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These AAPI chefs are reclaiming the narrative of what Asian cuisine means

Asian American chefs are changing the expectations around what 'authentic’ cuisine means — and are seizing the moment to cook their food their way.
ASIAN RESTAURANTS IN AMERICA
When it comes to Asian cuisines, the story has often been simplified and told by people who aren’t part of the culture.Ard Su / For 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.

For chefs, food is often a personal journey — maybe even the journey of their ancestors — and a function of social, economic and political events. It’s nearly impossible to make any one chef or restaurant a representative for an entire culture. Every region has their own unique influences, history, ingredients and techniques. “It would take me multiple lifetimes to master Sri Lankan cuisine,” said chef Samantha Fore, “because there are that many regional nuances.” And when you add in that layer of diaspora, it’s even harder to define what authenticity even means.

When it comes to Asian cuisines, the story has often been simplified and told by people who aren’t part of the culture. Dishes that were once ridiculed only start being revered once they are promoted by white food personalities. But now, more than ever, chefs from different Asian cultures are seizing the moment to cook their food their way — and get the attention they deserve. We talked to seven different chefs about how they are taking back the narrative around their cuisine, how they are hoping to make change, and how they balance creativity and expectations around authenticity.

Kevin Tien

Kevin Tien is the executive chef of Washington, D.C. restaurant Moon Rabbit and the co-founder of Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate.Aaron Schwartz

Kevin Tien, the executive chef of Washington, D.C. restaurant Moon Rabbit, is influenced by his Vitenamese and Chinese heritage, and his experience as a first-generation American who grew up all over the country — including California, Hawaii, Washington state, Texas and Louisiana — while his uncle was in the Air Force.

“I just cook my life onto a plate,” he said of his food philosophy.

His most beloved dishes at Moon Rabbit include grilled prawns with Thai basil butter and a sweet and spicy sauce made with condensed milk, Thai green chilies, scallions, lime juice and lime leaves — a sauce that even brought his grandmother back to her childhood in Vietnam. He’s also created the perfect ode to his bicultural first-generation experience: a version of the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich, with panko-fried catfish in a Vietnamese marinade of lemongrass, garlic, ginger, shallots, fish sauce and turmeric.

We bring people to the table with food; that's where I think the conversation needs to really expand beyond the plate. It’s like, now that you guys are looking at my food, look at me and listen to what I’ve got to say.

Kevin Thein

“As a kid, we ate a lot of McDonald's because for us, if we wanted to be American, we had to do these things, so we could show people in America that we're American,” Tien said.

Earlier in his career, Tien recalled patrons expecting to see chopsticks, soy sauce and sriracha at his restaurants, because that was all they knew.

“When I first started, it was like, man, every single person was like, they didn't want to use the fork and knife that I provided on the table. They only wanted to eat with chopsticks, cause they were like, oh it’s Asian food. I have to use chopsticks. I was like, that's not true. I literally just gave you a fork and knife for a reason.”

Tien has the stature now to command more respect from customers. He’s vocal about the way that ethnic cuisines are priced, and that customers shouldn’t just expect them to be cheap. And while he’s thrilled more Americans know about pho and banh mi, they aren’t on his menu. He wants to introduce more of what Vietnamese cuisine has to offer.

“I hope I’m changing people's perception of what Vietnamese food can be. There’s a definite learning component here,” he said. “We're doing it more contemporary and I'm applying fine dining techniques that I've learned in my career. I hope people will get used to paying a higher price for Asian food in general.”

Tien is also co-founder of Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate, a group of chefs and volunteers who have been putting on educational events and dinner series raising money and awareness to combat rising violence against Asians.

“We bring people to the table with food; that's where I think the conversation needs to really expand beyond the plate. It’s like, now that you guys are looking at my food, look at me and listen to what I’ve got to say.”

David Kuo

Chef David Kuo is the owner of the Los Angeles-based Chinese-Taiwanese soul food restaurant, Little Fatty.Wonho Photography

Chef David Kuo pivoted to his Chinese-Taiwanese soul food concept, Los Angeles-based Little Fatty, after the birth of his second child.

“I just want to make food that brings me back to my childhood, that satisfies my soul, and that is approachable,” he explained. “When I was younger, I wanted to make a name for myself. I wanted to use all the fancy machines, all the fancy techniques. And when I got older, I just wanted comfort and the things that I enjoyed while growing up, but, you know, maybe a better version.”

Kuo takes dishes that were childhood favorites and elevates them with techniques and ingredients he’s learned about throughout his career and travels. While that’s helped make his restaurant incredibly successful (staying busy even during the pandemic), it’s also elicited criticism about authenticity.

“We try to push the food forward and give it as much research and humble inputs that we can. But when you start talking about ethnic food, everyone has a sensitive spot in their food memory,” said Kuo. What’s authentic is determined in large part by each individual’s experience, and that can often put a restaurant in the crosshairs of customer reviews.

