Memoir

Yes, This Meal Is Supposed to Make You Feel Uncomfortable

From kindergarten to culinary school, people made me feel like my family’s food was backward. Now I cook dishes that push diners to confront their own prejudices.

Yes, This Meal Is Supposed to Make You Feel Uncomfortable

“What kind of food do you make?”

I’m inspecting the inside of a convection oven when the event manager asks this seemingly benign question from across the room. She’s knee-deep in event planning knickknacks — picture frames, wire hangers, misfit chairs — and barely paying attention; just trying to make friendly conversation.

I stumble over myself as countless past menus and dishes and memories blur together in an incoherent mess. I think about how simple it is to ask, how difficult it is to answer. I pick the easy answer: “New American, with Asian influences.” No matter how many times I say it, it feels foreign, like a shoe that doesn’t quite fit.

“Cool,” she replies.

It’s late in the day, and I’m mentally drained from scouting location after location for a pop-up dinner I’m planning. The last four and a half years have been a long journey, turning what started as a weekly dinner party into a side business. When I first began hosting supper clubs, a somewhat loose term for a social gathering of guests inside a chef’s home, there were only a handful here and there in New York City. The practice has since grown almost into a prerequisite for up-and-coming chefs who want to build a following for their food outside the expensive confines of a restaurant. It’s funny to think, everything seemed clear and easy when I began. I made kale salads with pomegranate, charred steaks with au jus. Delicious, straightforward food. But over time, as I started digging a little deeper into myself and using food to explore emotional vulnerability in myself and my guests, each dish became a little more difficult to explain, and the answer to the question of what kind of food I really made a little fuzzier.

Enter now through June 27

Win $3,000 and a lot more!

A month later, in that same space, I stand in front of the crowd and try again to explain what they are eating, why I cook, who I am. It comes out in fleeting pieces, flashes of emotion hiding behind oil splatters and notes jotted on napkins. I start with the space. That’s easy: Tonight, we’re sitting in a beautiful open-beamed warehouse, multicolor light from floating votive candles bouncing off colored balloons, dancing on everyone’s cheeks.

The theme of this evening’s meal is radical honesty, and 42 people sit listening with some of the innermost pieces of themselves exposed: written proclamations of their biggest failures, job insecurities and societal frustrations immortalized in front of them. I tell them the menu is my thanks for their offerings, seven courses of my own fears and confusions, curiosities and conflicts. “This may make you uncomfortable,” I warn them. I start the evening with “Privilege,” a course of tiny portions: plump mussels carefully shucked, soaking in corn juice, and hand-peeled baby tomatoes. It’s about the excess in our conscious choice to waste. “Ultra Cultured Super Woke Duck” follows second, a tongue-in-cheek reminder that taking one trip, using one spice, making one dish from another culture doesn’t make anyone an expert. There’s a slightly more lighthearted reprieve after that, “Fish That Tastes Like Fish” with oceanic monkfish in a fish-forward broth accented with turnip. “You Make Asian Food, Right?” is not meant to be funny, rather an echo of the same question I’ve heard my entire culinary career, but some guests chuckle. Maybe it’s nervousness, or maybe it’s because they wondered exactly that about me before they came.

The clock at the pass blinks 9:17 p.m. as I serve the fifth course. The dish is my interpretation of shame, I explain, dovetailing with my visceral feeling of disgust at our imprinted cultural hierarchies of which foods matter, which do not. The servers bring out metal lunch boxes, two at a time, and arrange them on the table as plates. Inside, each one bears a sticker that reads: “HELLO MY NAME IS: Disgusting!” The dish uses many of the ingredients I once frantically dissociated myself from, now gentrified into something clever and expensive. Garlic chives, an ingredient often punitively described as smelling like farts, now generally regarded as the secret to Chinese cooking; freshwater eel with its brick-red veins but no sweet soy to mask its robust flavor. They are accompanied by a mound of white snow fungus, coated in a thick green emulsion of duck tongue and peanuts, propping up toasted silkworm larvae. Entomophagy (eating insects) is so gross, yet so sustainable — a nightmare for the woke but privileged.

