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Grace Young is ‘not going to shut up’ about saving Chinatowns

Grace Young talks with store owners Vicky and Ken Li in New York City's Chinatown in December 2021. (Jeenah Moon/for The Washington Post)
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If there was an EGOT status in the food world, Grace Young would be getting there, and fast. The cookbook author and culinary historian last month was named the winner of the prestigious Julia Child award by the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts. And last week, she was recognized as 2022 humanitarian of the year at the James Beard Foundation awards ceremony, which is often likened to the food world’s Oscars.

Grace Young is reminding the world why Chinatowns matter

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

She recently talked with The Washington Post about the moment she got hooked on cooking, getting Julia Child’s phone number and how a phone call from a stranger altered the course of her career. Edited excerpts of that conversation follow.

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

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

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

You know how comedians talk about the first time they’re in front of an audience and they hear that laugh, and they become addicted? They want to do it again. And I wanted to do it again. And so eventually my parents let me make her roast lamb, and the spinach souffle, and cream puffs.

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

No, no. I mean, I just loved it. But Julia got me fascinated by French cooking, and because I read the newspaper, I found out that there was a local French cooking teacher, Josephine Araldo. I told Josephine, who was in her 70s, that I could assist her in her cooking classes in exchange for free lessons. And then I convinced my father to drive 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, it was all Caucasian women, really elegantly dressed, all holding hard-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 child 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 father took a picture of me with Julia. Then I mailed the picture to Julia at WGBH, and she autographed it and mailed it back to me. And this is the most painful part of the story: Over the years, the picture got lost.

Oh, that is tragic!

But it was really an amazing moment. Later in life, I was completely fascinated by Joseph Campbell, back in the 1990s or so. And I remember him talking about following your bliss, and when you follow your bliss, doors will open for you, and you put yourself on track for the life that you’re meant to lead. And I always thought from the moment I heard Joseph Campbell say that, well, I was a child when I saw Julia, and that’s what did it for me.

At what point did you embrace Cantonese cooking?

Eventually, I ended up in New York working for Time Life Books as the test kitchen director and director of food photography for over 40 cookbooks. So I was exploring all these different cuisines. I was in my 30s, and I felt ashamed that I didn’t know how to do so many of the classic recipes and all the comfort foods that I grew up with, and so that’s how I ended up writing my first cookbook, “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen.”

I remembered that Julia had written that what she wanted to do was to take the bugaboo out of French cooking, to make it accessible. So I thought, well, when I write my book, I’m gonna take the bugaboo out of Chinese cooking 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 seated her between my mother and me, and my father was there, and he took a picture of us together. And in the keynote speech, I was able to thank her.

I thought that my life had come full circle. After that dinner, she said to me, “Well, we must stay in touch.” She pulls out her checkbook and she gives me a deposit slip. And the upper left hand corner had her name and her address in Santa Barbara and in Cambridge and her phone number.

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

Your Julia story truly is epic.

Yeah, and now I’ve given all those items to the National Museum of American History, so they have my copy of the French Chef cookbook that was autographed. They have the deposit slip, the postcard, the two photos, and they also will be given a first-edition copy of “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, you almost immediately began focusing on Chinatowns and what was being lost. Take me back to when this all started dawning on you.

I’m normally in New York City’s Chinatown town once or twice a week, and in January or February of 2020, I noticed that Chinatown had emptied out. Because of misinformation and xenophobia, people were afraid to come to Chinatown because they thought that they could catch covid. And it was shocking to me — it was painful to look at the street vendors selling produce and to see that they had no business. It was painful to glance into restaurants and to see all the tables were empty and the waiters just standing around. So I started doing posts on Instagram.

Julia Knight, the director of Poster House museum, who I did not know at all, calls me on Friday, March 13, and says: “All the museums in New York City are now shut down. We know Chinatown is hurting. Do you have any ideas about what we can do to help?” And I was completely blown away by this stranger calling me. I said: “I’ve been wanting to do interviews with restaurant and shop owners and to get their stories up on my Instagram page. I’m hoping that when New Yorkers hear that these guys have lost 40 to 80 percent of their business that they will show up.”

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

It was one of Chinatown’s darkest days. And from that moment, doing those interviews and seeing up close the looks on the faces of the cooks, the owners, the waiters, everybody — it just shook me to my core and made me realize that I had to do everything in my power to try and help Chinatowns.

How did that feel, taking on such a different role?

It was like a natural shift — I had always been a preservationist, and my life’s work came into sharp focus. I realized that my background made me the perfect person to be an advocate for Chinatown. And I realized that all these people in Chinatown that were losing their jobs or were vulnerable to their businesses being shut down — they had no voice, they couldn’t get their story out there. But I could.

What does the landscape look like for America’s Chinatowns now?

Chinatowns are still hurting across the United States, and anti-Asian hate crimes are not going away, sadly. In San Francisco’s Chinatown there are 46 shuttered storefronts on Grant Avenue. In my lifetime, I don’t think I’ve ever seen three shuttered storefronts, so that just makes my heart bleed. There was a study in March showing that 75 percent of Asian seniors do not feel safe leaving their homes in New York City. That impacts businesses.

What’s next for you?

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 the hate is to show love to the [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community by showing up. And so we ask you to post a photo or video of your favorite AAPI restaurant, market, bakery, shop or whatever, and tell us what you’re eating and what you’re buying, and why you love the business and then use the hashtag #LoveAAPI.

At the start of 2020, I thought I would be starting work on a new cookbook. So what happened to me and this work that I’ve done was so completely unexpected, but it’s the most meaningful work I’ve ever done. I never thought that the word “activist” would come after my name. I’m always the quiet, reserved person. I normally don’t participate in marches or protests. But I felt like I had to find my voice, to speak up for Chinatown. And my voice has only gotten stronger, which sort of surprises me. So it took me a long time to find my voice, but having found it, I’m not going to shut up.

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