“If you grew up in Chengdu, you expect dan dan mian to be a certain way; if you grew up in Japan, you expect it to be another way; if you grew up in Taiwan, it’s not going to be spicy," said Kuo. "And so when people come to the restaurant and write reviews, it's really funny because it all depends on where you come from, what you're used to. But what we try to do is like, hey, we made it a little spicy. We made it a little nutty. We made it umami. We threw some pickles in it to try to brighten it up. So it's a little combination of all the different versions of dan dan mian, but yet, you can't win with some people because the Taiwanese original is not spicy.”

People say this is not traditional because we're using these different ingredients that give a slightly different taste, but we all think it's more complex.

David Kuo

Kuo gets frustrated at insinuations that he is watering down his cuisine. He is, in fact, staying true to his vision as a chef, and believes he should have the freedom to do that.

“We went through 18 different doubanjiang (a spicy bean paste), and decided on one from Taiwan that wasn’t too salty or too funky, and we paired it with organic black bean red yeast soy paste,” he recalled.

“People say this is not traditional because we're using these different ingredients that give a slightly different taste, but we all think it's more complex.”

Samantha Fore

Sri Lankan American chef Samantha Fore started her pop up restaurant Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites in a tent behind a bar. Dennis Cahlo

Sri Lankan American chef Samantha Fore started her pop up restaurant Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites in a tent behind a Lexington, Kentucky bar five years ago. What began as a way to share an honest expression of herself, a child of immigrant parents who was raised in the South, turned into a powerful journey of self-acceptance and empowerment.

“I grew up with this sense of needing to assimilate, to not create waves. But then I realized that I left a very large part of my culture behind when I did that,” Fore said. The tech entrepreneur turned chef started Tuk Tuk to share the flavors that she grew up loving, but in doing so, “it made me realize how disconnected I was from who I was.”

She wanted to reclaim her identity and provide a reason for different types of people to gather and find common ground. Fore describes Sri Lankan cuisine as the love child of Indian, Thai and Indonesian food all in one cuisine, and she applies the spices, techniques and ingredients that she’s learned from her family to the Southern classics that are also part of her identity.

She infused deviled eggs, a Southern party staple, with the fragrant flavors of garlic, cinnamon, cardamom and coconut milk, paying homage to an egg curry dish her aunt makes in Sri Lanka. She makes dark curry roasted St. Louis-style ribs glazed in masala chili sauce and garlic sauce. Her version of shrimp and grits features turmeric-spiced shrimp and coconut milk-based grits.

I grew up with this sense of needing to assimilate, to not create waves. But then I realized that I left a very large part of my culture behind when I did that.

Samantha Fore

Her food is unapologetically her, and that has brought together people that might otherwise never have anything to do with each other — from a crew of tatted up motorcycle riders to old-school Sri Lankan aunties. “There’s something powerful and joyful and educational about seeing people unite over flavor,” Fore explained.

While Fore strives to make her food approachable and tell her diaspora story, she won’t rename her dishes to make them more palatable.

“I submitted a recipe to a national magazine and they asked me what I wanted to call it and I said kade paan, because that’s what it is. I’m not going to call it a Sri Lankan stuffed roll or a snack bun or whatever. You don’t have to rename pizza, right? But naan ends up being ‘flaky bread.’ This is a part of my identity; it’s more than taking it back, it’s about accepting and amplifying my culture.”

Yia Vang

Chef Yia Vang says his restaurants, Union Hmong Kitchen and Vinai in Minneapolis, are an homage to his parents, who were Hmong refugees who fled to the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Eliesa Johnson

“I’ve been trying to figure out how to do an elevator pitch to describe Hmong food,” said chef Yia Vang of pop-up Union Hmong Kitchen and soon-to-open brick-and-mortar Vinai in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It points to the difficulty of trying to put a culture’s cuisine in a box, and how much history is involved when talking about food.

Vang’s singular focus is telling the story of his parents, Hmong refugees who fled to the U.S. during the Vietnam War. His dad was a child soldier who fought on behalf of the U.S., and then was left, like thousands of other Hmong people, to fend for himself in the face of genocide at the hands of the Viet Cong.

“I don't claim to be the authority on Hmong food. I am responsible with the platform I’ve been given. I’m not worried about making the Hmong people proud or whatever. What it really comes down to is this man and woman who gave up their lives, sacrificed everything. My dad fought a war to get us to this country. And it's telling their story through the food that we make. And, if somehow people look at that and they trace it back and learn something about our people, then that’s great.”

Vang was born in a Thai refugee camp and came to the U.S. when he was five years old. Like many immigrants, he lived a double life. At school he was an expert in pop culture, ate hot dogs and hamburgers and did anything he could to assimilate.

