How did you two meet?
We met at a bar called Highlands, right across the street from the tearoom on 10th Street! It was years before the idea of Té Company even started.
When did your interests in tea start? Has it always been a part of your lives?
Elena grew up in Taiwan where tea drinking is a fairly common habit among local families. We now both drink tea all the time, at the tearoom and at home.
Your tea house is focused specifically on Oolong. Why did you choose to focus the house in this way? What is it about Oolong that drew you to it and made you want to open a shop dedicated to it?
We focus on Oolong tea because Taiwan makes the most beautiful Oolongs in the world and it's a genre of tea rarely celebrated in the US. Oolong has a ton of health benefits and has a wide range of flavor profiles. Tea has an incredible history over thousands of years and is a human artifact you can drink! Serious tea can be intimidating and we want to make it accessible and easy for people to enjoy.
What were you doing before you opened the tea house?
Elena was a veteran in the retail industry and Frederico worked in fine dining kitchens all over Europe and New York.
How have your former jobs influenced this latest endeavor?
Frederico’s background in hospitality help shaped the service side of things while Elena’s business skills come in handy for what is necessary to run a business in NYC. Frederico’s cooking also didn’t hurt. There are loyal fans who come for his food and we slowly got them to fall in love with Oolongs.
How has opening Té influenced your lives? Has it changed the way you look at eating and drinking in your personal lives?
Owning and operating a business together certainly changed our dynamic from being a normal couple to a working couple who spend too much time together!
Our eating and drinking habits stayed relatively the same actually. It almost feels like we are given an opportunity to bring our eating and drinking habits to our guests at Té. We are not fussy eaters. It’s usually a balanced diet (protein, carbs, lots of vegetables) with very good ingredients that are well prepared. There's always coffee in the morning (yes.. we drink coffee), plenty of tea in the afternoon and into the evenings, and occasionally we have wine with our dinner. We eat at home most of the time.
How do you decide what types of tea to offer? How did you develop the menu of food that accompanies your tea offerings?
Taiwan has an interesting heritage, a mix of Chinese and Japanese, so we wanted to showcase a set of iconic Taiwanese tea that are historically and culturally relevant. Tea in general has a long standing connection to Buddhist temples, in their practice of meditation and experimental tea making. We carry a few teas made by Buddhist monks in northern Taiwan who use no fertilizers or pesticides and experiment with their production methods often. Elena travels to Taiwan every year for sourcing and often times we find small producers with incredible batches of tea that are one of a kind. Many of them make it onto the tea list as well. The hardest part is always the editing.
Small sweet tea snacks should always be available as drinking lots of tea lowers our blood sugar. Since we are a Taiwanese tea house, we have started to bring in more snacks with Taiwanese heritage to make the guest experience more cohesive.
Tea seems to have a lot of ritual and tradition associated with it. How important was it to maintain those practices at Té? Is that something that you intentionally and always honor? How did you learn about these practices?
We try our best to find a middle ground between preserving traditions and making the tea service accessible. A lot of love is put into the teas by the families who make them and the least we can do is to respect their efforts by serving them in proper teaware and in ways they were intended to be brewed.
We learned by watching and asking questions mostly. There are plenty of resources when we are in Taiwan also on the internet! Google is your friend.
What is one “mistake” you think most people are making when they brew tea?
Using too little tea leaves and constraining the tea leaves (particularly loose/full leaf tea) in a small sachet or tea ball. Tea leaves need space to expand so hot water can extract their flavors fully.
What are the benefits of drinking Oolong?
All good quality teas (white, oolong, green, black tea) made from Camellia Sinensis are high in antioxidants. The caffeine in tea is less than coffee and helps you focus without the spike of energy rush and then the inevitable crash. Studies have shown Oolong teas are a great beverage compliment to meals as they slow down our body’s absorption of lipids. Roasted teas or vintage teas are also incredibly calming as roasting and aging reduce the caffeine content and stimulants in teas. They are also good for digestion, though make sure you don’t drink tea on an empty stomach, it could give you a stomach ache or make your nauseous. Tea is great for the skin. I used to have eczema as a child and my mom would take used tea leaves to calm my inflamed skin to relieve the itchiness!
When developing your menu what were your major inspirations? Did you have a certain type of person in mind when you were making it? Is it for yourself in any way?
The food menu is designed to be part of the guest experience. We often ask ourselves what should the guest experience be in a tea room dedicated to Taiwanese teas. Everything must go together; the food, the tea and the environment. Not one thing should stand out too much over the others. It should be cohesive.
As far as ingredients, we don’t serve anything we wouldn’t eat ourselves.
What is your favorite thing to eat or drink at Te?
That’s a hard question. It’s like picking your favorite child.
You’ve been in the West Village for a while now. How do you think the community has responded to your presence? Do you think you’ve created a sort of community of your own by opening a somewhat unique space?
We definitely feel the love of the West Village community. We have an incredible crew of regulars and it’s like a big family when everyone gets to know one another. We greet our mail delivery guys like friends. We help out our neighbors who live upstairs from our tearoom and vice versa. We share guests with our loving neighborhood businesses like CAP and Three Lives Bookstore. The community of people we have is the most incredible gift we’d never thought we receive.
The space itself is relatively small. Was this intentional?
It’s small because that was all we could afford in the village. Now we enjoy the smallness. It’s cozy and warm, fitting for our offerings. It does get really crowded in the winter and we do feel sad we can’t always accommodate everyone who comes by.
What do you hope people feel when they walk into your restaurant? What do you want people to take with them when they leave?
I think people feel a sense of calmness and warmth when they come into the tearoom. The description we often hear is that we provide a sanctuary, a vacation or hideaway, a communal experience. We hope people remember that feeling when they think of tea after they leave our tearoom. Tea can be so much more than a tea bag in a mug!