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Chefs unite to fight AAPI hate in 5-course takeout dinner series

Chefs Tim Ma and Kevin Tien are using their culinary skills to bring people together and raise awareness about AAPI hate.
/ Source: TODAY

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.

Amid rising anti-Asian hate crimes, chefs Tim Ma and Kevin Tien are using their culinary skills to bring people together and raise awareness on the issue.

The two founded an initiative called "Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate," which brings together dozens of chefs from across the country to prepare five-course takeout dinners that benefit nonprofits for the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.

"It's not just going and getting dumplings or banh mi," Tien told TODAY's Al Roker. "It's, 'OK, now that you're at the table, how can we expand our conversation to learn about someone else?'"

Kevin Tien runs Moon Rabbit, a Vietnamese restaurant in Washington, D.C. Aaron Schwartz

Both chefs have been cooking for a long time: Tien serves up contemporary Vietnamese cuisine at his restaurant, Moon Rabbit, while Ma puts a unique spin on Chinese takeout at Lucky Danger. Both restaurants are based in Washington, D.C.

As violence against the Asian community increased in the United States, with some reporting a 169% increase in hate crimes, the two chefs decided to use their culinary skills to try to make a difference.

"We started with one dinner, here in Washington, D.C., with five Asian American chefs raising money with this one to-go dinner because of the pandemic," Ma said. "And then overnight Kevin and I decided, you know, let's see how big we can get. And so we called our friends and texted our friends overnight, and we were at 45 chefs and nine dinners the next day."

Tim Ma runs Lucky Danger, a Chinese restaurant in Washington, D.C.Cristian Zuniga

Overnight, Ma and Tien set up a website and arranged a schedule. Their first dinner, which came on the heels of the shootings in Georgia, sold out quickly.

"That tells us that people are paying attention to the issues at hand, and that people want to help, they want to make a change," Ma said.

Both Tien and Ma said, for them, taking a stand against hate is personal. Ma said, as a child, growing up in 1970s Arkansas, when it was "maybe not the best time to be born in Arkansas as a person who didn't look like they were from Arkansas," a brick was thrown through the window of the bedroom that he shared with his sister. The recent attacks only bring back those memories.

"I immediately thought about my parents," Ma said. "In those fuzzy videos of security footage, you know, I can't tell the difference between that person and my parents, and so that's where it kind of hit home."

Tien, who grew up in California, said he and his family also dealt with these issues.

"It wasn't safe to play in our front yard … People would come by and say things like, what they perceive to be like an Asian language, or they would throw things at us," Tien recalled.

In just a few months, the initiative has raised at least $122,000 to donate to organizations fighting racism and violence against the AAPI community. The pair said that they're eager to see how far they can go.

The dinners work to raise money and spread awareness. Vina Sananik

"For us, it's all about continuing to spread awareness and amplify the voices for as long as we can, as loud as we can," Tien said.

The program has expanded across the country, with dinners set in cities from San Francisco to New York. Al was able to get an exclusive sneak peek at the menu for the first New York dinner, enjoying a delicious five-course meal that included Singaporean chili crab fried rice, slow-cooked beef short ribs in red curry and chicken and corn dumplings.

Chicken and Corn Dumplings

While both Tien and Ma are inspired by their pasts, it's their hope for the future that keeps the program going.

"I have three kids," Ma said. "We need to fight this now, so that the next generation can fight for what's next."

"We've seen the history of America, and it isn't pretty," said Tien. "But what we can do is focus on the future, a beautiful future that we can pass on to everybody."

To find a meal near you, head to this link.

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Brian Oxenhandler contributed.