Jai Wei always knew he could make beautiful music — he just didn’t realize it would be through food. The Beijing, China, native packed his trumpet and traveled halfway across the world as a teenager to attend the prestigious Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College, but later realized his career options were limited.

“My teacher told me the next opening in the Cleveland Orchestra would be 14 years later,” he remembers. Former classmates — some of the best musicians in the country — have ended up leading high school marching bands or, like him, have followed completely alternative career paths. Wei took a year off from his trumpet after graduation and ended up in a kitchen in Washington, D.C., learning how to cook and discovering his second passion in life: fusion cooking.

“When I started back in 1994, the new trend was fusion cooking,” he explains. “A lot of American chefs tried to incorporate Asian ingredients into their menus, [but they] really don’t know how to use my ingredients. Fusion can really become confusion.” Self-taught but confident in his palate, the young chef returned to Northeast Ohio and opened Weia Teia in North Olmsted in 2000. He later migrated Weia Teia to Oberlin and opened Wild Mango in North Olmsted. 

Working as the owner/operator and head chef at two restaurants might be a challenge for some, but not for Wei, who’s used to devoting himself to a single purpose. As a child, Wei was small for his age. At the seventh-grade basketball tryouts, the coach refused to put him on the team — so the music teacher, who needed a trumpet player, picked him instead. Wei spent the summer practicing … and growing. He showed up at school the following year as a 6-foot-tall wonder, the tallest kid in school. But when the basketball coach begged him to play, Wei got his revenge.

“I’m a band geek now,” he told the coach. He laughs, now, at the memory. These days, he points to the similarities between hitting the right notes in music and in cooking. “That satisfaction, to achieve perfection, that’s really what makes the difference,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s music or cooking food; satisfaction, that’s the drive. In general, in life, in pretty much everything.” 

The Way of Wei 

His Pre-Flight Manual: “In China, what we know about America is a lot of violence, from movies. Then I came to Oberlin. It’s very peaceful, completely different.” 

Forbidden Fruit: “I’ve always enjoyed eating — my mom’s a good cook. When I was little … she never let me in the kitchen. I was always curious how she put those delicious foods together.” 

Fusion How-To: “I’m trying to recreate a memory. I really know my ingredients. I love Italian food, Mexican, French cooking, mixing techniques. I really incorporate all the flavors, to come up with something enjoyable, not overpowering.” 

Comfort Food: “Beltfish — you can only find it in an Asian market. My mom made it delicious: deep fried, then slowly braised in a soy-based sauce.”

Down Time: “We work 14 hours a day, seven days a week. I really don’t have a day off. Occasionally I try to squeeze out a week, fly back home, [visit] my parents. [When I am home] we try to check off four restaurants a day.”