On The Line: Shawn Xa Of XA Sweet and Savory Cafe, Part Two
Photo by Amanda DeFrancis

On The Line: Shawn Xa Of XA Sweet and Savory Cafe, Part Two

"My main goal is to build a legacy for my mom and be a motivational speaker by inspiring others to pursue their dreams." Our final question delves into Xa's relationship with his mother, and how he eventually joined the family business.

Read our interview with Shawn Xa of XA Sweet and Savory Cafe, Part One. And now, on to Part Two . . .

Last thing you looked up online: I'm looking to purchase a smoker for the restaurant.

Hardest lesson you've learned: To be patient; things will not always work out according to plan.

What were you up to five years ago? I had a catering company and R&D for my bakery (specifically cookies).

Do you have any skills that are non-food related? I love building all kinds of stuff. I see a bed frame, and I think, "I can build a bedside table out of this. I can build a chair." And I do. For me, it's just art. I don't look at it as a piece of wood. I had my old dining room chairs for eight years. Anybody else would throw them away. I reupholstered them, added decorative nails and completely changed them. I also turned an old sofa into a twin bed.

It's similar to my cuisine. I'm constantly trying to look for new techniques to make things more healthy, that I can do efficiently. When I can cut the amount of time it takes to cook or the amount of water wasted, I am always looking to improve. I'm never satisfied. I want to climb the ladder every day. I don't want to be going down the ladder.

What would you be doing if you weren't in this business? I would teach my community to cook healthy and cook for those who can't. I get a lot of families coming in here. I keep the food as simple as possible, and as clean as possible, so they can go to the market and get it. It's not difficult.

People who can't cook for themselves would be those in orphanages, homeless, senior citizens. I want to be able to go there and cook for them. They go and buy the ingredients, and I cook for them, completely free. I make food appealing to them, and they want to eat it.

It's never about me. Never. I'm always secondary. I don't put myself first. For me, it's about creating a smile. I want to take you out of that misery, whatever it is, that you have for a day, an hour, five minutes, ten minutes. Whatever it is that makes you come in and say, "I just had the crappiest day." Being able to make you a s'mores cookie and take you out of that misery for five or ten minutes to put a smile on your face. That's ultimately my goal: to make someone smile.

Where did you grow up? I grew up in Westminster.

Last song playing on your radio: I like quiet time to thing about my business. I do not listen to music.

When you're not in the kitchen cooking, what are you doing? I'm creating new cookie flavors, planning new business concepts and taking my children to get frozen yogurt.

What's your favorite childhood memory? Cooking with my mom, and working with my siblings at our parent's bakery.

Last movie watched;how was it? My wife and I took our boys to see Epic. I really loved it.

Is there anything you'd like readers to know that we haven't already asked? I'm from a little farming and fishing village in China, a couple of hours drive north of Hong Kong. My mom was born in the 20s. She wasn't allowed to go to school. She served everybody and ate leftovers. She sacrificed and brought me and my 9 siblings to America (where she doesn't even speak the language) to give us an opportunity, because she knew we wouldn't have one back home.

We started by opening a Chinese bakery in Westminster-- between Brookhurst and Magnolia on Bolsa called Tai Loi, meaning fortune and luck. She had that business since she was back in China. When I was 12, she already knew that I loved to cook and bake. She told me I had to go to culinary school and learn how to make pastries. I told her, "Mom, you make me work after school, before school, no summer breaks. Nothing. I can't ride my bike with my friends. I can't go and do anything, and you're telling me to do this? You know how hard it is when we work holidays? We work 22 hours a day, momma. I don't think so" I wanted to be a CPA.

In my last year at Cal State Fullerton, despite having a scholarship to cover tuition, food drew me back. I went to Orange Coast College to get my cooking degree. That year (1998), I told her I would go to New York. She was excited and happy, but she was also sad to see me go. Nobody in my family left the area. I wanted to see how different places operated. I worked with the Four Seasons, The Ritz and Robert Mondavi Winery.

In 1999, I came home to visit. The night before I flew back to New York, I had dinner with my mom. My sister called me the next day to say my mom just passed away. She had an aneurysm while working in the garden. She sacrificed a lot for me. She means everything to me. My mom started from nothing and opened a successful bakery. How many people can say that? She was very smart, but limited in her resources because my siblings were so young at the time.

As my brothers and sisters graduated from school, most of them wanted nothing to do with the business. When she passed away, my oldest brother stayed and took care of the bakery. My second sister and fifth brother also helped out. We tried to do the best we can, but after a year we got burned out. We would work the graveyard shift, getting deliveries out by 4 a.m. In 16 years, we never took a single day off. There wasn't even a vacation. My mom didn't believe in vacation, because this was an opportunity. We didn't know where our next meal was coming from. You worked when you could work.

I know my mom wanted to do a lot, but she was very limited. My ultimate goal is to build a big empire for my mom. I came from literally nothing. We came here in the 70s, and I was the only black-haired kid in the class. All the blond kids would pick on me, even the teachers. I have every darn reason to hate everybody, okay? I choose not to because that's stupid. That only takes me down. I look at it from a different perspective-- how can I make it better? Not by using excuses. I don't think small. If I don't make a billion dollar brand for my mom, I won't stop until I do. I have no problem working.

I also want to be a motivational speaker. I want to inspire people to do what they do, and quit bitching and whining. That's only going to drag you down. To be honest with you, I was such a sick kid, my mom didn't even think I was going to live. She never thought I would be this healthy.

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