Renegades Volume 2 feat. Lisa Fetterman of Nomiku: Renegades is an immi interview series featuring influential individuals who push for progress by creating their own rules in life.
About: Lisa Q. Fetterman is the former founder and CEO of Nomiku, the first home sous vide immersion circulator and bestselling author of “Sous Vide at Home“.
Lisa has been featured in Wired, Make, and Forbes, and was named on Inc, Forbes, and Zagat Survey’s 30 Under 30 lists for her pioneering work in the food space.
She has worked at some of the top restaurants in the country including Babbo and Jean-Georges in New York and Saison in San Francisco.
Can you tell us what it was like to grow up as an Asian American in America?
I started in San Dong Ji Nan in Northern China next to Korea, and came to the states in New York in ‘94.
I got my start in Long Island in Port Washington, where people were predominantly Jewish. And I initially thought all Americans were Jewish! And I thought, what great people! They have great family traditions – they are like Asians.
They go HARD on the math and academics and are very family oriented. I married Abraham Jacob Fetterman, hasn’t changed much.
In my school, I was one of the 7 people who were Asian. And we weren’t a concerted effort – there was no AZN pride in my group. I wonder what it’s like to have a friend group like that growing up.
There was no animosity either but we were like 1 Chinese person, 1 Korean person. People would say, “Hey, you’re all Asian” and I’m like “yeah….”
But we were different. And we definitely felt different.
And as I grew up more and more, I definitely developed a good sense of humor to buffer that kind of thing. And now I’m in the Bay Area where white people don’t automatically assume I speak another language.
So now I’m in the right place.
You have a very illustrious career, but did your family ever pressure you to pursue a career that was more stereotypically Asian?
In New York, the stereotype was i-Banker baby!
My dad used to say, “Don’t you want to work as an i-banker for 8-10 years tops and then retire and never work again?”
He was like “Yo, forget the system. Make a ton of cash and never work again.”
And I used to think that sounds so, so, good.
So I tried! I went to NYU Stern and took some math classes. And I realized this was the worst career ever. All offense taken to i-bankers. You guys don’t do anything. If you are an i-banker yourself reading this, you’re like “oh yeah… true, my life sucks.”
That was the stereotypical Asian career.
What happened in NYU that changed your mind?
When I went to NYU, the restaurant called Babbo was there. It was Mario Batali’s flagship restaurant. I just went in there, busted up in there. Spoke fluent Italian at the time. I actually got a scholarship to NYU from the Sons of Italy for excellence in Italian.
And I asked for a job in Italian, and they said “Why not? We’ll hire you today! You get paid $8 an hour and get started!”
So I became obsessed with restaurants. I worked at Jean Georges and I saw this hulking piece of laboratory equipment that every restaurant used. And I was like oh my gosh, why isn’t this in people’s homes?
And that’s how I got started on my painful and beautiful 7 year journey on inventing the home sous vide immersion circulator.
What did you love so much about restaurants?
I loved the instant gratification.
You can serve people right there and they’ll either say, “Ohhhh this is delicious,” or they’ll say, “Oh this is just okay.” And you know immediately if it’s good or not. You can ship instantly.
Some people make things for themselves and that’s great because you have the person right there who approves or disapproves. And that’s you.
If you want to make something and share it with the world, when you cook, you instantly know. There’s nothing that feels better than that for me.
Do you think the feeling of instant gratification comes from a deep rooted cultural value or a way you were raised?
This whole trend came around years ago of “foodie.” And what foodies ate are just straight up Chinese food.
I’m like, you guys want to be Chinese now? Let’s go!
And I think this comes from me wanting to share my culture – a side of me or just pushed to the corner. And is now taking center stage.
Now I’m like “Oh? You guys think Szechuan food is good? Let’s eat!”
You started Nomiku in 2012. Can you talk about some of your favorite company moments?
So many good startup moments.
First was building out my team. And finding people I was excited to work with. They were excited for my own mission and it became their mission. That was very gratifying.
Shipping. Making a ton of money really fast. That always feels good! We did 2 Kickstarter projects and they totalled $1.3mm dollars.
So we made $500k the first time in 30 days. Then in 30 days we made another $800k.
