Have you ever wondered who made the first noodles? People who like pasta might think the Italians. Others who adore Asian noodles might consider the Chinese as the originators. Foodies who crave both dough creations might wish they could get pasta or noodles from different countries in one place. “It doesn’t cost that much to actually do fresh-made pasta. Why can’t it be in a way that people can customize it the way that they want?” says Daniel Lee, the co-owner of Farina Pasta and Noodle. Lee loves all the world’s cuisines that use pasta or noodles in dishes with meats, fish, vegetables and sauces.
According to Food History, the first noodles were made in China around 5000 B.C. Arab merchants are believed to be responsible for noodles making their way from China to India, Africa and Europe. Lee and his partner, Joe Liang, explored what was available in the Philadelphia area before launching their fast-casual concept. “The pasta we saw was really high-end. They were charging people $25 to $30 a plate, really good food but expensive. And there was like corner store pasta, but there wasn’t anything in between,” Lee says.
Culinary School Connection
The two chefs started discussing offering diners affordable, fresh pasta or noodles while attending Drexel University. “The inspiration for the Asian-style noodles really came from my business partner, who is from China. We were talking about it, and wondered why we can’t have both in one place, says Lee.
Those conversations took place before the two chefs graduated with culinary arts degrees from Drexel in 2018. Lee and Liang met in cooking classes and formed a connection. “We didn’t start talking until we got to the pasta-making class,” Lee explains. “I went on a study abroad at the end of college. I went to Italy, and he came out to visit. We got to know each other a little better.”
As their friendship grew, so did the concept for introducing Philadelphians to another way of getting fresh pasta and noodles. What Lee and Liang had in mind was different from the Italian markets in South Philly that people had gone to for decades to get Italian specialties. “You can get your sauce. You can get your ravioli. It’s been made in-house right there. But the people making it are getting older. They haven’t updated their businesses to how things have changed,” says Lee.
Farina Pasta and Noodle would cater to a younger crowd of social media followers. “You have to appeal to the Gen Zs, the people going into college now and the young professionals. They want different stuff. They want a different reason to buy their food from you,” continues Lee.
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The two partners initially planned to sell fresh-made Italian pasta and Asian noodle dishes out of a food truck. They wanted to test their concept on college campuses and community events. That idea hit a roadblock when the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020. They also ran into complications getting a food truck outfitted to their specifications. “It wasn’t getting done on time. It wasn’t getting done the way we wanted,” says Lee. “Especially after the pandemic, we had to nix it until we could figure something out.”
Persistence Pays Off
What Lee and Liang figured out was how to take advantage of a new option that took off during the COVID crisis, ghost kitchens. They launched Farina Pasta and Noodle in October of 2020 from CloudKitchens at the University City Fair Food Co. on Fairmount Avenue. “We saw an opportunity to move into a space where we didn’t have to put a lot of money upfront. But still get our concept open, tested and ready for the end of the pandemic.”
Lee describes their tiny commercial kitchen space as the right place for preparing affordable, hand-cut pasta and noodles for take-out and delivery only. The customers for the customizable Italian-style pasta and Asian-style noodle dishes were supposed to come from the nearby Drexel University campus. “That definitely became a struggle for us because a big majority of our customers were going to be college students. But they are not here, not in the numbers that they used to be,” he says.
Farina Pasta and Noodle survived that challenge by selling more than 3,500 orders and building a social media presence. Lee and Liang have now closed the ghost kitchen operation as they prepare to open their first brick-and-mortar location.
Chef Lee expects to increase profits by decreasing the cost of delivery service. “When you start adding up all the costs of all of the things you want to do, such as sustainable packaging. You’re also going to have to pay 30-40 percent to the delivery service. You may walk away with half of each sale, maybe half.”
The new Farina Pasta and Noodle is slated to open by the end of June at 132 South 17th Street in the Rittenhouse area of Philadelphia. The owners are excited about meeting customers and having them taste the chefs’ dishes after they are just made and still hot. “We work hard to make the food fresh,” says Lee. “I am so happy to be able to open the restaurant in a space for people to come in and enjoy our food.”
Diners will be able to eat inside the storefront, pick up take-out or have their orders delivered. The partners launched a GoFundMe page on April 27 to help them raise $20,000 for the new restaurant. “Getting into a storefront, getting more employees, opening seven days a week, and really just stabilizing the restaurant is the first step. The second step is to expand the business as best we can,” Lee says
Creating Choices for Customers
Until the new location opens, customers can get the restaurateurs’ fresh-made creations at Haddonfield Farmers Market on Saturdays before 1 pm. Lee and Liang’s concept is gaining popularity as more people find out about Farina Pasta and Noodle. Philadelphia’s local Eyewitness News station featured the two on an episode of “Taste with Tori” in April.
