Meet Grace Young, a Wook expert who’s fighting to save America’s Chinatowns

(CNN) – If you don’t already have a frying pan or have plans to buy one, you’ll likely do so after talking to Grace Young.

But like the thousands who have attended the Walk demonstrations or read its award-winning books over the past two decades, you won’t regret it.

This year, the venerable food writer, historian and ‘walk therapist’ received two of the culinary world’s most prestigious food culture awards – the eighth annual Julia Child Award and the 2022 James Beard Humanitarian Award.

The awards recognize not only Young’s work promoting Chinese culinary culture, but also her recent efforts to advocate for mom-and-pop businesses in Chinatowns across the United States during the pandemic — neighborhoods devastated by the Covid-19 lockdown and anti-Asian hatred. crimes.

Defender of Chinatown

On March 15, 2020, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was considering imposing a citywide lockdown in response to the rapidly spreading virus, Young was in Chinatown with videographer Dan Ahn to document community anxiety and doubts about the future of their livelihoods.

“It was a very powerful experience for me to be in the middle of living history to see Chinatown on one of its darkest days. It motivated me to do whatever I could to help,” Young told CNN Travel.

While the pandemic affected businesses across the city, small establishments in NYC Chinatown had the worst of it as people felt unsafe to go there – “despite no cases of Covid being reported from Chinatown at the time.” ” , Add.

“People were afraid to come to Chinatown because of misinformation and xenophobia,” she says.

Grace Young, award-winning food author and processor at Wok, is a 2022 Julia Child Award recipient.

Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet

The situation worsened, with hate crimes against Asians increasing dramatically in the following months. In 2020, attacks targeting Asians nationwide rose to 279 from 161. Between March 31, 2021 and March 31, 2022, 110 of the 577 incidents of hate crime targeted Asians, according to the NYPD Crimes Crimes Dashboard.

With increasing reports of such crimes, businesses began closing their doors early, allowing their workers to go home before dark, a trend that continues today.

“Chinatown, in the pre-pandemic period, was very active until 10 or 11 at night. Now, it is very painful for me to see a lot of shops and markets closing at 5. During weekend nights it can be very quiet Young says.

Most businesses in Chinatown are convenience stores – often without a website. Young began to use her influence to defend them.

In 2021, it partnered with the organization Welcome to Chinatown in New York to launch the Grace Young Support Chinatown Fund. I raised $40,000.

She donated the proceeds to four old businesses in Manhattan’s Chinatown – Hope Lee, Hope Kee, Hope Upstairs, and Hope Downstairs. In return, companies provided meals for food insecure people.

“Each restaurant only received about $10,000 – and they had to use the money to cook meals to feed the needy population. But having to cook these meals helped staff morale as there was something to do after not having a day’s work after that,” Young says. .

She plans to donate the $50,000 grant she received as part of the Julia Child Prize to several nonprofit organizations that support Chinatown across the country.

Chinese cuisine wisdom

Young and her childhood inspiration, Julia Child.

Young and her childhood inspiration, Julia Child.

Michael Wirtz

The Julia Child Award represents more than just Young’s advocacy efforts in Chinatown. It’s personal too.

“I don’t think I would have entered the food profession without Julia Child’s influence. She was the one who got me so intrigued and interested in cooking,” says Young, who fell in love with Child’s cooking as a young teen.

Growing up in San Francisco, Young says she enjoyed a lot of excellent Cantonese home cooking.

In college, I tried replicating the dishes I grew up with using Chinese cookbooks but with little success. So, in her 30s, she asked her parents to teach her how to cook Cantonese classics – from fried tomatoes with beef to cashew chicken.

The experience led to her first cookbook, “The Wisdom of Chinese Cuisine,” published in 1999.

“When I wrote my first cookbook, I wanted to do for Chinese cooking what Julia Child did for French cooking,” Young says. This means that “Bugaboo from French cooking— or Chinese cooking, in Young’s case — “to demonstrate that it is not just good cooking but that it follows specific rules,” Child once explained.

Young’s book has won many awards. It was a finalist for the James Beard Foundation International Cookbook Award, was nominated for the IACP Julia Child First Cookbook Award and won the IACP Award for Best International Cookbook.