If you’ve ever been part of a project or startup that’s been hyper successful like that where you ship something and it’s instantly amazing – well there goes the instant gratification again!
I’m sweating right now thinking about how excited I am. You see my glasses condensation?! I gotta take my glasses off now. Whoo!!
When we did our cookbooks, which are international best sellers now. Now that felt really good. Because that was a different facet of us. We can be good at everything haha.
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Why did you want to publish a cookbook?
A major reason was that the way we got word out about Nomiku was through earned media. For people who don’t know what that is, it’s basically like free PR.
If you bought ads, you would have to keep re-adjusting the machine. But you know what doesn’t cost money? Word of mouth baby.
Nothing gets you word of mouth like an international best selling book. So we said, let’s do it.
The whole time you were running your company, you were also raising a family. What were the hardest parts about doing that?
It was the sleep deprivation.
Also… just being so poor that it hurts.
In China, I lived with my grandparents sometimes and they didn’t have a toilet. They just dug a hole in the ground. And it kind of felt like that again.
When you have kids, you wonder, do I use my whole salary for childcare? Or do I take off a half day to look after kids? The balance is not there at all. I try to embrace that. There is no balance.
No sleep. Prescription meth. That’s just a joke because you can’t do that while breastfeeding kids. Or else I would. I’m still breastfeeding my 2 year old and it’s a hot mess.
The hardest part is that there is no support. When you are trailblazing as a female founder, there is no path. Everyone has to go their own way.
People say, “let’s band together. Band together!” But to do what? Who’s going to take care of my kids?
It’s a feeling that you’re going to die every day. It’s not a good feeling.
You’re very supportive of the female founder community. Were there any resources you used or created that would be helpful for other female founders?
I run these events called Lady Salons. I try to make sure there is an equal mix of female founders and female funders.
So it’s not just founders chatting out, which is still great. You should have different female founders at different stages of your company to guide you.
I also have this group on Facebook called the Femps. You have to be invited in. Give female founders the benefit of the doubt. We are part of an elite circle and we need to hold each other up.
When a female founder asks for a reference, I ask for the deck, help them re-organize it a bit, and then get them in front of the right people.
Every time I meet a female founder, I think to myself that this is the next genius. She’s the diamond in the rough. There’s something about her that I need to figure out. And why she’s so special.
I usually find that when I have that mindset and then I spread the word about her.
What opportunities do you hope your kids will have that you didn’t have growing up?
I’d like my girl Mari to be funded or VC backed when she has her own company.
People are always banging their heads against the wall and saying “Why aren’t these female founders getting funded?”
The answer is simple! Fund them! That’s it! Just pull out your wallet and fund them.
I see these memes with this futuristic city and a sign that says “What would happen to the world if dad’s went to therapy.”
If Zach or Mari need therapy, they should just go and I hope that they both have access to good mental health resources because that is sorely missing in this world.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Asian food in America?
That certain cuisines specialize in one dish.
People are constantly fighting against the MSG myth, and fighting against the belief that Asian food is cheap, dirty, or uses bad ingredients.
Those are all major and they’ve been talked about a lot.
But I think a lot of people don’t know the huge diversity overall of what is Korean food? Or Japanese food? Or Filipino food?
In China, there are over 50 different ethnic groups. Chinese people don’t just look like one person.
There are a lot of things even I don’t know and I want to discover about China.
Now people know that Japanese food is more than sushi. There’s yakitori. Okonomiyaki.
I think the most common misconception is that there is a certain set you can eat. Like oh, today I’ll do Chinese food and tomorrow I’ll order Korean food.
But you know people in these countries eat their food every day? If you’re in Korea, you’re eating Korean food every day and there’s enough diversity. You’re not just eating bibimbap every single day. And we should discover that because we’re missing out!
Do you think Asian food gets its fair share of representation in the media?
It doesn’t. Asian food generally gets in the media when something bad happens. Like when somebody appropriates it. Or when somebody appropriates it again.
It’s not usually about a celebration. When’s the last time we had an Asian sensation food story? Years ago when Pinkberry came on the scene?
There isn’t news about things like a new stew that came out of the Filipino community.
Even people who are of the ethnicity ask me all the time, “What is your favorite Chinese dish?” And I wouldn’t know because people aren’t writing about it!
