Jan 25, 2016
#AsianFoodMafia: An Inside Look at Brooklyn’s Asian Food Scene
It’s 10:30pm on a frosty December Tuesday, and Windsor Terrace—drowsy even during peak times—is all but battened down for the night, save for a row of Farrell’s faithful, watching the last few minutes of a basketball game. And then there’s East Wind Snack Shop, which remains fully lighted with pans still sizzling, even though owner Chris Cheung dished out his last dry-aged beef potsticker almost two hours ago. The reason for the after-hours action is that Cheung has assembled the first post-service meeting of the “Asian Food Mafia,” a name Cheung will later suggest the group use on social media. Gathered this night is a coalition comprising a handful of Brooklyn’s youngest, most innovative chefs, all there in order to talk shop, share resources, and work toward shifting the borough’s stagnant narrative of Asian cuisine.
“Everyone in this room tonight owns their own restaurant. And so each knows, once the flush of opening press is over, how hard it is to stay afloat,” Cheung says when I first arrive, just before the rest of the chefs. “There’s so much competition in the city, and standing alone is a really tough thing. So I thought—not to sound politically incorrect, or anything—that we’re all Asian, we all have similar backgrounds, we’re all passionate about food, so why should we remain separate? Four, five, or six united voices are infinitely more powerful than one.”
“If you’re trying to make dumplings, and having trouble with the dough, why shouldn’t you call me for advice?” he continues. “But chefs aren’t like that by nature; they don’t want to ask for help of any kind, especially from people they’re not intimately acquainted with. So I wanted to take that first step, get us all together, and explore different ways we can help each other out, from vetting new dishes to forging purveyor connections to sharing exposure and so on. The first thing is getting to know each other, and we’ll hopefully go from there.”
And one by one the fledgling group files in, all fresh off a long evening of flipping banh xeo, simmering khao soi, tea-smoking duck breast, and grilling miso-slathered steak. There’s Lien and Edward Lin, of Park Slope’s Vietnamese gastropub Bricolage; Medwin Pang, of the New American-Asian-styled Hunger Pang in Prospect Park South; Suchanan “Bao Bao” Aksornnan of Baoburg in Williamsburg, which offers an Asian-influenced take on modern French fare; and Doron Wong—the evening’s sole Manhattan delegate—of Northern Tiger in Hudson Eats and Yunnan BBQ on the Lower East Side.
Now that every other storefront in New York City is a restaurant… if I don’t continue to make noise, I’ll be dead.
For the first half-hour or so, they blow off steam and engage in getting-to-know-you chatter over beer. Pang and Wong discover an early-career connection, having first crossed paths at Park Avenue Café back in 1993; the Lins, having previously worked at the Slanted Door in San Francisco, bemoan the lack of fresh, affordable produce in New York; and Cheung recounts his time spent cooking in rural fishing villages in Shanghai: “We were drunk on rice wine all day because there was no refrigeration. Then I get to the airport, and there’s vending machines stocked with hairy crabs. That’s what they use the technology for. You can’t get a cold Coke, but you can get a crab.” But eventually—after stocking a set table with a slew of in-development dishes (Aksornnan weighs in on the texture of a scallion pancake)—Cheung gets down to business, flipping through a notepad scrawled with bullet points for the evening.
“So, the idea to gather us together stemmed from the #AsianFoodMafia hashtag Bao Bao and I have both been using to bring added attention to our restaurants and amplify our message about Asian food in general,” Cheung begins. “At the very least, I’d love for all of you to take up the hashtag, but it’s only a starting point for what I’d like to accomplish in the long term, which is to pool resources and ideas in order to strengthen us individually. Because changing the conversation on Asian cuisine is intrinsically connected to running a successful business, and nowadays, good food alone isn’t enough to get people through the door.”
“I can tell you it’s not, now that every other storefront in New York City is a restaurant,” asserts Wong. “I was right next door to Wylie Dufresne’s wd-50, which closed last summer. And if I don’t continue to make as much noise as I’m currently making, I’ll be dead too. Leah Cohen’s Pig and Khao is across the street from me, and if she doesn’t show up on shows like “Knife Fight” in order to drum up publicity, it’s over.”
“There’s a cross-it-off-my-list mentality. Even if you adore my dumplings, you’re never coming back, because now you need to go find the best pizza or burger or what have you,” Cheung continues. “So what does a small business do to keep its name out there once opening press ends—”
“Or once they literally fall off the Heatmap?” Edward Lin interjects.
