in it. Let’s give it a shot and see what happens.”
Even if it didn’t work out, we’d be 21 or 22 years old. We could always go back to school. So thankfully, I didn’t have to go back to school.
What’s the secret to your success?
I think it’s investing in my own people, my staff. I think you’re only as strong as your weakest link. A lot of my staff are new immigrants. I’ve worked with a place called English for New Bostonians, which is a nonprofit. I was able to provide my staff with English classes.
I’m on the board of Eastern Bank, and I work with Cambridge Savings Bank. So, through various banks, I’ve been able to help provide classes that teach people how to manage finances and understand what credit is.
We’ve also put on workshops for citizenship classes. The bottom line is, we really look at our own people and say, “Hey, look, we want everyone to succeed.” I think when everybody succeeds, we succeed together. I think that’s been one of our biggest strengths in terms of trying to grow the business, trying to retain great employees, and just treating everybody like part of the Fuji family.
How would you describe Boston as a restaurant city?
One word that really comes to mind is incestuous. Everybody seems to know everybody. We’re a big city, but we’re a small city in terms of how it feels. I think that’s one of the charms of Boston.
Anytime something happens in the city of Boston or in Massachusetts, I think we restaurant guys all rally together.
I get porridge from a place called Jinye Cafe in Quincy. It’s right next to my office. I think their address is 694 Hancock Street. It’s little hole in the wall — and when I say “little hole in the wall,” I really mean “little hole in the wall.” The food is amazing; it’s a Chinese chef who worked at a local dim sum restaurant.
Before COVID, I was leaving my office, and he was by himself. He was moving a bunch of boxes. So I put down all my stuff, and I helped him move his stuff. And he was like, “Why are you doing this?” He didn’t even realize I came from the office. He just thought I was some random guy walking by.
I was like, “I’m helping you because I was you, years ago, when I opened up my first place. I know how hard it is to be doing stuff on your own, moving stuff in and out. You’re probably trying to get settled in so you can open. Whenever I’m at the office, if you see me and you need a hand, you just let me know.”
Since then, we’ve become good friends. The food is just simple, classic Cantonese fare. The best foods, some of the simplest food, is the hardest stuff to make. Such as a poached egg, for example.
What’s your favorite binge-watch?
I don’t know how to answer this question without sounding like too much of a geek. I like the superhero-type of stuff. I love watching “The Flash.” I like watching Marvel stuff.
Interview has been edited and condensed.