As children, Humberto and Rica Leon used to suck on jade jewelry during periods of great concentration — or, sometimes, just for fun. As adults, they engage in a similar activity but for different reasons with a different result: the sweet, lingering taste of lychee and peach.
The siblings run Eagle Rock restaurant Chifa, which has been selling a new, ephemeral “jade” jewelry line made not from metamorphosed minerals but sugar. The green bangles, pendants and bauble-y rings have that signature translucency associated with jade and are so marbled with wisps of white and seafoam they might be confused for the real thing, but they’re entirely edible — cultural touchstone as candy.
“I’m like, ‘How fun is it that you get to taste this jade that we’ve always sucked on?’” Rica asks. “And we’re not the only Chinese family [that did]; all kids sucked on their jade necklace when we were growing up.” It’s a nervous tic that’s continued into adulthood, Humberto says. He still catches himself with his real jade necklace between his lips or looks down to find his fingers twisting the pendant string when he’s deep in thought. “I think anybody who wears one of these has put it in their mouth,” he says.
The candy necklaces, bracelets and rings are, of course, far more delicious.
The limited-run candy jewelry line, which launched for Lunar New Year and replicates the symbolically lucky and protective stone, sold out, but the Leons expect to restock in early April both online and at the restaurant. Upon request, the pieces can be delivered to the dinner table like a dessert tray, a few samples laid out in a glass box for the diner’s perusal. A second run — this time mimicking pink jade, which is rarer — is expected to launch in mid-April and is the latest in a number of artistic collaborations from Chifa.
The heart-adorned blue-green restaurant serves Chinese, Peruvian and Taiwanese cuisine, a nod to the Leons’ cultural background and their years of living in Peru — where their mother, “Popo” Wendy Leon, ran a Chinese restaurant, also called Chifa — as well as the Taiwanese heritage of John Liu, Chifa’s chef and Rica’s husband. But the Leons have more than food on their mind. Chifa has managed to add fashion and art to the mix several times since its late 2020 opening.
As a fashion designer and creative director, Humberto, a co-founder of international clothing brand Opening Ceremony, is the primary catalyst, relying on his decades of experience with artists and other contacts to collaborate on new apparel, painted figurines and dishes that can be found for sale at the restaurant. It was Humberto who imagined the possibility of edible jade, but it was “Popo” Wendy who inspired it, and there was only one person Humberto had in mind for the job.
New York-based artist Maayan Zilberman is a kind of sugar alchemist. Through her company, Sweet Saba, the haute confectioner utilizes her background in sculpture and fashion to create remarkably detailed — and at times lifelike — candy molded in the shape of shoes, wine stoppers, flowers, cassette tapes, snakes, crystals, timepieces, sunglasses, bananas, trinket boxes, feathers, pepperoni pizza, pencils, penne.
She’s often hired by fashion brands such as Dior, Versace and Nike for events and product rollouts, making Chifa’s edible jade collection — which is crafted by hand — one of the few chances for the public to purchase and taste her work. Zilberman, a friend of Humberto’s, wanted to get this line — a tribute to his mother — just right.
“We started looking at some of her jewelry that [had] been passed down — some of it through her family for 400 years,” Zilberman says. “They’d been brought from China to Peru to L.A., and they’re really precious to her. I said, ‘What if we made jewelry that’s inspired by hers but that has more of a lightness, more of a sense of humor?’”
When Zilberman and Humberto began corresponding, he sent photos of his mother’s jade collection, as well as pictures of her wearing some of her pieces when she was younger. He also provided a photo of himself wearing a classic ring necklace tied with red string, which he’s worn every day since childhood and has been re-created for the Chifa candy collection.
Zilberman hand-carved candy molds that were slightly larger than the real thing for that air of humor; the mix of classic bangles and oversized, almost cartoonishly scaled rings and pendants look like real jade, complete with the stone’s marbling, an effect achieved by mixing colors as they’re gently poured into their molds. She also worked with a flavor house to develop the lychee, guava and peach combination for the green jade.
“I tried at first to make them in big batches, and it didn’t work,” Zilberman says. “The real trick is making only a couple at a time because they have to be such a small batch to make the color go right.” She wound up making all the pieces herself, adding, “I couldn’t hire someone to take that kind of time. They would have been $500 apiece if I had hired someone.” (At Chifa, the edible jewelry runs between $30 and $55 — thousands less than the cost of real jade at that scale.)
For the new line, Zilberman will use a few of the green-jade molds and also make new ones; for the rarer pink jade, they’ll be doing some more unusual, intricate pieces. This time, the flavor will most likely be coconut. (At the restaurant, some guests eat them, but when asked, most say they’ll leave them in their packaging to save them for as long as possible.)
While Zilberman and the Leons enjoy the playfulness of an edible line that replicates an ancient, revered stone with thousands of years of cultural history, they’ve begun talking about creating something a little more permanent, perhaps using resin rather than sugar. Zilberman hopes that those more permanent pieces would inspire others to learn about jade and Chinese culture, just as the candy has already done for her and others. “It’s a way to really connect with his mom,” she says, “and connect with an older generation that, in more ways than one, needs to be protected right now.”