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A Celebration of Culture and Cuisine: Sarah Cai, Co-Founder and Chef of Good Fortune Co.

“This is really special”

Growing up as the daughter of immigrants (Sarah’s dad is from Beijing, China and her mother is from Jakarta, Indonesia), Sarah Cai was often “the only Asian kid” in any given Mid-South classroom. She was exposed to her family culture by her parents and extended family, and she also took Mandarin classes, albeit reluctantly. As many young kids do, she wanted to fit in and be just like everyone else.

“I had a really great childhood growing up in Memphis, and a lot of the experience shaped who I am now,” Cai explains. “A big part of that was the feeling of being very different and not really appreciating my culture so much. I wanted that sense of belonging and to be a part of the majority group.”

A woman named Sarah Cai, wearing a pink apron, holds up a large, thick slice of bread while smiling in a kitchen, emanating an aura of good fortune.

Her family lived in Memphis until she was 13 years-old, then things flipped dramatically when the family moved to Guangzhou, China. “It was a pretty big switch, and I did experience a lot of culture shock — not only with my school but also just being in a completely different country.”

It took some time to get used to her new surroundings, but she soon found her footing and began to thrive.

“I could get out, walk around, take the metro, and it was a great opportunity to travel. I would say that moving there really helped me recognize how important my culture is and helped me fall in love with it. I finally got it and recognized that my culture is really special.”

A person wearing a hat and shorts stands in a garden holding several large daikon radishes, with more radishes at their feet, embodying the good fortune of a bountiful harvest.

Measuring with your soul

Whether she was cleaning green beans or cutting garlic, a large portion of her early years included time spent in the kitchen helping her mother.

“Growing up there was a pretty big emphasis on cooking and family time, sharing meals together,” she says. “I’ve always had a positive association with that familial, community feeling around food. But when I went to China I started finding my own passion for it. I was exposed to so many ingredients and ways of preparing foods, and it helped me recognize how food is a universal language.”

This universal language was exemplified in her “core food memory” of her Chinese grandmother teaching her to make dumplings without a written recipe or shared vocabulary— it was all done by the feel and texture of the dough, what Sarah affectionately refers to as “measuring with your soul.”

Sarah Cai's skilled hands are folding dumplings on a wooden surface. With rows of neatly arranged dumplings beside her, a small bowl, knife, and some filling in view, she's creating little parcels of good fortune with each fold.

She knew she wanted to be in the hospitality industry because of her love of travel, but happenstance brought her to a position as a line-cook in a professional kitchen. The sheer chaos of the environment was the complete opposite of cooking in her own kitchen, yet she couldn’t help falling in love with the process.

“It all started connecting,” she explains. “[I was learning] how to produce food at a professional level that people pay money for, and it felt like my passion or hobby was creating a career that I love.”

Full circle moment

Throughout her years learning in professional kitchens, she met her future business partner, Arturo Leighton.

“We have great chemistry and are great teammates,” she says. “We were accomplishing things we couldn’t have done alone. We had worked together and learned together in kitchens before and were working our butts off for other people. And we realized we could take that hard work and use it for ourselves. If we start our own business, we can call the shots—positive, team-focused environment.”

That idea became Good Fortune Co., a Downtown Memphis staple specializing in scratch-made noodles and dumplings, where Sarah serves as Co-Founder and Chef.

Two individuals, labeled as Sarah Cai and Arturo of @goodfortune_co, stand together smiling. The person on the left is wearing a red bandana and apron, while the other sports a sleeveless top and denim shorts.

“I have always had a tie to Memphis, but I wanted to go back to that feeling when I didn’t belong and give my younger self the representation I would’ve liked to have seen. We didn’t see the cuisine we wanted to make in the market; so, we made it ourselves in a really full circle moment.”

Sarah has continued to hone her leadership skills in earnest over the last few years becoming a graduate of the New Memphis Embark program, named as one of Memphis Flyer’s 2024 20<30, and Good Fortune Co. having a recent visit from Guy Fieri of The Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” stop by to say how amazing the cuisine is.

A group of five people, four men and one woman, smiling at the camera in a restaurant setting. The man on the right wears a black t-shirt with a skull logo and green shorts. Sarah Cai joins the group, bringing an air of good fortune to their gathering.

These efforts have paid off with her better understanding that leadership is a journey rather than a destination, and she has to prioritize her own oxygen mask before she can help others. She describes her leadership style as “servant-leader” in that she, too, prefers to be lead by empathy. The team at Good Fortune Co. is feeling the love, too, and Sarah and Arturo prioritize inclusivity, diversity, and compassion in creating and maintaining a positive work environment which results in very little turnover of employees.

A celebration of culture

This year marks the second annual city-wide celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in Memphis. Sarah and Good Fortune Co. have been involved since the inaugural kick-off in 2023 with founder Dr. SunAh Laybourn. Sarah and SunAh shared their experience of wanting to showcase AAPI Heritage to the Mid-South in a conversation on New Memphis’ “Meanwhile in Memphis” radio show and podcast.

Sarah and Cai are cheerfully sharing cookies from a plastic bag. The woman on the left, Sarah, wears a green sweater, while Cai, on the right, is in a white blazer. Indoors with framed photos behind them, they seem to be enjoying their good fortune together.

“SunAh is an incredible leader,” Cai gushes. “When she told [Arturo and me] about her vision we were enthusiastic to jump on board. We were so happy that someone so incredible was leading something that surprisingly hadn’t existed before. Good Fortune Co. hosted the kickoff last year, and it was a celebration of culture through food and cocktails. We sold out quickly and had more people asking to come. It felt really good, and showed us the community has the desire for this kind of thing.”

This year, they partnered with Caption by Hyatt to expand the kick-off and there was a special surprise in store. “We met the Hyatt’s Executive Chef, Pavy Keomaniboth, who is Laotian, and not only did we get to collaborate but I was able to taste food I had never tried before. When the whole community came out to support, it felt like we were seen.”

Sarah Cai, wearing a festive hat, holds several red envelopes often associated with Lunar New Year celebrations in a brightly decorated room, symbolizing good fortune.

Embracing diversity

Sarah’s passion for food, her culture, and her city cannot be contained by one month. While May offers unique opportunities for celebration, her hope is that every community member feels seen and celebrated every day, all year long.

“We should always be trying to learn more about culture, heritage, background and what makes us tick, ”she explains. “It’s integral to understanding the community and for us to come together. Everyone should stay interested because we are all a apart of the city as a whole. I want to connect with everyone, and I believe learning is the high point. It’ll make us stronger as a community.”

Chef Sarah Cai is meticulously plating dishes of grilled meat with greens and slices of watermelon in the kitchen, ensuring each plate reflects her signature touch for culinary good fortune.

“For me this ties into growing up in this community, and being a kid looking around and not seeing people who looked like me — feeling like I didn’t belong. Now that I’m an adult, I have the power to design my life the way I want to see it. In doing so, I embrace diversity; it represents the diversity in the city. As a city we have experienced a lot of challenges. I hope we continue to do the work to strengthen, and connect with one other… to truly care about one another. I challenge everyone to use your passion and talents to give back to the city, I do this through Good Fortune Co.”

written by Anna Cox Thompson

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