“Besides.” Cheung continues, “paying $8,000 a month or more to a PR company?”
Suggestions range from joint pop-ups, restaurant takeovers and a website with links and profiles, to straight up word of mouth and group-wide good will—actively encouraging their own regular patrons to try each other’s eateries.
“Customers enjoy feeling in-the-know,” says Pang. “To have Doron from Yunnan BBQ suggest they check out East Wind Snack Shop makes them feel connected, like they’re part of the conversation.”
Eventually, discussion shifts to another inherent industry problem—retaining quality chefs for more than a few months at a time.
“It goes back to the glut of restaurants in New York City; who needs job security, when they can simply hop from place to place?” asks Edward Lin.
“No one has true passion anymore; they’re just in it for the money,” Aksornnan adds. “When I cooked under Jean-Georges, I did it for the experience. Back then, most of us were so hungry for it, we would have gratefully paid him!”
Cheung himself worked a line without question for years, but admits those nose-to-the-grindstone days are likely a thing of the past. So in an effort to prevent further hemorrhaging of chefs, he proposes an inter-restaurant apprenticeship program of sorts, offered to each establishment’s valued employees.
“If you’ve had a great cook that’s done every station, you can definitely expect to lose them in less than a year. But now you also have five friends. Want to pass them along to me to learn to fold dumplings? Or arrange a stage with chef Bao Bao or Lien?” submits Cheung. “If your cooks can find an outlet in other restaurants, with the understanding they’ll eventually return back home, that’s a good thing for everyone. And there would be a strict no-poaching clause; if your guy ends up quitting, I’m definitely not hiring him.”
“That’s the Asian food mafia right there!” laughs Pang.
But solutions to the group’s overarching concerns seem a bit less tangible—namely, how to effectively challenge long-held stereotypes about “authentic” Asian cuisine. “Asian restaurants that push the envelope are derided as being expensive, compared to neighborhood takeout and Chinatown spots. But shouldn’t eateries like ours, serving high-end ingredients like Niman Ranch beef, further accompanied by high-end service and atmosphere, be judged next to our western counterparts, and not to other Asian restaurants that have low-end offerings?” asks Lien Lin. “It doesn’t make sense to say the $22 hamburger at Spotted Pig is expensive next to one from the local diner, so why are nice Asian restaurants constantly compared to the hole-in-the-wall spots in Chinatown?”
The curious matter of Japanese food comes up, which has long been held in the same regard as French or Italian fine dining fare—even at places designed to be cheap, like izakayas. The group largely owes the issue to inherent American respect for industrialized, technologically advanced nation, thereby viewing Japanese culture and cuisine as more refined.
“Want to charge more for your dumplings?” quips Wong. “Just call them gyoza.”
“Thai food gained mainstream popularity decades ago, and Korean and Filipino food have made headway in the past few years, but none are considered haute cuisine,” Lien Lin muses. “As China emerges as a world power, though, it’s resulted in a proliferation of restaurants highlighting non-commodity ingredients coupled with sophisticated execution. So perhaps sometime in the future, the public will understand and even embrace Chinese haute cuisine. Of course, I’m primarily on a mission to elevate and modernize Vietnamese food too—the current trajectory is unclear, but I’m confident that it can only evolve beyond $8 pho and $6 bánh mì.”
It’s a heady topic that will doubtlessly be revisited at further meetings (Wong gamely volunteers to serve as host for the next one), but it’s fast approaching 1:30 in the morning. And though Cheung gallantly attempts to usher everyone home—after all, half of them have young children, and all are due back at their establishments in just a few precious hours—the coterie of chefs are already a tight-knit team, seamlessly slipping into the well-practiced routine of shutting down a restaurant for the night.
“When Chris issued his invitation, I assumed we’d just be hanging out and maybe talking a little shop over a glass or two of wine,” muses Pang, scraping bits of short rib and broccoli into the trash. “And that would have been refreshing enough; so many chefs are just out for glory and view other restaurants in a similar category as competition.”
“But to have a chef network that you can bounce ideas off of is a truly great thing.” he adds. “Promoting and inspiring each other by sharing ideas and resources. Talking about changing the perception of Asian cuisine, which, up until recent years, came from behind bulletproof glass, covered in sweet and sour sauce. The only thing categorizable about us is the quality experience we each provide. Not to mention we’re all putting out some seriously slamming food.”
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