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How a 'Top Chef' star became a powerful voice against anti-Asian hate

Experiencing racism herself, Shirley Chung said it only drove her to "be even more vocal and really share my experience."
Shirley Chung smiles in a white jacket and blue Chinese-inspired blouse holding a fork over bowls of food
Shirley Chung prepares a dish at an event in Los Angeles on Jan. 5, 2019.Phillip Faraone / Getty Images for The Art of Elysium
/ Source: CNBC

When the pandemic hit, chef and reality TV star Shirley Chung quickly pivoted her restaurant business to manage through the crisis.

Dealing with anti-Asian hate was another matter.

As she heard about alarming racist incidents and hate crimes happening around the country recently, including the killing of six women of Asian descent near Atlanta in March, Chung felt a need to speak out.

“Everything that was happening was hitting so close to our hearts,” the 44-year-old said of herself and the chef community in Los Angeles.

Chung, who was a finalist on Bravo’s reality show “Top Chef,” also endured incidents at the Culver City, California-restaurant, Ms Chi Cafe, that she co-owns with her husband. Her non-regular diners began to question its cleanliness, despite seeing tables sanitized in front of them. The back door was vandalized with graffiti. In response, Chung added extra cleaning services and installed security cameras so that her customers and staff felt safe.

Shirley Chung looks intently at her work as she prepares a dish on the set of "Top Chef"
Shirley Chung in an episode of "Top Chef."Paul Cheney/Bravo / NBCU Photo Bank

More recently, someone stole a to-go order right off the counter, threatened her husband, Jimmy Lee, and screamed racist remarks.

“That actually made me want to be even more vocal and really share my experience,” said Chung, who was born in Beijing and immigrated to the U.S. at age 17.

While the couple’s parents wanted them to stay quiet in fear for their safety, Chung said making noise will help call attention to the plight of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community and the impact of hate on their businesses.

“We don’t want to be silent anymore,” she said. “We want to lead by example and let our parents see it is OK. Now is our time.”

Paying it forward

When COVID-19 first hit, Chung quickly made adjustments to her business.

“That was the only way to survive,” she said.

As she opened back up, she restarted shipments of her frozen dumplings to Goldbelly, a gourmet food delivery company. Within the first week, her orders tripled and she knew she was on to something. She increased her offerings and now has a full-blown store. She also started doing digital cooking demonstrations.

While trying to come up with solutions, she started talking to other area chefs to exchange ideas.

“From those conversations, I realized many AAPI owners and chefs didn’t have the access to many things ‘mainstream’ restaurants and chefs are used to, from government grants and updated policies to social media platforms to promote their business,” said Chung, author of “Chinese Heritage Cooking From My American Kitchen.”

She began to help her fellow AAPI business owners by sharing new policies, and suggesting they join the Independent Restaurant Coalition. She also helped lesser-known restaurants get onto platforms like Goldbelly to expand their income, she said.

In March, Chung took part in the LA Food Gang fundraiser, Let’s Eat Together, which raised almost $60,000 for struggling AAPI restaurants.

This Sunday, Chung will be a part of a week-long event called Pop Off LA, in which select Los Angeles restaurants will collaborate one one-of-a-kind creations. A portion of the proceeds will go to nonprofit Off Their Plate, which will then engage struggling Asian restaurants to make meals for AAPI organizations.

Hopeful about the future

Chung is extremely hopeful for 2021. One blessing in disguise has been the changes she has made to her business that she plans on keeping.

“There were some digital business innovations happening during the pandemic,” she said. “This live cooking experience via the internet is here to stay.”

The pandemic also made her community more connected. Now, she’s hoping that Asian Americans can become more visible. That means getting involved in politics and on mainstream media and pop culture.

“Representation matters,” Chung said.

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