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

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(CNN) – If you don’t already have a wok or you plan to buy one, chances are you’ll do it after talking to Grace Young.

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

This year, the respected food writer, historian and ‘walk 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 Young’s work not only in promoting Chinese culinary culture, but also in his recent efforts to advocate for mom-and-pop businesses in Chinatown, USA, during the epidemic – Kovid-19 lockdown and anti-Asian hatred. Crimes

Attorney for Chinatown

On March 15, 2020, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio considered a city-wide lockdown in response to the rapidly spreading virus, documenting the plight of the community and uncertainties about the future of their livelihoods with videographer Dan Ahn in Young Chinatown.

“Watching Chinatown in its darkest days was a very powerful experience for me to be in the middle of living history. It inspired me to do everything I could to help,” Young tells CNN Travel.

While the epidemic has affected businesses across the city, it was the worst of the small establishments in Chinatown, New York City, because people felt unsafe to go there – “although no cases of covid were reported from 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 walk therapist, is the recipient of the 2022 Julia Child Award.

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

Juthrat Pinyodunyachet

The situation was worse There has been a significant increase in anti-Asian hate crimes In the months to follow. In 2020, the number of attacks targeting Asians nationally increased from 161 to 279. Between March 31, 2021 and March 31, 2022, 110 Asians out of 577 hate crime incidents were targeted, according to the NYPD Hate Crime Dashboard.

As reports of such crimes increased, businesses began closing their doors early, allowing their workers to go home before dark, which continues to this day.

“Chinatown, the pre-epidemic, was very much alive until 10 or 11 at night. Now, it is very sad for me to see so many stores and markets close their doors at 5 o’clock. During weekend nights, it can be very quiet. Is. ”Young says.

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

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

She donated income to four legacy businesses in Chinatown, Manhattan – Hope Lee, Hope Key, Wo Hope Upstairs and Wo Hope Downstairs. In return, businesses provided food to people suffering from food insecurity.

“Each restaurant received only $ 10,000 – and they had to use the money to prepare meals for needy residents. But cooking these meals helped boost the staff’s morale because there was nothing to do during the working day,” says Young.

She plans to donate the $ 50,000 grant she received as part of the Julia Child Award to several non-profit organizations supporting Chinatowns across the country.

The wisdom of the Chinese kitchen

Young and the inspiration of her childhood, Julia Child.

Young and the inspiration of her childhood, Julia Child.

Michael Wirts

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

“I don’t think I would have entered a food career without the influence of Julia Child. She was the one who fascinated me and made me cook,” says Young, who fell in love with baby cooking when she was younger. Teenager

Growing up in San Francisco, Young says she enjoyed the excellent Cantonese cooking at home.

In college, she tried to mimic recipes she grew up using a Chinese cookbook but had little success. So in her 30s, she asked her parents to teach her how to cook Cantonese classics – from steer-fry tomatoes with beef to cashew chicken.

This experience led to her first cookbook, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, published in 1999.

“When I wrote my first cookbook, I wanted to do for Chinese cooking what Julia Child did for French cooking,” says Young. That is, to take “Bagaboo from French cuisine“- or Chinese cooking, in Young’s case -” to show that it is not only good cooking but that it follows certain rules, “as Child once once explained.

Young’s book has received much acclaim. She 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 Best International Cookbook Award.

Almost forgotten tender chicken on rice

Working on the book was more rewarding than Young expected.

After nearly two years of intensive documentation of the work going on in her family kitchen, she thought they had covered all the recipes she wanted.

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That is, until his father said, “But we did not teach you ‘Vat Gai Fan’.”

Young was the last recipe she learned from her parents to include in one of her favorite dishes, “Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen.”

Wat Gai Fan is made by boiling chicken, shitak mushrooms and rice in a pot. This process makes the chicken very tender, so in Cantonese the “wick” or “slippery” and rice blends with the delicious taste of the chicken. The title of the recipe in her book is “Tender Chicken on Rice”.

“The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen was published in 1999 and about 10 years later I got a call that my mom had a stroke,” says Young.

She flew back to San Francisco to visit her mother at the hospital.

“She couldn’t speak. I was sitting there with her. They brought hospital food. It was something like meatloaf and mashed potatoes. She took her fork and pushed on the food, but she didn’t bite,” Young recalls. Is.

So the concerned daughter went back to her family home and made tender chicken on rice in a small pot.

“I brought the vessel with me to the hospital. It was still warm when I went to the hospital room. The moment I went inside, she could smell it and she looked up. I opened the vessel and she ate the whole thing,” Young says.

As her mother grew older, Young continued to cook for her. Despite having dementia, Young’s mother will always recognize her diet. Cooking became the way to reach her.

“When I wrote ‘The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen’, I felt like I was writing for my generation and for generations to come so we wouldn’t forget the old recipes,” she says. “But I never dreamed that it would enable me to comfort my parents in the moment of their need.

“Now both my parents have died. It was one of the greatest gifts of my life that I took the time to cook with my parents. Now when I make a waiting fan, it feels more meaningful. I almost missed the recipe. “

A wok therapist

Over the years, Young realized that many Chinese Americans – such as when she was younger – had no idea how to use her throat.

In an effort to preserve the art, she dedicated her next two books to Vox and Steer-Fries: “The Breath of a Walk” and “Steer-Frying to the Sky Age.”

“In America, a lot of people call the walk a steer-fry pan,” she says. “They don’t realize that you can use a cauldron for steaming, steaming, hunting, pan-frying, stirring, deep-frying, smoking and braying. I use my cauldron to scramble eggs, fry steaks and even. Make popcorn.

“Making popcorn in the walk is actually very good for intensifying the walk’s patina.”

For those who are not familiar with this concept, patina is a brown film on the surface of metals that is produced after prolonged continuous use. It’s like a natural non-stick coating for a wok.

Her collection contains an unknown number of waxes – Young won’t tell us how many she has because she doesn’t want to find her husband – she says there’s a 14-inch flat-bottomed carbon-steel walk, which she lovingly calls “Walk Man.” “Nicknamed, which she takes with her when she travels to work.

Young says, “Walkman has logged flyer miles many times. If only he could get his own free ticket.”

Contributing to Young’s popularity, her books succeeded in overcoming the challenge of explaining many supernatural Chinese culinary concepts – for example, she created a “line”.wok hei “, or the breath of ‘wok‘- Generations of Chinese food writers and lovers are grateful for a feat.
Today he considers himself a walk therapist, answering questions from nervous new walk owners via email while participating. Wok Wednesdays, an online steer-frying cooking group he co-founded.

Protecting an integral part of American culinary culture

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

But he is keen to preserve Chinese culture and obscure it, especially through food.

Whether writing a walk recipe or advocating for Chinatowns, she says she’s not just doing it for Chinese communities in the U.S.

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

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

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

Top image: Respected food writer, historian and ‘walk therapist’ Grace Young. Credit: Dan Ahn.

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