Meals from the “Privilege” series about the innate privileges of race. Left dish is titled “That’s Disgusting.” It’s served in a metal lunchbox under sharp white light, adorned with a sticker that doesn’t contain a name, but a judgement. Right dish is titled “Less Is More.” This dish is meant to explore the innate privilege of being able to say “less is more” and use that as a guiding principle in our lives. (Photos courtesy Jenny Dorsey)

Staring at a point above the audience’s heads, I admit that this has been the easiest dish to cook but the hardest one to present all night. That making this dish reminds me that I’m still grappling with my identity, the feeling of being a first-generation immigrant who grew up here but never feels at home. I silently gauge the discomfort in the room, the pause as guests observe the dish in front of them before reaching for their utensils. I see them squirm, reacting to the feeling of being a bystander to their own experience, the same way I did for so many years when I observed my own food culture.

I vividly remember my first day of camp, lining up for dinner with a tray in my small hands. I was 6, and for the majority of us, it was our first overnight away from home. Our little voices mingled with nervousness and excitement as we congregated for the buffet of corndogs, tater tots, square mini pizzas. At the very end of the table, I spied pale pink pieces of meat I’d never seen before. I curiously asked for one. It was huge, the thin slice almost completely covering my three-section plate, peering back at me with white sinews and a light-green sheen. As I walked back to my table, I wished for chopsticks, thinking how odd it was to serve food so large and impossible to eat. Everyone around me had opted for pizza, but my uncertainty over etiquette was overtaken by my hunger. I took my fork and stabbed the meat squarely in the middle, letting the sides flap over my hand. I was angling my mouth toward the ham’s edge, a little drip of meat jus teasing down my chin, when my teacher grabbed my hand and waved it in the air for everyone to see. She was angry, but I didn’t know why.

“We do not eat like this. We have manners.

This is me (left) and my friend Nancy Song graduating kindergarten in the Bronx, New York.

My English was paltry, but I understood. Shame does not bear the confines of any language. Here, in my new home, there was one message: We set the standards. You follow them.

I had fully relinquished control by 13. I was standing inside our small kitchen with my mother. It was unseasonably hot for a summer day in Seattle, but the air conditioner wasn’t on because it had been deemed too expensive. I was screaming, insisting I would only eat school lunch from now on. My mother’s back was to me as she simultaneously attempted to placate me and put dinner together.

“We can’t afford it,” she pleaded.

I could feel her exhaustion, but I didn’t care. I was blinded by my own selfishness, my own shame. Tired of being relegated to the bathroom to finish my smelly garlic chive dumplings without disturbing my classmates, tired of dumping my pigs’ feet and pork belly over rice into the garbage because it had been called dog food.

“Well, you aren’t a very good mom then!”

When I saw her flinch, I knew I had won. The next few days, I got my fried chicken tenders and mashed potatoes, microwaved pizza with plasticky cheese. As I ate my American lunch with a spork off a Styrofoam tray, I learned something: Eat the right food, and you can be one of us.

It’s a little surreal now, seeing guests in this environment I built, where acceptance is marked so differently. I always cringe a little inside, knowing so well the immense peer pressure food can elicit. But hospitality is not about creating unwarranted stress; it is about sharing something of yourself in every interaction — maybe not a memory but a feeling. When I look back, there are too many to fit into one container.

During my first week of culinary school, when I was 21, my chef-instructor felt compelled to ridicule the lack of cheese in East Asian societies. “So strange these cultures are just missing an entire segment of food,” she snickered. After class, I ate an entire wheel of triple-crème brie and thought about my parents: how lactose intolerant they were, the constant supply of Pepcid in their medicine cabinet. I decided I hated their entire inferior gene pool.

