Brin Xu, a sociology alum at the University of Maryland, started a food blog during the COVID-19 pandemic. She remembered the times her family cooked traditional Chinese Sichuan cuisine, and wanted to share it with her friends.
Xu’s blog quickly gained traction, as people were eager to cook her dishes while stuck inside of their homes. From there, she decided to offer virtual classes that combined education and connection.
By founding her own company — Fancy & Spicy — Xu is able to provide interactive cooking classes and connect home chefs from around the world to anyone who wants to learn. She’s enabling customers to cook authentic food, while also providing home cooks with an economic opportunity.
Xu said she found a gap in cooking education where entertainment was valued higher than connecting people to unfamiliar food. She said she wants her customers to be entertained, but more importantly, learn the dish and culture.
“There’s a lot of free cooking videos out there,” Xu said. “But many times they are just entertaining.”
She began reaching out to and hiring home cooks who would teach classes out of their own kitchens. Within a year, her business was able to recruit chefs from 10 countries.
When chefs are teaching from thousands of miles away, Xu said there’s a challenge in gathering comparable ingredients for customers to use. However, Xu works with her team to find alternatives that are accessible in local grocery stores, while keeping the dishes as authentic as possible.
At Fancy & Spicy, there are currently 12 chefs who teach classes ranging from Afghan food to French pastry. They are also adding new chefs all the time, looking to become a global cooking platform.
“You’ll not only learn a skill, but also get to know the culture and the history of the dish. I think that’s a very unique experience,” Xu said.
Dr. Kanika Verma, a trained physician and chef at Fancy & Spicy, believes treating health disorders begins with diet. Dr. Verma has her own personal clinic and said she’s seen the upside of a proper diet.
“If we ensure that they are eating the right food, we will prevent the disorders at the very beginning,” Verma said.
She teaches traditional Ayurvedic cuisine, which stems from ancient Indian medicine. Her philosophy is to teach cooking that can detoxify and remedy people’s conditions.
Since joining Fancy & Spicy, Verma said seeing students with various conditions and learning how to accommodate them has been enlightening.
“You get to know the different kinds of disorders that happen in different regions and how you can prepare specialized meals, which may help people manage or even help to cure them,” Verma said.
Ariel London, another Fancy & Spicy chef, takes a vegan and vegetarian approach to cuisines spanning the Mediterranean, America and Asia. London taught in-person classes for a non-profit called Girls For A Change after Xu connected her.
London went to college in Hawaii and said the culture shaped the way she cooks now.
“It’s pretty much a melting pot over there, so there’s a lot of love for a whole bunch of different kinds of foods while I was there,” London said.
London said Xu is very focused on diversity and supporting underserved communities in the workplace, which is a major purpose for the nonprofit.
Xu was born in China and spent her first three years of college studying economics at the Hefei University of Technology. She then transferred to this university in 2017 and has built her business with support from the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship and The Mokhtarzada Hatchery at this university, which provides a working space and mentors that have improved the company’s technological backbone.
Fancy & Spicy participated in Terp Startup Fellows, the Pitch Dingman Competition and the Terp Startup Accelerator.
“I feel like being able to study in the U.S. is not a right, but really a privilege. I’m very grateful about it,” Xu said.
As a student entrepreneur, Xu finds herself wearing different hats as she navigates her degree and business.
Studying sociology has helped her understand how technology can open the door for social connection.
“Inequality lies so much in … race and ethnicity, and I think food is actually a very unique way … of promoting different ethnic cultures,” Xu said.
Whenever Xu is looking for employees, students at this university are always her first choice. She’s spoken at the business school and the Startup Shell as she enjoys connecting with students and alumni and finds it important to give back to the university.
Rose Fan, a nutrition and food science master’s student at this university, came to the U.S. from China when she was 14 and lived with a host family that owned a farm. Being able to learn about agriculture and work with food ingredients is what advanced her passion in food science, she said.
Fan works in culinary outreach at Fancy & Spicy. She’s talked to chefs from Germany, Indonesia, Canada and more to try and bring them on the team.
“You really get to see them. Like being there and sharing stories with you,” Fan said. “Food is like a universal language.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story and its headline misstated that Brin Xu is a sociology doctoral student at this university. Xu is an alum who graduated with a Master’s degree in sociology in 2019. This story has been updated.