Inside cookbook author Grace Young’s work to revitalize pandemic-hit Chinatown businesses: “The most rewarding work I’ve ever done”

食谱作者 Grace Young 说唐人街的餐馆
Recipe writer Grace Young says Chinatown restaurants “need steady, loyal business if they are to survive.” (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals; designed by Maayan Pearl)

In early 2020, Grace Young is preparing to begin work on her fourth cookbook. The award-winning author’s first three books contained beautifully detailed collections of recipes with historical and traditional references and personal stories that brought cooking to life in Chinese American kitchens. But when it became clear that New York’s Chinatown was in great need of help in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Young set the project aside to help advocate for Chinatown residents and small businesses.

JPMorgan Chase was hit hard early on, reporting that the average revenue of Asian-owned businesses fell by more than 60 percent, more than any other demographic, and many of them by even more. For Young, it’s clear just walking down the street that this community is struggling. She had to do something about it.

当 Grace Young 看到纽约唐人街在大流行期间的挣扎时,她不得不提供帮助。 (照片:珍妮凯勒哈尔斯)
When Grace Young saw New York’s Chinatown struggle during the pandemic, she had to help. (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals)

Through documentary videos, social media campaigns, fundraising for nonprofit support and building good old-fashioned personal relationships within the community, Young has become a strong advocate for Chinatown in New York City and nationally. 2022, she received the Julia Children’s Food and Culinary Arts Award for being a voice for Chinatown residents and small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic and for escalating anti-Asian violence in the area. The 8th Annual Julia’s Kids Award from the Julia’s Kids Foundation. Wake Up. Young is the author of the book Fried to the Sky, for which she was also named the 2022 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year.

Chinatown’s long road to recovery

Young and I had lunch at Pasteur Grill and Noodles, the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where she told me about the challenges facing the community and the challenges it continues to grapple with as people move on from COVID-19.

“We need to remember that most of the restaurants and stores in Chinatown are family-owned and unique,” Young said. “If they’re going to survive, they need our stability and loyalty to the business.” The large number of family-owned small businesses in Chinatown means that entire businesses in the neighborhood are more likely to fail due to financial stress.

杨说,不仅仅是唐人街的餐馆在苦苦挣扎:杂货店、药店和其他企业都需要支持。 (照片:珍妮凯勒哈尔斯)
Young says it’s not just Chinatown restaurants that are struggling: grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses need support. (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals)

Frustratingly, it took the longest time for Chinatowns across the United States to recover, with many Asian businesses still operating at a fraction of their pre-pandemic size and eking out a living on already slim profit margins. Many businesses also faced large debts and rent arrears that had quickly accumulated during the pandemic. For many small business owners in Chinatown, there are other barriers to financial help, including language, technology, and difficulty qualifying for assistance.

In addition to the struggle to make ends meet financially, violence against Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) increased rapidly in the aftermath of the pandemic, resulting in less time for residents and visitors to casually stay or avoid Chinatown altogether. The decrease in foot traffic due to security concerns and racial stigma poses as much of a threat to these communities as the aftermath of the COVID-19 virus.

Fight for Chinatown

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Young partnered with Dan Ahn and the Poster House Museum to launch the video series Coronavirus: Stories from Chinatown, which featured several small businesses trying to figure out what to do next. Since then, her work advocating for Chinatowns everywhere has grown exponentially.

She worked with the James Beard Foundation on several social media campaigns, including #saveChineresstaurants, #LoveAAPI and #supportChinatowns, to encourage diners to support local Chinese restaurants and speak out against the rising anti-Asian violence across the country.

Not only has Young’s work raised awareness of the issues facing Chinatown, but her fundraising efforts with Welcome to Chinatown and Asian Americans for Equality will provide over $65,000 in 2021 alone to Help protect, feed and support Chinatown residents and businesses. With fundraising support, Welcome to Chinatown was able to successfully launch the Longevity Fund, which provides grants to small businesses in Chinatown.

Pasteur Grill and Noodles was one of the early recipients of the Longevity Fund and is a prime example of irreplaceable small businesses struggling to stay in business in Chinatown. With the Welcome to Chinatown grant, the family-run Vietnamese restaurant was able to make basic renovations to the dining room and outdoor seating space, and create a new menu and website with beautiful illustrations in conjunction with artist and designer Jenny Acosta.

杨说,随着大流行病后企业重新开张,唐人街的午餐时间交通有所改善,但他表示,大多数餐馆的晚餐时间仍然是空的。 (照片:珍妮·凯勒哈尔斯)
Young said lunchtime traffic in Chinatown has improved with the reopening of businesses after the pandemic, but he said most restaurants are still empty at dinner time. (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals)

Many of the cosmetic upgrades are overdue, but they are also well-intentioned efforts to attract diners back to the community. In an area with high lunchtime traffic, many diners have returned during the day since offices began reopening in lower Manhattan. But dinnertime crowds remain thin as safety concerns for locals after dark and rising inflation push people to cook at home more frequently.Pasteur Grill and Noodles is also located next to a large new urban construction site, which presents another unexpected obstacle to recovery, as many visitors and regulars find the area inaccessible.

Restaurants are some of the most visible businesses in Chinatown showing signs of distress, but Young emphasized that restaurants are only one aspect of the serious economic difficulties facing the community. “Many people think of Chinatown as a foodie haven, but you can find almost everything you need,” Young said, “from hardware stores to pharmacies to markets selling non-Asian groceries and staples.”

More Support Through Julia Child Award Grants

Young’s 2022 Julia Child Award received a generous $50,000 grant, which Young chose to divide equally among five organizations in New York City, Boston, Oakland, San Francisco and Honolulu. “In each city,” Young said, “the $10,000 grant will go to a nonprofit in Chinatown, which will then distribute the funds to restaurants to feed people in need.”

She explained, “Restaurants get much-needed business and those facing food insecurity get meal support – it’s a win-win situation.”

“I am humbled and honored by the awards presented by the Julia Child Foundation and the James Beard Foundation,” Young continued. “I don’t even know how to put it into words. It is still unreal that I have received so much recognition. My advocacy for Chinatown USA and AAPI Couples is the most meaningful work I have ever done. I only wish I could make a bigger difference.

Young’s work has had a significant impact on the communities she serves, but it’s the small things she does to keep them going that she says are the most helpful. “Chinatown locals demand quality and low prices, so shopping in Chinatown is a great way to stretch your dollar while supporting the couple’s business,” Young said. “I often offer to pick up takeout or groceries for my friends and neighbors so I can provide more support for the business.”

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