What is your favorite childhood Asian dish?
Tomato egg stir fry.
And I get really upset when someone makes it incorrectly. Or different from how my parents made it.
You take some eggs, scramble them. Then you put in the tomatoes and add salt. Wait until they get totally mushy. Then you mix it up and that’s it.
Some people add sugar. Sacrilegious. Some people put scallions on top. Sacrilegious.
Salt, egg, tomato.
It sounds like you’re against messing with the traditional recipes?
My childhood recipes. If it’s nostalgic to me, no one can mess with them.
What’s your favorite Asian ingredient?
My parents always had a come-up. Like a culinary come-up.
When I was a child, my parents bought 5 barrels of jellyfish from a fisherman and we put these barrels in my basement. They were pickled and we had jellyfish salad every single day for a whole year.
But my parents never ate it again. Because they said we ate enough jellyfish for a lifetime.
But I say false. This is part of our thing now. We’re the jellyfish family. Now I love it. If I see jellyfish on the menu, I eat it up. I order it for the table.
What’s your favorite Asian dish to order at a restaurant?
I like everything spicy. If I’m at a Szechuan restaurant, it’s got to be the cold chili noodles.
Or it’s called the Two Couple’s Delight where they put in the tripe and it’s a meaty, crunchy texture with the same sauce as the cold chili noodles.
I always order both and sometimes regret it because they’re the same flavor. But it’s really good.
If I’m at a generic Asian restaurant dot com, and I have to eat something, I will always eat Peking duck. Even if it’s the worst Peking duck that barely resembles anything. As long as there is hoisin sauce. HOISIN SAUCE!
Or Mushu. Let’s go even more basic. Like there’s no Chinese people in the back. Mushu.
Do you have a favorite Asian restaurant?
It’s so hard. There are so many good restaurants. I really love Izakaya Rintaro. It’s SO good. The chef Sylvan built the restaurant with his bare hands. They ferment everything up stairs and it’s so idyllic in the middle of the city. It’s very well done.
I love Nari. It’s from the same chef/owner who did Kin Khao, Pim Techamuanvivit.
What about your favorite non-Asian restaurant?
Well I would have to say one I worked at which is Saison. It’s not an every thing but… it can be.
You can sit at the bar with no reservations and order everything you want outside of the prix fixe. So you don’t have to spend $1000. You can just spend $300 and call it a night. And don’t eat for the rest of the week.
When chefs try to elevate Asian food in a restaurant setting, they sometimes get criticism about price. People have complained about Mister Jiu’s or Izakaya Rintaro feeling expensive. How does that make you feel?
Well we all know what that argument is about. It’s racist. People don’t think Asians should be paid as much as white chefs.
If people don’t think it should be as expensive, then let’s just lean into it and tag on why it’s so white.
At Izakaya Rintaro, everything is hand built. The chef is formerly from Chez Panisse.
Back in the day, a generation before us, Asians weren’t as powerful at lobbying. We didn’t have the language or the soft skills. The soft skills that served us in our home countries aren’t the same soft skills in the States.
But the next generation and the one after that has the soft skills. We can’t change racism overnight. But we can work with it.
That sounds crazy to say and you should absolutely demand people stop being racist. You should have people look in a mirror and tell them when something is racist when they don’t realize it.
For the people who say Asian food can’t be expensive, you could say the traditional argument, which is why pay $17 for an Italian spaghetti dish and then complain about paying $17 for a ramen or Chinese dish that takes longer to make with more ingredients.
Or you can frame it in their context. Maybe don’t name your restaurant Lucky Dragon. We need better marketing. We know people are racist but let’s work with what we’ve got.
Who do you think is the most under-rated chef right now?
I think Fernanda Schlender is an underrated chef. She was a sous chef at Nopa and is now at Nari. She’s a very accomplished chef. It’s about time she broke out!
Imagine you get to take a year off of life to do an apprenticeship. What Asian dish would you spend that year perfecting?
Sushi. Because the first year is just making rice. So I better get a headstart right now.
So at the end of the year, you’d have rice ready.
I’d be SO good at rice. You’d come to my house and I’d be like, here’s rice. And you’d be mind blown.
There’d be no fish though.
No. Just rice.