Katherine Young interviewed me several months ago. We spent quite a long time together and I was struck by her thoroughness and professionalism. I just found out that that interview has turned into this brilliant cover story in Centered on Taipei magazine (May 09). Thank you, Katherine, Roma Mehta and Emily McMurrinfor helping us to tell our story.
Meet The Ripplemaker
Text: Katherine Young, Images: Emily McMurrin
Yes, a ripple maker I will be,
as I cast these thoughts to you…
Pick your pebbles carefully,
Cause you’re a ripple maker too!
Meet the Daymaker
At a recent birthday dinner at Nonzero, I observed owner Ping Chu, stylishly outfitted in black and white, as he played consummate host to a group of forward thinking movers and shakers in Taipei. While skillfully engaging and tending to his guests, he made time to periodically slip back to us, nestled in a back corner, usually with someone on his arm that he wanted to make sure we “knew.” When, in the course of one of these forays, he got wind of our celebration, he grinned widely and disappeared, only to return shortly after with a decadent double chocolate cake.
Mind you – this was my first introduction to Mr. Ping Chu.
Days later in our correspondence to arrange a meeting, I beheld, under his name: “Businessmaker, Daymaker, Ripplemaker.”
You can’t help but smile when reading that, can you?
So, who is this man and where do such titles come from? After several hours with Ping and Centered editor, Roma Mehta, I feel as though I am just scratching the surface. He is indeed a maker of all sorts and through our conversations I gained a sense of this man-a man who prefers to rephrase the commonly asked, “How do I balance work and life?” to what is in his mind a better question: “How can I integrate work and life?” He spoke at a conference in November about ‘making a life rather than making a living. “ With this in mind, he aims to create sustainable and holistic businesses, where ultimately, the business doesn’t actually need him to proceed, allowing Ping to realize what he termed as his primary goal when he entered this realm – freedom. By all counts it seems to be working. He still manages without a mobile phone – though he admitted the recently unveiled iphone is awfully tempting.
Ping has arrived at his views through vast business experience and travel, paired with exacting analysis and appreciation of what works and what doesn’t in practice. A consummate storyteller, we reveled in fascinating snippets of his life, in particular, those that have shaped his values and views.
When Ping discovered the Beatles and the world they inhabited while in high school, his desire to travel was piqued. After completing his degree in Taiwan, he went stateside to do a BS in Pharmaceutical Science; at this point he thought he was all set – “I’m a pharmacist” rolled easily off the tongue. But then came a critical twist in his life – his father became ill. He put all on hold, returned to Taiwan and spent six months with his father in the hospital. In that suspended space between life and death, he found himself questioning five more years in school and a life that was, “all set.” When his father passed away, his obligations were few, and so he set out on a year of wandering. Through the United States and Europe his travels took him, and in that time, he clarified his decision not to return to his pharmacy program, or as he put it, “to step off the treadmill” and avoid the “salary trap.”
Meet the Businessmaker
Even at that time Ping was drawn to products of quality, particularly a certain black and white bottle that raised the standard on any hair care products he’d previously used. As I gazed at Ping in his elegant black jacket with its mandarin collar and crisp three button white shirt, I easily envisioned him and his excitement upon discovering the likes of Paul Mitchell, a new company offering a philosophy of hair care and real style. He paused here in the story, inspired by these memories it seemed, to offer a bit of advice to the young: Enrich your life experience for you never know what will happen. Replace the fear of uncertainty with curiosity. Ping was curious about that black and white bottle and what it represented, and so he became a Paul Mitchell enthusiast, and it seems Mr. Mitchell reciprocated!
His seemingly simple decision to use these products led to a rather extraordinary string of events. While trying out a string of jobs in the United States, from waiter to salesman, Mitchell asked Ping if he would bring his line to Taiwan. The early stages were markedly humble – with stock lining makeshift shelves in his living room and his mother labeling bottles, he set out to introduce a philosophy of hair care that was diametrically opposed to the then Taiwanese approach of having your hair washed exclusively at the beauty parlor. Ping educated and illustrated how one must give, in order to get – in this case, he showed salons that by ‘liberating’ their customers and teaching them how to take care of their own hair, they could actually increase their income by focusing on more technical, work intensive processes. Ping knew at this stage that he wanted to create a business based on trust, community, common sense and honesty. He offered all the salons the guarantee that he would buy back any product that they didn’t sell, and he brought in sales people who wanted to be part of a team. He paid them a salary, rather than making it contingent upon sales, and created the idea that success was not based on the “master sales person” but rather the integral functioning of all involved in the process. This idea that success is shared by all continues to define his businesses today.