By month seven, I was thoroughly conditioned on the authority of French gastronomy. After meandering through the differences in terroir from Normandy to Brittany, the merits of Sancerre wine versus Sauternes, spending two days on Chinese cuisine felt like a nuisance. My classmates echoed this sentiment as they grew more and more agitated attempting to find the proper ingredients for our dish lineup. “The recipe says shaozing? What is that, wine? Oh good, this says it’s the same as sherry. I’m just going to use that.” I didn’t bother to step in — the stewarding team had forgotten the Shaoxing wine my classmate was looking for, alongside star anise, Sichuan peppercorn, white pepper and a whole slew more. After all, this was an attempt at diversity, not a commitment. “How do you even pronounce this stuff?” another classmate groaned beside me, scanning each bottle for some marker of English. His complaint was similar to the one I’d had almost every class until now, flushing with embarrassment as I tried to wrangle my tongue into the seemingly impossible shape of gougère.

“You can taste the difference in the milk depending on which side of the Rhône the cow has grazed,” our chef-instructor once told us, most poetically. He had no such musings about Asian cuisine. Once, as I debated with a peer about how to resuscitate a sauce that coincidentally hailed from my birthplace of Shanghai, our instructor sauntered up with advice. “I know what you need.” He left the room and returned with ketchup, an entire metal can of it. I felt the burn of indignation and shame as he began to ladle glop after glop into the sauce, until it was brick red, its purported sweet-and-sour balance forgotten. As if sensing my discomfort, he turned to me and gave his final ruling: “The best Chinese chef I know told me this is the secret to all your food.” Next to him, my classmate scoffed. All that worry over nuance that didn’t even exist.

After graduation, I ran to fine dining, eager to create a new me behind those doors jingling with tasting menu money. But instead of freedom, I found only emptiness among the plates of beautifully manicured food. The only feeling that stayed was the helplessness of being stuck in the same cycle I’d come from: waiting for acceptance from some faceless deity. So I held my tongue as my Korean colleague told me that his future restaurant might feature small plates but surely “something more elegant” than banchan, and when my Filipina colleague insisted that the food from those islands was strictly meant for lowbrow eating and family meals. I sat and waited, instead, for someone else to “discover” the cuisine of my own community. A white knight to indemnify the ingredients I had always loved but was too embarrassed to bring onto a tasting menu. When Epicurious announced celtuce was cool, I remember breathing a sigh of relief. Finally, someone saw the greatness of this juicy stalk I frequently served in gentle poached form. Dan Barber credited his own farmer with finding the vegetable, and I nodded along: Even if he usurped our stories, at least I could be part of one.

Me plating on the line at the debut of “Asian in America” at the Museum of Food & Drink in New York, August 2018. “Asian in America” was the most personal project I’ve created since becoming chef plus it was also the first virtual reality and food event I had hosted in the U.S.

“I didn’t believe I deserved to be more, to have a say, but I do,” I tell the crowd as the evening ends and a finger of Kavalan Solist Amontillado — the world’s best whiskey, virtually unknown, hailing not from the U.S. or Scotland but Taiwan — is served as a nightcap. “My food is my story, and it’s complicated and imperfect, but it is just as worthy, and I am the right person to tell it.”

The concept behind these dinners is vulnerability, breaking down barriers so that people can talk about what matters most to them. What scares them. What makes them wake up and do it all over again — or realize it’s not enough and start over. But it took a while for my food to follow suit, and for a while my following waned because I had no clear message. I asked my guests to be vulnerable, but I wasn’t vulnerable myself. I hid behind the stovetop, behind plates, behind complicated cooking methods and ingredients that no one knew, so that I wouldn’t have to face the real things I wanted to address. The memories, the failures, the misconceptions I wanted to bring to light. When I opened my eyes to look kindly upon myself, I found beauty in the food I had forgotten. I may have gone into cooking to run away, but in the end the only acceptance I was searching for was my own.

I’m cleaning up stiff pastry glaze when a guest comes up to the kitchen on his way out. He’s a little tipsy, effusive and thoughtful. “I didn’t know what to expect when each course came out,” he admits. The dishwasher is sloshing steadily behind me, and I shuffle and lean into that sound instead of responding. “But it brought back a lot of lunchtime memories I’d chosen to forget but maybe are worth revisiting.” I smile, almost embarrassed now for being so transparent, yet thankful to be understood. We don’t say too much more, but a strange and pleasant understanding emerges between us. “This event was so nice,” he says as we hug goodbye. “I didn’t have to pretend.”

Me in my test kitchen in Manhattan, May 2017.