Almost forgotten tender chicken over rice

Young says she wanted to do to Chinese cooking what Julia Child did to French cooking.

Young says she wanted to do to Chinese cooking what Julia Child did to French cooking.

Dilwin Young

Working on the book was more rewarding than Young expected.

After about two years of extensive documentation of what’s going on in her family’s kitchen, I thought they’ve covered all the dishes you want.

This was until her father said “But we didn’t teach you ‘Wat Jai Van'”.

One of his favorite dishes, it was the last recipe that Yong learned from her parents to include in “the wisdom of Chinese cuisine.”

Waat gai faan is a simple dish made by steaming chicken, shiitake mushrooms, and rice in a saucepan. This process makes the chicken extra tender, hence “waat” or “slippery” in Cantonese, the rice fuses with the delicious flavors of the chicken. The recipe is titled “Lean Chicken Over Rice” in her book.

“The wisdom of Chinese cuisine” was published in 1999 and about 10 years later I got a call saying my mom had had a stroke.

She returned to San Francisco to visit her mother in the hospital.

“She wasn’t able to speak. I sat there with her. They brought hospital food. It was something like meatloaf and mashed potatoes. She took her fork and tucked it in, but she didn’t take a bite,” Young recalls.

So the daughter in question went back to her family’s home and made tender chicken over rice in a small saucepan.

“I brought the pot with me to the hospital. It was hot when I walked into the hospital room. The moment I walked in, she could smell the scent and looked up. She discovered the pot and ate it all,” Young says.

As her mother got older, Young continued cooking for her. Although she had dementia, Young’s mother always recognized her food. Cooking has become a way to access it.

“When I wrote The Wisdom of Chinese Cuisine, I thought I was writing it for our generation and future generations so we wouldn’t forget the old recipes,” she says. “But I never dreamed that I would be able to comfort my parents in their moment of need.

“Now my parents have passed away. It was one of my greatest gifts in life I spent cooking with my dad. Now when I make Waat gai faan it seems even more important. I almost missed this recipe.”

Walk processor

Over the years, Young has come to realize that many Chinese Americans – like her when she was younger – have no idea how to use a frying pan.

In an effort to preserve the art, she dedicated her two following books to the wok: “Same Wok” and “Quick Frying to the Edge of Heaven.”

“In America, a lot of people call a wok a quick frying pan,” she says. “They have no idea you can use the pan to steam, sear, sear, saute, fry, smoke, and grill. Make popcorn.

“Making popcorn in the pan is actually very good for thickening the look of a patina in the pan.”

For those unfamiliar with this concept, a patina is a brown film on the surface of minerals that is produced after a long period of continuous use. It’s like a natural non-stick pan coating.

Among the undisclosed number of pans in her collection—Young won’t tell us how many she has because she doesn’t want her husband to find out—she says there’s a 14-inch flat-bottom carbon steel frying pan, affectionately nicknamed the “walkman,” that she takes with her when she travels to work.

“Wokman has done so many frequent travel miles,” Young says. “If only he could win his own free ticket.”

Her books contributed to Yong’s increase in popularity, and she managed to overcome the challenge of explaining many ethereal Chinese culinary concepts—for example, she coined the phrase “wok hee,” or “breath of wok”—a feat of generations of Chinese food writers and lovers grateful for .
Today she considers herself a Wok wizard, answering questions from nervous new pan owners via email while also participating in Wok Wednesdaydays, an online cooking group she co-founded.

Protection is an integral part of American culinary culture

After three cookbooks, Young says she still doesn’t consider herself a chef.

But she is passionate about preserving and demystifying Chinese culture, especially through food.

Whether she’s writing wok recipes or championing Chinatown, she says she doesn’t just do it for the sake of Chinese communities in the United States.

For her, Chinese cuisine and Chinatown culture are an integral part of American culture and history.

“I think people forget that Chinese food really has a long history in America dating back to the 1840s, and it’s a very important part of the American culinary scene,” Young says.

“Chinatown to me is a sacred part of American identity and represents the story of America. It transports you to another world. It is part of a bygone era.”

Top photo: Grace Young, esteemed food writer, historian, and handler “Wok”. Credit: Dan Ahn.

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