Grace Young on saving Chinatowns: “I’m not going to shut up”

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If there was EGOT status in the food world, Grace Young would get there, and fast. The cookbook author and culinary historian was named the recipient of the Julia Child Foundation’s prestigious Julia Child Award for Food and Culinary Arts last month. And last week, she was recognized as Humanitarian of the Year 2022 at the James Beard Foundation awards ceremony, often equated with the Oscars of the food world.

Grace Young reminds the world why Chinatowns matter

Young, who grew up in San Francisco, is known for bringing Chinese cuisine to many American kitchens and for championing the wok (she’s known as “Wok Therapist” and chairs a lively Facebook group dubbed “Wok Wednesdays”) . Young’s pandemic pivot was fascinating: The financial fallout in New York’s Chinatown and rising anti-Asian violence prompted the self-proclaimed “quiet and reserved person” to become an unlikely activist.

She recently spoke with The Washington Post about when she became addicted to cooking, Julia Child’s phone number and how a phone call from a stranger changed the course of her career. Edited excerpts from that conversation follow.

Everyone has a story with Julia Child, and I know yours is special.

As a child, “The French Chef” was my favorite show on television. I just remember being hypnotized. I grew up in a traditional Cantonese family where we ate classic Chinese food 95% of the time, so I had never eaten French food.

I kind of bought the French Chef paperback cookbook, and my mom let me cook from it. My mother grew up in Shanghai, and there was a lot of European influence there. The first thing I made was brioche, and I remember the aroma filling the kitchen. And when I finally opened the oven door, the brioche was perfect. And I remember the look on my mother’s face when she took the first bite. It was like, “You did that?”

You know how comedians talk about the first time they’re in front of an audience and they hear that laugh, and they get hooked? They want to start over. And I wanted to do it again. And so finally my parents let me make his roast lamb, and the spinach soufflé, and the cream puffs.

Did you know then that food was going to be part of your professional life?

No no. I mean, I just loved it. But Julia fascinated me with French cuisine, and because I read the newspaper, I discovered that there was a local French cuisine teacher, Josephine Araldo. I told Josephine, who was 70, that I could help her with her cooking lessons in exchange for free lessons. And then I convinced my dad to take me there two or three nights a week.

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When I was 15, I read in the San Francisco Chronicle that Julia was coming to San Francisco for a book signing. I convinced my father to take me. When we arrived there were only Caucasian women, very smartly dressed, all holding bound copies of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. And I show up with my little Bantam paperback. And I remember looking around thinking, we’re the only Asians here, and I’m the only kid in this room. I waited patiently in line and finally got up, and Julia and Paul were there. They both signed the book and my dad took a picture of me with Julia. Then I sent the picture to Julia at WGBH, and she autographed it and mailed it back to me. And that’s the most painful part of the story: Over the years, the picture got lost.

But it was truly an amazing moment. Later in life, I was completely fascinated by Joseph Campbell, around the 1990s. And I remember he was talking about following your happiness, and when you follow your happiness, doors open for you, and you put yourself on the right track for the life that you’re meant to lead. And I always thought from the moment I heard Joseph Campbell say, well, I was a kid when I saw Julia, and that’s what did this to me.

When did you adopt Cantonese cuisine?

Eventually, I ended up working in New York for Time Life Books as a test kitchen director and food photography director for over 40 cookbooks. So I explored all these different cuisines. I was in my 30s and was ashamed that I couldn’t make so many classic recipes and all the comfort foods I grew up on, and that’s how I ended up writing my first cookbook,”The wisdom of Chinese cooking.”

I remembered that Julia had written that what she wanted to do was to disenchant French cuisine, to make it accessible. So I thought, well, when I write my book, I’m going to take the bugaboo out of Chinese food and demystify it. So Julia was really the inspiration.

After “Wisdom” was published, there was a Lunar New Year party given by the American Institute of Wine and Food in San Francisco, and I was invited to be the keynote speaker, and Julia was the guest . They sat her between my mom and me, and my dad was there, and he took a picture of us together. And in the opening speech, I was able to thank her.

