Justin Lee Is Using Food To Redefine What It Means To Be Asian American
“Because of these attacks on the AAPI community, we are not losing Asian culture. We are losing American culture,” says chef Justin Lee, owner of Fat Choy, the Chinese vegan restaurant that opened to much fanfare in New York smack-dab in the middle of the pandemic. That exact outlook — one defined by the power of globalization and the interconnectedness of various cultures — is what inspires Lee’s menu, which is particularly unique given Chinese cuisine’s usual reliance on all things meat.
In this Voices in Food story, as told to Anna Rahmanan, the 35-year-old Virginia-born chef of Chinese descent opens up about his decision to manage a vegan restaurant, the difficulties that the Asian American and Pacific Islander community has had to face in recent months, how food can become the solution to at least part of the problem and what he wishes diners would do to help those in need.
On the need for more veggie-forward vegan restaurants
When running a restaurant, you are working almost 16 hours a day and the easiest thing to grab as a snack is a handful of charcuterie or a chicken leg or something of the sort. There just seemed something very wrong with the system that we created and are part of, so I wanted to explore what food could be made vegan in the realm of Chinese [cuisine] because I have always wanted to open a Chinese restaurant.
My wife and I had tried veganism, but I found it pretty hard to find any restaurant that I really enjoyed. The options were limited. Most were fake meat options, using a substitute of fake meat for pastrami sandwiches, for example. While we at Fat Choy use some tofu here and there, it’s not really a restaurant that is built upon Impossible meat. It’s a vegetable-forward place. Without throwing any shade on what others are doing, it’s just a different approach. I like to jokingly say that we’re a vegan restaurant not because we like animals, but because we like vegetables.
I think that Eleven Madison Park’s decision to go vegan is a pretty smart move on their part, as it brings them back into relevance. I don’t know what they will be serving, but I think that Fat Choy is at a very accessible price point that helps people eat more vegan. A place like EMP is not available to the world [given its high prices]. It’s nice that they are bringing some more attention to the cause, but I think the jury is out on what exactly the motive is and how well they’re going to do it.
“There is this really weird thing happening with my identity and what matters to me. I am trying to reconcile my guilt about having [a suburban American] upbringing and … now seeing a lot of attacks on us that are similar to the ones that our brothers and sisters of a different race have had to endure.”
I have been eating New York Chinatown food my whole life and cooking for over a decade, and for the most part, there is a lot of flavor that comes from fermentation, pickling methods and stuff that really lends itself to this “meat quality.” How do we make it vegan? We’ve had really wonderful chefs joining the team and putting their hands on the product and tasting it and giving their critique and creativity. Aside from having a great team, part of it was that there weren’t many places opening during the pandemic. Instead of watching institutions close, there is a ray of light to what we’re doing.
On representing both Chinese and American cuisines
As a Chinese American man, I feel represented, but our food is also American because that’s exactly who I am. I could see how the local Chinese crowd could say “vegan Chinese?” They might look at the menu and say, “What is this, fast food?” To be quite honest, it’s unlike any menu that exists anywhere else. It’s been really wonderful to have regulars from an older generation of Chinese in Chinatown just come in and snack on a few things here and there. I am sure they started off incredulous, but we’re winning them over. They are old-school Chinatown people, so it’s really wonderful to see that crowd giving it a shot, and it’s inspiring seeing them come back. The younger crowd is definitely enjoying it, too.
I think what makes Chinese food so special is the story of our immigration into America to find jobs. A large part of the immigrant base became restaurateurs or chefs or cooks, and the menus you can find in Kentucky are the ones you find in Wyoming and in New York, so that ubiquitous Chinatown fast food menu has become part of American culture in the same way that a red sauce Italian joint is America. I very much think that lo mein, fried rice and other similar foods are more American than they are Chinese, almost.
On the recent hate incidents against the AAPI community
I can’t help but wonder, what’s next? It’s almost exhausting because there is a new problem every day, whether affecting AAPI or other groups getting disenfranchised or attacked in some way. I would say that, at least for me, I have always identified as an American first. From a Virginia kid standpoint, it has been hard because I never identified with the Asian culture and community because I grew up in the white suburbs in a very American way.
“Aside from supporting the small businesses, we have to get out of our comfort zones a bit. Have a weird experience. … Dive a little deeper into the culture and give it a chance.”
There is this really weird thing happening with my identity and what matters to me. I am trying to reconcile my guilt about having that upbringing and … now seeing a lot of attacks on us that are similar to the ones that our brothers and sisters of a different race have had to endure. I guess that is the biggest thing that I have been struggling with: What does it mean for me to be Asian American? And how privileged I was and how [oblivious] I was to a lot of those horrible things that are happening and have happened to people of color in this country. The one thing I can say is that food has always brought me back to my culture.
How you can help the AAPI restaurant community right now
Choose to eat out. Eat at small places. I think one of the hardest things to do, especially from an American standpoint, is to go to scary, intimidating places. When taking my friends to the Chinatown market, for example, it seems so odd to me that they say they’ve never been there because it looks too scary and intimidating. It’s a mom and pop grocer in Chinatown, so it’s normal for me but very intimidating for any non-Asian person. So I think that, aside from supporting the small businesses, we have to get out of our comfort zones a bit. Have a weird experience. We haven’t been allowed to travel, so treat it like travel. It’s not the most comfortable or easiest thing to do and there might be some Asian auntie that pushes you out of the way because you’re not moving fast enough, but that’s part of the experience. So that’s what I would like for people to do: Dive a little deeper into the culture and give it a chance.
The silver lining of COVID-19 is that it fostered a community made up of Asian American businesses, businesses owned by people of color or minorities or by women. We’ve all banded together and said, “This is what America really is and we are tired of being treated like this.” Hopefully, the community will stay tight and supportive of each other.