Kee Ling Tong of Kee’s Chocolates: From the Corporate World to the Chocolate Factory
While there’s a lot to be said for Asian candy, sometimes you just can’t beat a delicious piece of chocolate, especially when it's made by hand with fresh ingredients from around the world. Like those from Kee’s Chocolates.
This New York-based, gourmet chocolate shop (which specializes in unusual combinations, including ginger salt, cranberry pistachio, and, our personal favorite, chili sesame) started off selling both chocolate and flowers. However, the candy portion became so successful, founder Kee Ling Ton decided to give up the posies and focus on sweets.
We had the chance to speak to Ms. Tong about how she went from the corporate world to running her own business, why she decided to go to culinary school, and what inspires her unique flavors.
Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
I am originally from Macau but grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My family and I immigrated over 40 years ago when I was five, and we’ve lived in the States ever since. Like many people of Chinese or Asian descent, my parents wanted a better life for their children. Hence, the reason for immigrating here. Childhood was very memorable. I have five siblings. We argued but never fought and were always together.
I understand you had a corporate job before opening a chocolate/flower shop. What was that job? What caused you to leave it and start your own food-related business?
Before I became a chocolatier, I worked in the corporate world for many years. At 16, I began interning at JP Morgan, worked at Bear Sterns in Options, and my last job was at Marsh McLennan as an Assistant Marketing Manager/Broker.
Changing my career was by choice of course. As much as I enjoyed Wall Street and found it gratifying, I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment. It was very structured, there was no creativity, and it was very routine. Because I was only 16 when I interned and didn’t know what I really wanted, I stayed on and had a career that paid well. It took more than 15 years to come to the conclusion that I wanted more out of life than just making money.
When I was growing up, my family pampered me by not allowing me to do any household chores. I was very lucky to have older sisters to take care of the household duties like cooking and cleaning. However, that meant I never had the experience of working in a kitchen. That's why I decided to go culinary school for baking.
Why flowers and chocolates?
One reason is that I love working with my hands. Another is that chocolate and flowers are quite alike: soft, beautiful, and aromatic -- they’re very much zen in a way. Working with either is therapeutic.
Is there anyone from your family or background who’s a particular inspiration for you?
My father is my inspiration. Like many Asian parents, he worked as a cook. Being illiterate as well, he struggled with reading Chinese but yet he managed to become a chef nonetheless.
What was the hardest thing about starting your own business? What was the most surprising thing?
The hardest of the part of opening the business is the uncertainty, of not knowing if it will succeed or fail. What surprised me the most was how many people in this world love chocolates. It is truly amazing when you see their eyes light up or how happy they are once they enter the store.
What do you do to take a break or get inspired?
I work seven days a week. My breaks are evenings and all the major holidays. I get my inspiration by eating out -- not dessert but savory dishes. I imagine how the spicy, salty, or nutty flavors might go with chocolate and experiment from there.
Hungry for more? Check out interviews with our other designers and partners. You can also get your hands on Kee’s Chocolates in our Chelsea Market store.