“I hated eating Hmong food in front of my friends because I didn't want to answer any questions. So I would only eat it when I go home or when I was with my Hmong friends, we would have it, and it would be our little secret. There was a sense of shame for me.”

I'm just trying to redeem myself, because I realized that by being ashamed of who I was, I was ashamed of my parents.

Yia Vang

Two decades later, those memories are what drive Vang to make and introduce people to Hmong food.

“I'm just trying to redeem myself, because I realized that by being ashamed of who I was, I was ashamed of my parents. And it's hard after realizing everything that they've gone through to get us where we are. Like, how could I be ashamed of that? My goal now, every day, is to share their legacy through the vessel of food.”

That’s why he features dishes like Hmong sausage, a coarse-cut pork belly and shoulder sausage flavored with ginger, shallots, garlic, lemongrass, Thai chili and fish sauce. It’s a recipe he learned by watching his dad.

“It blows me away that I could start a fire, grill some meats and people would gather around and I can talk to them about how Dad taught me how to grill meat when I was 12 years old. And then I go into the story of, this is who my father is. This is what he's done. This is his legacy,” said Vang. “I think that is probably the hardest burden on me that I carry is the fact that it's on my shoulders to think about, ‘Hey, earn this. All the sacrifices he made for you? Earn this.’”

Jocelyn Law-Yone

Jocelyn Law-Yone, chef and co-owner of the Burmese restaurant Thamee is known as “mama” in Washington, D.C. chef circles.Chandler West

At 68 years old, Jocelyn Law-Yone, chef and co-owner of the Burmese restaurant Thamee is known as “mama” in Washington, D.C. chef circles.

When Law-Yone came to the U.S. in 1970, very few people had any familiarity with Burma (now also known as Myanmar). “Everybody just thought I was Chinese,” she said. “They thought every Asian was Chinese.”

There was one Chinese restaurant in the North Carolina town where she had family, and people around her always asked if her family owned it.

“When I came, there were no sushi restaurants, no Japanese restaurants, no Korean restaurants, certainly no Laos or Afghan restaurants or Burmese restaurants, none of those existed. So if you wanted something from your childhood, you had to cook it,” she recalled.

Fifty years later, most people who walk into Law-Yone’s critically acclaimed restaurant have still never been to Myanmar or had Burmese food. And since the country has descended into chaos after a military coup, her food may be the only chance they have to connect with its rich culture.

“On top of everything else going on, the burden is now we will be one of only a handful of Burmese restaurants,” said Law-Yone. “I had hoped that this would be like Japanese food and Korean food with one on every corner, but this is not happening.”

The challenge is how do I make the food relatable to people who’ve never had it, but also stay true to my roots and my family?

Jocelyn Law-Yone

She feels the strain to represent Burmese cuisine, and even in her own kitchen, none of her staff had tasted Burmese food, let alone had experience cooking with it. So she teaches the technique and shares stories about each dish, like the garlic noodles she used to eat after swim class as a schoolgirl, or the restaurant’s signature, ohno khauk swe, a curry noodle soup that Law-Yone makes with her own twist: a base of three different soups — coconut, lentil and mushroom topped with chicken or mushrooms.

“The challenge is how do I make the food relatable to people who’ve never had it, but also stay true to my roots and my family?” said Law-Yone. “How do we stay relevant in difficult times when people want hamburgers and mac and cheese and aren’t willing to try foods they aren’t familiar with?”

While there are difficult questions to answer, Law-Yone is also energized by chefs across different Asian cultures coming together to support each other against hate. “Laos, Thai, Chinese — we all go to each other’s restaurants and right now it’s very supportive; everyone was very separate back in the ‘70s,” Law-Yone said. “In the past we all experienced anti-Asian racism but we kind of stuffed it down. But now we can’t afford to keep quiet and we’re actually coming together to do something about it. I want to do something big and bold and really make some noise.”

Lucas Sin

Hong Kong-born chef Lucas Sin says it's long overdue for Chinese food to get the respect it deserves.Courtesy of Nice Day and Junzi Kitchen

Lucas Sin is equal parts chef and history buff. He’s the chef at New York City restaurant Junzi Kitchen, which serves homestyle Northern Chinese food with seasonal, healthier ingredients, as well as Nice Day, which serves fresh Chinese takeout dishes. But he’s also on a mission to learn and share as much as he can about the diversity of Chinese cuisine throughout China and the diaspora.

“It's a big learning process,” he said. When he’s not in the kitchen, he’s speaking with academics and chefs, and combing through Chinese historical texts. It’s long overdue for Chinese food to get the respect it deserves, he said.

“I would love to see China's food being admired and thought of as instrumental to cuisine and lifestyle, the way that we think about French food or Italian food, for example. Especially in times like this, there's a large part of America in particular that has an implicit bias against Chinese cooking."