The same month, Philadelphia Style Magazine named Farina Pasta and Noodle one of Philly’s seven best ghost kitchens. In February, America Eats listed it as one of the best Black-owned restaurants in the city. Lee appreciates the recognition. “I think the minimum star rating we have is 4.5. When they buy the food for the first time, they tend to come back a second time.”
The chefs thanked their fans for supporting them on a recent Facebook post and asked for donations to their GoFundMe page. Their new restaurant will offer the same made-in-house food sold at the ghost kitchen. “We’re using fresh herbs for everything. Each sauce is practically made every day. We’re not buying jarred or canned sauce,” Lee adds.
A variety of pasta, noodles and sauces are prepared each day. Customers can choose from Italian bucatini, pappardelle and rigatoni. They can also select Asian-style Dan Dan noodles, stir fry noodles or rice noodles. A different blend of flour produces the type of dough needed for each. “The way we do our pasta and noodles is that we have an extruder that extrudes the pasta for us, and then we’re cutting it by hand. We can change the mixture of the dough or the ingredients in the dough to make the kind of noodles we want,” says the chef-owner.
The former U.S. Army serviceman looks forward to when he and Liang can put in the time and attention needed to make pasta and noodles entirely by hand. He sees the restaurant expanding its offering to include more Italian stuffed pasta and noodles from every Asian country. The options for housemade sauces will also increase beyond the seven on the menu. They include marinara, bolognese, South Philly alfredo and pesto. The sauces for Joe Joe, Dan Dan and stir fry noodles are available, along with the curry peanut butter sauce for the Thai rice noodles.
“People really seem to like the idea. We also sell our fresh pasta uncooked and the same thing with our sauces. We have a couple of people who will order their entrée, but then they’ll also order some fresh pasta to take home to cook later.” Lee fell in love with making pasta in culinary school, but he fell in love with cooking long before attending Drexel.
Choosing a Culinary Career
“I’ve been cooking since I was a kid. I was taught to cook by my grandmother, my mom and my aunts. I’ve always just hung around in the kitchen,” Lee says. He wasn’t sure of his career path after high school. But right out of the Army, the restaurateur became an online cook at Wegmans Food Market in Philadelphia. “My real-life experience came from working at Wegmans. Learning the things you have to do on a day-to-day basis was very, very valuable to me.”
Surprisingly, Lee did not always dream of opening his own eatery. He knew from experience that commercial kitchens often require working long hours on low pay. “When I was in school, I was actually against opening up restaurants because of how much work they are. I’m usually at work anywhere between 12 and 16 hours a day.” Then there is the possibility that it will not work out. Lee and Liang accepted the realities of the restaurant business when they opened Farina Pasta and Noodle.
What kept them going through a sidelined food truck deal, a coronavirus outbreak and pandemic closures? “Honestly, just hard work, not taking days off and persistence, really. Just doing things every day; talking to people about what we are doing, getting people’s ideas, and getting support from friends and family,” says Lee.
Keeping the Faith and Giving Back
The entrepreneur chef is equally determined to make contributions outside of his restaurant kitchen. The South 17th Street location will allow Lee and his partner to offer inexpensive or free cooking classes and conduct food drives. “You’re more than just a business that’s making money. You’re also trying to improve the world in some kind of way.”
The restaurant is doing its part for the environment by using compostable packaging even though it costs 20 cents more per container than Styrofoam. Lee conducted video cooking classes in May as the culinary director of 3 Iron Rations. The non-profit helps veterans who are going through depression, PTSD or difficulty relating to others. “What we will be doing is putting out cooking classes either virtually or on videos to teach veterans,” says Lee. “It will give them new skills or some life skills they haven’t learned in the military and offer therapy through cooking, which I think can be really useful.”
The County Advisory Board selected Lee and his company as one of the Philadelphia area’s Top Gun restaurants. The board recognizes the hard work of businesses that contribute to the local economy and communities. Its official January statement said: “Daniel Lee, you are admired for your entrepreneurship, highly commended for owning and operating a business that adds financial well-being and stability to Philadelphia County, and you are appreciated for your participation in social betterment activities.”
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While Lee and Liang continue to build their brand, they will imagine becoming successful enough to open other locations or franchise the Farina Pasta and Noodle concept. The restaurateurs are also committed to finding time to give back.
Lee specifically wants to inspire young people in impoverished neighborhoods to see a larger world. “Really, that is what my father did for me. They took us hiking and camping. They took us to the Smithsonian in D.C. It really expanded my mind as to what’s out there,” he says. “There are very few opportunities out there for kids to expand their horizons or their minds past what they see either on TV or on the streets.”
The restaurateur imagines taking a busload of disadvantaged students to national parks in Pennsylvania or museums in Washington, D.C. He might even open an outdoor store in a low-income Philly neighborhood. When he can get away from the kitchen, Lee plans to be one of the people encouraging kids to dream of becoming astronauts, park rangers or even chefs. “I would like to do that, and at the very least, open up some stores and create jobs for people where there aren’t that many opportunities.”