Meet Grace Young, the wok guru fighting to save America’s Chinatowns

(CNN) — If you don’t already own a wok or aren’t planning on buying one, chances are you will after talking to Grace Young.

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

This year, the acclaimed food writer, historian and ‘wok therapist’ has been named the recipient of two of the culinary world’s most prestigious food culture awards – the 8th Annual Julia Child Award and the 2022 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year Award. .

The awards recognize not only Young’s work to promote Chinese culinary culture, but also his recent efforts to support family businesses in Chinatowns across the United States during the pandemic – neighborhoods devastated by Covid-19 lockdowns. 19 and anti-Asian hate crimes.

A defender of Chinatown

On March 15, 2020, as New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio considered a citywide lockdown in response to the rapidly spreading virus, Young was in Chinatown with videographer Dan Ahn documenting the distress and uncertainties of the community about the future of their livelihoods.

“It was a very powerful experience for me to be in the midst 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.

As the pandemic impacted businesses across the city, small establishments in New York’s Chinatown suffered the worst as people felt unsafe to get there – ‘even though it wasn’t there were no Covid cases that had been reported in Chinatown at the time,” Young adds.

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

Grace Young, award-winning food writer and wok therapist, is the recipient of the 2022 Julia Child Award.

Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet

The situation worsened as anti-Asian hate crimes increased dramatically in the months that followed. In 2020, attacks targeting Asians nationwide increased from 161 to 279. Between March 31, 2021 and March 31, 2022, 110 of 577 hate crime incidents targeted Asians, according to the NYPD Hate Crimes Dashboard .

As reports of such crimes increased, businesses began closing early, allowing their employees to return home before dark, a trend that continues today.

“Chinatown, before the pandemic, was very busy until 10 or 11 p.m. Now it’s very painful for me to see that a lot of stores and markets close at 5 p.m. quiet,” says Young.

Most businesses in Chinatown are mom-and-pop shops, often without a website. Young began to use his influence to defend them.

In 2021, she partnered with the New York nonprofit Welcome to Chinatown to launch the Grace Young Support Chinatown Fund. He raised $40,000.

She donated profits to four legacy businesses in Manhattan’s Chinatown — Hop Lee, Hop Kee, Wo Hop Upstairs and Wo Hop Downstairs. In turn, the companies provided meals to the food insecure.

“Each restaurant only received about $10,000 – and they had to use that money to cook meals to feed residents in need. But having to cook those meals helped staff morale because there was something to do after not having any working day after day,” says Young.

She plans to donate the $50,000 grant she received through the Julia Child Award to several nonprofit organizations that support Chinatowns across the country.

Wisdom of Chinese cuisine

Young and his childhood inspiration, Julia Child.

Young and his childhood inspiration, Julia Child.

Michel Wiertz

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

“I don’t think I would have embarked on a food career without the influence of Julia Child. She was the one who fascinated and interested me in cooking,” says Young, who fell in love with Child’s cooking. when she was young. teenager.

Growing up in San Francisco, Young says she loved excellent Cantonese home cooking.

In college, she tried to replicate the dishes she grew up with using Chinese cookbooks, but was unsuccessful. So, in her thirties, she asked her parents to teach her how to cook Cantonese classics – from tomato stir-fry with beef to chicken with cashews.

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

“When I wrote my first cookbook, I wanted to do for Chinese cuisine what Julia Child had done for French cuisine,” says Young. That is, take the “bugaboo out of french cuisine— or Chinese cuisine, in Young’s case — “to demonstrate that it’s not just about good food, but follows precise rules,” as Child explained.

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

The almost forgotten tender chicken on rice

Young says she wanted to do for Chinese food what Julia Child had done for French food.

Young says she wanted to do for Chinese food what Julia Child had done for French food.

Delwyn Young

Working on the book has been more rewarding than Young could have ever expected.

After about two years of intensely documenting the events of her home kitchen, she thought they had covered all the dishes she wanted.

That is, until his father said “but we didn’t teach you ‘waat gai faan'”.

One of his favorite dishes was the last recipe Young learned from his parents to include in “Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen.”

Waat gai faan is a simple dish consisting of steamed chicken, shiitake mushrooms and rice in a pan. The process makes the chicken very tender, hence “waat” or “slippery” in Cantonese, and the rice fuses with the savory flavors of the chicken. The recipe is titled “Tender Chicken on Rice” in his book.

“The ‘Wisdom of Chinese Cooking’ was published in 1999 and about 10 years later I got a call that my mother had had a stroke,” says Young.

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

“She was unable to speak. I sat there with her. They brought the food from the hospital. It was something like meatloaf and mashed potatoes. She took her fork and stole the food, but she didn’t take a bite,” Young said. remember.

So the worried girl went back to her family and made tender chicken over rice in a small pot.

“I brought the jar with me to the hospital. It was still hot when I walked into the hospital room. The moment I walked in, she could smell the aroma and she looked up. J discovered the jar and she ate it all up,” Young said.

As her mother grew older, Young continued to cook for her. Despite the dementia, Young’s mother would still recognize her food. Cooking has become a way to reach her.

“When I wrote ‘The Wisdom of Chinese Cooking,’ I thought I was writing it for my generation and future generations so we wouldn’t forget old recipes,” she says. “But I never imagined that it would allow me to comfort my parents in times of need.

“Now both my parents are deceased. It was one of the greatest gifts of my life to have taken the time to cook with my parents. Now when I make waat gai faan, it’s even more significant. I almost missed this recipe.”

A therapist wok

Over the years, Young realized that many Chinese Americans — like her when she was younger — didn’t know how to use a wok.

In an effort to preserve the art, she dedicated her next two books to woks and stir-fries: “The Breath of a Wok” and “Stir-frying to the Sky’s Edge”.

“In America, a lot of people call the wok the frying pan,” she says. “They have no idea you can use the wok for steaming, boiling, poaching, pan-frying, sautéing, frying, smoking and braising. I use my wok to scramble eggs, fry steak and even cook popcorn.

“Making popcorn in the wok is actually very good for intensifying the patina of the wok.”

For those unfamiliar with the concept, patina is a brownish film on the surface of metals that occurs after a long period of continuous use. It’s like a natural non-stick coating for the wok.

Among the undisclosed number of woks in her collection – Young won’t tell us how many she has because she doesn’t want her husband to know – she says there is a 14-inch flat-bottomed carbon steel wok , who she affectionately nicknames “wok man”, whom she takes with her when she travels for work.

“Wok man has logged many frequent flyer miles. If only he could have earned his own free ticket,” says Young.

Contributing to Young’s popularity, her books managed to overcome the challenge of explaining the many ethereal Chinese culinary concepts – for example, she coined the phrase “wok hei”, or “breath of a wok” – a feat generations of Chinese food writers. and the lovers are grateful.
Today, she considers herself a wok therapist, answering questions from nervous new wok owners via email while attending wok wednesdays, an online cooking group she co-founded.

Protecting 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 food.

Whether it’s writing wok recipes or advocating for Chinatowns, she says she doesn’t just do it for 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 actually has such a long history in America since the 1840s, and it’s a very important part of the American culinary landscape,” Young says.

“To me, Chinatown is a sacred part of American identity and represents America’s history. It transports you to another world. It’s a bit of a bygone era.”

Top image: Grace Young, revered food writer, historian and “wok therapist”. Credit: Dan Ahn.

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