“A lot of it is anchored on Chinese American food in particular. This particular type of cuisine that's labeled as inauthentic. Junzi Kitchen wasn't serving General Tso's chicken and orange chicken and things like that. A lot of people would come up to us and expect us to say, you know what? This is the real Chinese food. This is the authentic real stuff. The braised pork is braised authentically, right? But as they came to have these conversations with us, we thought: What you're implying here is that the original Chinese food that was here in America, is not authentic."

Authentic wasn’t something mom-and-pop restaurateurs were thinking about, Sin said. They were focused on adapting.

There's this global universality of Chinese food that speaks to the interconnectivity of the world that I'm really, really excited about.

Lucas Sin

“The more you think about Chinese American food, the more you study it, the more you look into how it became the way it is, you'll see a really strong, a really robust story of entrepreneurship, self preservation, and from a kitchen and cooking perspective, amazing culinary technique and kitchen operations efficiency, born and built by the hard work of Chinese immigrants.”

Sin immigrated from Hong Kong at 18 years old. When he opened Junzi Kitchen in 2015, he wanted to push people to think differently about Chinese food, but found that customers would still ask things like, “Why is there no pad thai on the menu?” or “There are meatballs in Chinese cooking?” He would patiently answer these questions and saw it as an opportunity to help customers walk away more educated and curious about Chinese food.

“I would hope that certain dishes and certain food experiences can allow people to understand that diversity is excellence,” said Sin.

As a personal project, Sin also launched Distance Dining during the pandemic, a three-course takeout menu that featured fusion dishes from the Chinese diaspora. Think: Chinese-Louisiana food or Chinese-Indian food. He collaborates with a chef who is an expert in the other cuisine and the two of them research and develop a menu together. It’s a project he hopes to continue in order to show just how far-reaching and influential Chinese food really is.

“There's this global universality of Chinese food that speaks to the interconnectivity of the world that I'm really, really excited about,” he said.

Preeti Mistry

Preeti Mistry is a chef, author, activist and host of Loading Dock Talks, a podcast featuring conversations with other BIPOC chefs.Courtesy Preeti Mistry

Preeti Mistry has been outspoken about the double standard by which Eurocentric cuisines are judged versus virtually every other type of cuisine — and has been in the game long enough that speaking truth to power occurs without hesitation. The chef, author, activist and host of Loading Dock Talks, a podcast featuring conversations with other BIPOC chefs, gained critical acclaim for the Oakland, California creative Indian restaurant Juhu Beach Club.

“People think that Indian food is just naan and curry. I didn’t grow up eating naan and curry. I grew up eating dal bhaat rokli shaak. There are so many things that Indians eat that Americans have no idea about, and they're delicious! That was the jumping off point for Juhu,” Mistry explained.

The restaurant served up fun twists on Indian street food snacks like pav bhaji and chaat, as well as biryani with puff pastry crust, a take on lamb kofta featuring a soft-cook duck egg with a lamb sauce, and their famous dosa waffles.

Mistry, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, was born in London to Indian parents who lived in Uganda and was raised in America. Mistry explained that their food does not abide by other people’s ideas about traditional Indian food, but is inspired by their life experiences.

Mistry recalled a friendly panel debate with Madhur Jaffrey, the chef whose cookbooks and shows brought Indian cooking into American homes.

If I make it, I'm Indian American, it's made with Indian flavors, then it's my authentic expression.

Preeti Mistry

“She was talking about, I don't like this whole thing where we're trying to make everything appeal to American palettes. And I just straight up was like, I hear what you're saying. I want to learn from my grandmothers and all the classic recipes and whatever. But I'm American, so I make masala fries,” said Mistry.

“If I make it, I'm Indian American, it's made with Indian flavors, then it's my authentic expression. India is not a monolith and neither are we here. Some of us grew up in Ohio and some of us grew up in Texas and California. So we all have different influences, but our food is still authentic. European cuisine gets to evolve, but somehow, there has to be only one type of Indian cuisine or Vietnamese or Mexican. And it's like, no. I am an actual thing, which is a second-generation immigrant,” they continued.

Juhu Beach Club closed its doors in 2018, but Mistry points out that there are Indian and other Asian American chefs who have long been doing imaginative, inspired cooking, like Indian barbecue in Texas or Punjabi-Mexican food in Yuba CIty, California or Zante Pizza and Indian Cuisine in San Francisco.

“There’s actually a lot more diversity and interesting Asian American cuisine throughout this country than the media really portrays, just because they're not in New York and don't have some big splashy restaurant,” Mistry said. “It’s time to give them the attention they deserve.”

CORRECTION (May 20, 2021, 10:13 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated Kevin Tien's last name. It is Tien, not Thien.