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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A New York restaurant promised ‘clean’ Chinese food, sparking claims of cultural appropriation

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It wouldn’t be right to blame the disastrous opening day for Lucky Lee’s, an optimistically named Chinese American restaurant in New York, on bad luck. What happened was not an arbitrary curse from the universe. Rather, it was a series of missteps that led the restaurant into the bull’s-eye of America’s ongoing conversation about culinary appropriation.

Chef/owner Arielle Haspel, a nutritionist, set out to open a restaurant that pays tribute to the Chinese food she and her Jewish family ate growing up in New York — except she planned to make versions of popular dishes, such as lo mein and kung pao chicken, without gluten, wheat, refined sugar, genetically modified organisms, MSG or additives. She has described the restaurant as a “clean” Chinese restaurant for “people who love to eat Chinese food and love the benefit that it will actually make them feel good.”

Haspel later clarified on social media that she meant “clean” to indicate ingredients without additives, an accepted definition of the word in the holistic community but one that conjured up an ugly stereotype that immigrant restaurants are dirty. By positioning her restaurant as one that will “actually make [people] feel good,” she seemed to imply that other Chinese restaurants couldn’t do the same. Other posts alluded to the perceived unhealthiness of Chinese food: One post, since deleted, called lo mein a dish that “makes you feel bloated and icky the next day.” But Chinese food, with its abundance of vegetables, can be quite healthful. In fact, many of the less-healthful selections you find in Chinese restaurants are Chinese American dishes that were adapted to appeal to American diners’ predilections for sugar and fat.

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The problems were compounded by the fact that Haspel named the restaurant after her husband, Lee, who is also white. Here is where the conversation about cultural appropriation gets tricky. The issue is not that a white person is making food outside their cultural heritage. San Francisco Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho has outlined the ways that cultural appropriation can be done right: primarily, when a creator gives credit to the people whose food they’re making and is deferential toward the group and its cuisine’s history.

Based on Haspel’s previous statements, you could argue that her deference is lacking. But the name of the restaurant adds another layer, as classical pianist Sharon Su pointed out in a lengthy Twitter thread about her disappointment in the restaurant. (Su later deleted part of the thread because of threats.) Many Chinese immigrants whose family names were Li or Le Anglicized the spelling of their names to Lee. Though Lee is Haspel’s husband’s real first name, the name could also give customers the impression that the restaurant is Asian-owned, lending it what critics would characterize as a false sense of authenticity.

But the nuance of why, exactly, Lucky Lee’s has fallen short in the eyes of Asian Americans doesn’t always come across in 240 characters on social media, so the restaurant’s defenders seem to believe, based on their social media posts, that people are criticizing the restaurant only because its owners are white. Meanwhile, the restaurant’s Instagram has been flooded with negative comments from Chinese Americans expressing their hurt over Haspel’s language, and from defenders decrying the “mob” and “cancel culture” that brought critics to the page. Yelp has placed an “unusual activity” alert on the restaurant’s page because of an influx of one- and five-star reviews reflecting both viewpoints.

The incident echoes the recent controversy over celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern’s Minneapolis restaurant, Lucky Cricket. In opening the Chinese restaurant, Zimmern said he was “saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horse‑‑‑‑ restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest.” He said he aspired to replicate the success of the upscale chain P.F. Chang’s, but then described founder Philip Chiang as Chinese on the outside but a “rich American kid on the inside.” He apologized for his remarks after an outcry from the Chinese American community, which reminded the host that its immigrant cuisine evolved as a means of survival.

After the outcry, the restaurant apologized via its Instagram page. “Some of your reactions made it clear to us that there are cultural sensitivities related to our Lucky Lee’s concept. We promise you to always listen and reflect accordingly,” the post said, before explaining the origin of the name and the use of the word “clean” and its implications for other restaurants. “When we talk about our food, we are not talking about other restaurants, we are only talking about Lucky Lee’s.”

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