I thought my life had come full circle. After that dinner, she said to me, “Well, we have to keep in touch. She pulls out her checkbook and gives me a payment slip. And the top left corner had his name and address in Santa Barbara and Cambridge and his phone number.

A month later, “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen” was nominated for the Julia Child Award from [the International Association of Culinary Professionals] and Best International Cookbook, and she sends me a typed postcard saying she hopes I’ll win. And then the IACP comes to Rhode Island, and she’s there, and I win for best international cookbook, and my husband takes a picture of the two of us right after I come off stage. So again I thought that this was the full circle of my Julia Child story. But now getting the Julia Child award is just unreal.

Your Julia story is truly epic.

Yeah, and now I donated all those items to the National Museum of American History, so they have my copy of the French chef’s cookbook that’s been autographed. They have the deposit slip, the postcard, the two photos, and they will also receive a copy of the first edition of “The Wisdom of Chinese Cooking”.

At the start of the pandemic, you almost immediately started focusing on Chinatowns and what was lost. Take me back to when it all started to appear to you.

I’m normally in New York’s Chinatown once or twice a week, and in January or February 2020 I noticed that Chinatown had emptied out. Because of misinformation and xenophobia, people were afraid to come to Chinatown because they thought they could catch covid. And it was shocking to me – it was painful to watch street vendors selling produce and see that they had nothing to do. It was painful to peek into the restaurants and see that all the tables were empty and the waiters were standing. So I started posting on Instagram.

Julia Knight, the director of the Poster House museum, whom I didn’t know at all, called me on Friday, March 13 and said, “All museums in New York are now closed. We know Chinatown is hurting. Do you have any ideas on what we can do to help you? And I was completely blown away by this stranger calling me. I said, “I wanted to do interviews with restaurant and store owners and post their stories on my Instagram page. I hope when New Yorkers hear that these guys lost 40-80% of their business, they come forward.

And she said if I did the interviews they would post them on the Poster House website. And that’s why we were in Chinatown on Sunday, March 15, the last day of Chinatown as we think it is, because hours after doing these interviews, [New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio] put New York on lockdown.

It was one of the darkest days in Chinatown. And from that point on, doing these interviews and seeing the faces of the cooks, the owners, the waiters, everyone up close – it just shook me to my core and made me realize that I had to do whatever was in my power to try to help Chinatowns.

How did you feel about playing such a different role?

It was like a natural change – I had always been a conservationist, and my life’s work came into sharp focus. I realized that my background made me the perfect person to defend Chinatown. And I realized that all these people in Chinatown who were losing their jobs or vulnerable to having their businesses shut down – they didn’t have a voice, they couldn’t tell their stories. But I could.

What does the landscape of America’s Chinatowns look like today?

Chinatowns are still suffering in the United States and anti-Asian hate crimes are unfortunately not going away. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, there are 46 closed storefronts on Grant Avenue. I don’t think I’ve ever seen three closed storefronts in my life, so it makes my heart ache. There was a study in March showing that 75% of Asian seniors do not feel safe leaving their homes in New York. It impacts businesses.

I started a #LoveAAPI social media campaign with the James Beard Foundation and the Poster House Museum, and the idea is that the only way to fight hate is to show love to the [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community by introducing themselves. And so we ask that you post a photo or video of your favorite AAPI restaurant, market, bakery, store or whatever, and tell us what you eat and what you buy, and why you like the business, then use the hashtag #LoveAAPI.

In early 2020, I was thinking of starting work on a new cookbook. So what happened to me and this work I did was completely unexpected, but it’s the most meaningful work I’ve ever done. I never thought the word “activist” would come after my name. I am always calm and reserved person. Normally, I do not participate in marches or demonstrations. But I felt I had to find my voice, to speak for Chinatown. And my voice got louder, which surprises me a bit. So it took me a while to find my voice, but having found it, I’m not going to shut up.