Over time, he developed a friendship with Aveda founder, Horst Rechelbacher, who came to Taiwan annually when sourcing products. With similar philosophies and interests, theirs was a natural fit. The rest is history.
Long before Nonzero’s arrival, Ping had loved the idea of opening a restaurant that would translate the philosophy of Aveda into the culinary arena, but had no practical knowledge or idea how to approach it. He envisioned a community eatery that focused on taste through the use of organic foods, and that highlighted an aesthetic presentation.
Nonzero, now two years old, has undergone several transformations since it opened, and if you haven’t visited lately, you’ll be tantalized when you do. Gazing at the restaurant and street front, my eyes dart back and forth – do I believe what I am seeing? Allowing my eyes to linger, I realize that the street is in fact quite lovely. Upon designing his office on this narrow alley – there is an Aveda Salon on the street as well – Ping resolved to, “stop complaining how ugly Taipei is and do something about it.” With that, he gave his designer free reign to emphasize the outside view, the goal being to offer “a gift to the neighbors.” The ripple of this action inspired the health food store/restaurant across the street to make their own effort to beautify the block by placing a table and benches outside their shop. Now, the rest of us get to revel in a quaint stretch of downtown Taipei, complete with an outdoor iron sculpture. When the corner building (now Nonzero’s location) opened up, the owners, residents on the street and witnesses of the street’s transformation, approached Ping, “I want you to have it. I’ll wait for you.”
Ping put the idea out into the universe as only a good ripplemaker can and in due time met the critical component, an experienced restauranteur, who could help him transmit the dream into reality. “I have a great space,” he told him – “help me.” Nonzero was born. He has dreamt into reality the most prepossessing watering hole. The style, be it shabby chic, rough luxury or recycled beauty, is tasteful and accommodating. Glass shelving shows off French porcelain and serves to divide the two rooms, while natural light streams in. Both intimate and larger community style tables grace the restaurant, the latter crafted from handsome pieces of wood and stay true to Ping’s vision of offering ‘liked minded’ a meeting point to engage and share ideas.
The day’s vegetables are on display in an open refrigerator at the back, and recently our waiter encouraged us to peruse the offerings before selecting, reminding me of meals in a rustic Italian trattoria. All produce is sourced locally, and much boasts special distinction– organically grown by Pierre Loisel – on the menu. Ping’s experience of the last two years has inspired some changes both in the physical layout of the space and the menu. We were there recently for the latest unveiling, which continues to include all dishes ala carte and as well as set menus for 700nt, 900nt and 1500nt. Our appetites were sated and our taste buds tickled with the 700nt menu: homemade bread for dipping in a beautiful French olive oil and aged Italian balsamic; hearty mushroom soup; traditional Panzanella (Italian bread salad); perfectly cooked risotto (free range chicken or local mushroom) followed by an Aveda like herbal tea infusion. As local Taiwanese mushrooms were the specialty of the day, we also opted to savor one grilled. It arrived on a rustic wooden cutting board accompanied by a pungent pepper spread. The elegant simplicity of the food; the thoughtful service, including a visit from the able chef; the warm atmosphere – they all intertwine so seamlessly that we shook our heads in disbelief when we finally wandered out late into the evening.
Meet the ripplemaker.
Ping expressed gratitude often for the luck that he has had in his life; certainly, luck has played a role, but infused, no doubt, with a forward thinking approach to business and living. Aveda has a dedicated and ‘critical number of customers that support it,” allowing him to engage and support many other ideas and beliefs close to his heart, Nonzero being one of them. The soiree when I first met Ping was, in fact, part of his broader vision to inspire intellectual discourse in Taipei. And indeed the group that night gathered together, around his community tables, sharing ideas and discussing the future. He takes this quest on in many ways-his blog, his restaurant, his involvement in BQ (the Big Question) and his support of TEDxTaipei. Through each he aims to inspire active communication and dialogue and to raise consciousness. Kindly, he has also provided a venue where such folk can convene.
The effects from Ping’s beliefs and actions seem to be reaching greater distances these days. His blog reads – Be inspired Get involved Take action – he certainly seems to embrace this credo on a daily basis.