In response to increasingly common incidents of violence committed against Asian Americans — from shootings in Atlanta to assaults in New York City, California, and elsewhere across the country — a number of chefs in the D.C. area are hoping to raise money and awareness for anti-racist causes with special dinners that showcase the area’s talent and camaraderie in the kitchen.
Danny Lee, a chef and partner in popular Korean restaurants Anju and Mandu, as well as hit Chinese-Korean counter Chiko, has been one of the leading figures in the D.C. restaurant scene to drive conversations around race, identity, and the experience of people in the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. On April 21, chefs from across D.C. — and several prominent names from New York — joined him at Anju to contribute individual courses to a charity meal benefitting EmbraceRace, an organization that educates children on race and bias of all kinds.
Lucas Sin, the 2019 Eater Young Gun behind fast-casual Chinese Junzi Kitchen in New York, came to town to showcase how a Chinese pipa tofu dish is similar in form and function to French quenelle but not as celebrated. Lee workshopped a combination of seolleongtang and mu guk, producing a dish of braised and pressed oxtail in a thick beef bone broth, all decorated with circular slivers of Korean radish. The dinner wasn’t just Asian, though. Chef Rock Harper, who sells fried chicken sandwiches at Queen Mother’s in Arlington, made duck fat fried chicken, cheddar biscuits, and watermelon jam. Executive pastry chef Paola Velez (La Bodega, Maydan, Compass Rose) made a miso dulce de leche mousse with a salty crumb and sakura blossom coulis, weaving together Japanese and Latin ingredients.
“The event was incredible,” Lee says. “It was really more of a conversation about race, society, and our place in this country that just so happened to serve good food than an actual dinner.”
“Racism affects a lot of different communities,” he adds. “You can’t talk about one without talking about another.”
Incidents of racism and violence in the AAPI community have been more pronounced in the past year. An analysis from the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino in March found that hate crimes against the AAPI community rose by 149 percent in 2020. This vitriol escalated in March 2021, when a white man killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, in a series of shootings at Atlanta-area spas.
“There’s a real lack of awareness of the prejudice that Asian Americans face and have faced in this country,” Lee says. “Both my wife and I are Asian, and in recent months, we’ve counted ourselves lucky to have only received verbal insults rather than physical harm. That’s a pretty low bar.”
Lee, whose restaurants channel his mother’s traditional Korean cooking, says when he was growing up, he was constantly mistaken as Chinese. The idea of teaching children about racial bias struck a chord with him. His recent EmbraceRace dinner at Anju raised $15,000, he says. Some people who couldn’t join — either because the event was sold out or because of conflicting schedules — donated an additional $5,000.
Lee is heading to San Diego, where business partner Andrew Kim runs a Chiko location, to start more events supporting EmbraceRace. A group of 17 chefs have partnered to run a four-week series in the Southern California city, highlighting a different group of four chefs each Tuesday, beginning May 11 at Stone Brewing.
“We had no idea how this was going to go, but now that we’ve seen the impact we can have, it’s just driving us to do more,” Lee says.
His dinner at Anju was just one of several events originating in D.C. that are using restaurants to raise awareness of different Asian cultures and the fraught moment they’re facing in the United States right now. At Laotian restaurant Thip Khao, for example, chef Seng Luangrath hosted an AAPI Women Lead charity dinner.
Dozens of chefs have allied with a series called Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate, organized by D.C. chefs Tim Ma of splashy Chinese-American takeout kitchen Lucky Danger and Kevin Tien of Vietnamese fine dining destination Moon Rabbit. Each week, the duo partners with five chefs from across the D.C. area to create a to-go package highlighting food from Asian cultures and other allies.
The plan is to donate proceeds to various nonprofits, like Rise Justice Labs and Stop AAPI Hate, that seek to combat racism across the country. Already, the D.C. series is on track to raise $100,000 if all meals sell out. This month, the platform expands to San Francisco, New York, and Detroit. Tien says chefs and restaurant workers from other cities are reaching out to see how they can get involved. “A lot of people want to know how they can contribute, from graphic designers to event planners,” he says. “Everyone wants to do something to help.”
Given that each of these additional cities has the potential to raise around $50,000 over the course of a five-week series, Ma and Tien anticipate being able to make a sizable donation to several organizations.
While many chefs’ efforts to raise money and support followed the attacks in Atlanta, both Lee and Tien note that plans for their charity dinners and takeout series were in motion for weeks before the tragedy and are slated to run far into the future.
“We don’t want this to be a trending thing, because hate against people happens all the time and has happened forever,” Tien says. “We shouldn’t wait for something terrible to happen; we should be talking about this every day, because one life lost is too many, and one incident of racism is too many.”
Ensuring that the recent wave of support for the AAPI community is not a flash in the pan will be difficult, chefs and business owners admit.
“Racism is never going to be solved with one phone call or one rally or holding a sign,” says Yunhan Zhang, the owner of Valley Brook Tea in Dupont Circle. “But it’s so important for us to protect one another and for our community to come together while also expanding our efforts.”
Last November, Zhang was the victim of a suspected hate crime. Surveillance footage shows a man running into Valley Brook — where Zhang sells tea, tea sets, and teaware (all farmed or made by his family members) — and repeatedly chanting “COVID-19” before spraying Zhang with pepper spray. Six months later, the memory of the attack is still fresh in his mind.
“Racism against Asian Americans is nothing new,” he says. “It didn’t start with COVID, and it’s important to remember that our existence is not a problem. It’s racism that is the problem.”
Ma is acutely aware of the role that food plays in shaping or informing stereotypes about a culture, and he attempts to combat that through his latest restaurant, Lucky Danger, a modern take on Chinese-American takeout that folds in some fine dining techniques. At the restaurant, Ma serves traditional favorites like pig ear salad alongside more westernized classics like orange beef. “People often don’t know much about Asian culture except for the Americanized version of its food,” he says. “So often, the food conforms to what the predominant culture wants or expects.”
Getting people into restaurants is one way of sharing this information, but posting pictures and stories to social media has also been a big one. Fast-casual Indian brand RASA uses its Instagram account to share lessons about the history of mango lassis and Holi, the festival of color. “We’re going to keep doing that to show our guests that learning is a constant process and is the only way to begin to address systemic issues,” co-founder Sahil Rahman says.
Chefs and restaurateurs who are working to spur change are only part of the equation, however. Lee says the public has to show a willingness to learn.
“People need to remove themselves from whatever bubbles they’re living in,” he says. “The AAPI community also needs to know that it’s okay to speak out; it’s okay to show vulnerability; it’s okay to say we need help.”
It’s also okay, Lee and others say, to believe individuals can make a difference.
“I’ve always known that racism toward the AAPI community exists, but honestly I never thought that I, as an individual and as a chef, had the power to do something about it,” says Yuan Tang, the chef and owner of Rooster & Owl, who just won his first Michelin star. Through his participation in Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate, among other efforts, Tang says, he’s found an unexpected outlet for change.