Miss Chen Kaya Is New On The Shelf

How a schnauzer inspired an 11-year-old to start a Kaya jam company. 

by | Feb 10, 2021 | New On The Shelf

A jar of Miss Chen Kaya on pandan leaves with toast.

Photo | Abby Wiseman

It’s a classic story. 

Isabelle Chen wanted a dog, but her parents, Liz and Alex Chen, said she had to earn it. So, the 11-year exchanged chores for cash, but the dollar bills weren’t adding up fast enough. 

Then Isabelle and her father made Kaya from her grandmother’s recipe, and Isabelle was struck with the entrepreneurial spirit. She suggested they sell the Kaya to raise money for the dog. So, they called it Miss Chen Kaya and started selling it to family and friends.

“It got so popular that we decided to keep selling it,” said Isabelle.  

Soon bakeries began to take note. Even Beta 5 Chocolates turned Miss Chen Kaya into one of their Hot Chocolate Festival features. 

Kaya is a coconut and pandan leaf jam common in Malaysia, where her parents grew up. Pandan – also known as screw pine – is a long spiky leaf that is incredibly aromatic and unique in flavour. It’s naturally sweet and a little grassy with hints of rose and vanilla. Pandan is also very versatile and can be found fresh or in a paste or powder. It’s even used as a wrapper for steaming – much like a banana leaf.

Throughout South East Asia, Kaya is typical breakfast food. However, in this corner of the world, it’s hard to find Kaya that is free of preservatives and food colouring. For Isabelle, it was essential that Miss Chen Kaya be all-natural and without any additives. The result is fresh, fragrant, sweet, and creamy kaya. It’s delicious on bread or simply devoured on a spoon (we tested this method). 

In all fairness, Isabelle has a little help. She is the daughter of Alex Chen, the award-winning chef of Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar. That being said, being the chef’s daughter isn’t always easy. 

A portrait of Isabelle Chen with her dog Otis

Isabelle Chen started Miss Chen Kaya so she could get a dog. Photo | Abby Wiseman

“Since he’s a professional chef, we have to keep the kitchen really clean,” said Isabelle. “He’s always having us wash our hands, and he’s always talking about mise en place and getting ready, but it’s fun.”

Isabelle is joined by her family outside a Steveston coffee shop on a sunny and crisp winter’s day for this interview – her second ever. Alex is barely visible under a mask and toque, and he quickly ducks out of the picture. This is her moment to shine, but Otis, her new Schnauzer, is quickly stealing the show by letting out a shockingly high pitch squeak at a passing dog.

“It was all her idea,” said Liz, Isabelle’s mother. “If she wanted a dog, she was going to have to figure it out because I wasn’t going to come up with that amount of money. Maybe pre-pandemic, but not right now.”

Obviously, by Otis’s mere presence, Isabelle did figure it out and brought the family along with her. When asked if Isabelle has a determined spirit, Liz said yes, since birth. 

Isabelle may be the leader in this initiative, but ultimately Miss Chen Kaya is a family affair. Alex and Isabelle make the Kaya out of a commissary kitchen on his days off; Liz does the marketing and social media; her brother is the muscle in charge of the jars. 

“We make the jam on Fridays or Sundays when Alex has a day off,” said Liz. “We hear a lot of grumbling, especially on the weekend when it’s their day off, but if they want to stop, we can stop.”

Stopping is not in the cards for Isabelle, who has big dreams for Miss Chen Kaya. She sees no limits and believes it can be as big and well-known as Nutella. Given that she’s in grade six, she has time to make that happen.

“For people who say I’m too young, I think you can do anything you want, no matter what age,” said Isabelle. “You just have to, like, do it.”

“You also have to work hard,” Liz interjects with a laugh. 

Isabelle agrees. 

“Alex and I were talking, and we were saying that they [Isabelle and her brother] don’t know how lucky they are because right now they are still young, but in 20 years they’ll look back at these times and realize all the life lessons they’ve learned – you can’t learn this in school,” said Liz. 

As the conversation comes to an end and Otis starts sniffing out the jar of Miss Chen Kaya Isabelle has on the table, there’s one more observation to be made. Otis and Liz seem to have a bond. Throughout the entire interview, he perches comfortably on her lap as she holds him affectionately. When asked if Liz loves the dog, the two burst out laughing.

“He’s my dog now!” 

Classic.

Miss Chen Kaya is $6.50 per 250ml jar and can be ordered online here

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Excellent work. Well done you. Bravo.

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