When I think back to the Saturdays I spent as a kid running around my grandparents’ restaurant, a few images stick in my mind. The jar of Andes chocolate mints by the register—a nickel for customers, but free for me if I helped seat people at their tables. The framed portrait of my grandfather, dressed in a traditional changshan and holding a string of garlic, that looked like it was taken at a Glamour Shots. And at the back of the restaurant, casting a lurid glow over the banquet tables, a neon sign that read “NO MSG.”
In the 70s and 80s, Henry’s Hunan Restaurant was a San Francisco institution. After a string of failed businesses and decades of barely scraping by, my immigrant grandparents finally found a concept that spoke to Americans—a Chinese restaurant that showcased the spicy, rustic food of their home province of Hunan. It was Americanized, but it wasn’t the chow fun or General Tso’s chicken that had until then dominated Chinese cuisine in the United States. Tony Hiss, writing in The New Yorker, called it “the best Chinese restaurant in the world.”
Although the “Big Hunan” where I spent my Saturdays is now closed, five other Henry’s Hunan Restaurants remain, each one owned and operated by a different aunt, uncle, or cousin. When I’m home in San Francisco, I seek out the locations where my Aunt Meng Tao cooks. Semi-retired at 71, she doesn’t always do the morning shopping herself anymore. Instead she sends her son, my cousin Eddie. He’s at the produce market by 7 AM to ensure he gets the best vegetables available. Like all good chefs and restaurateurs, Aunt Meng Tao and Eddie care deeply about seasonality, quality, and flavor, and their dishes reflect that care. I have certainly never thought of their food—with the possible exception of Diana’s Special, a deep-fried meat pie invented by my grandmother that is as Chinese as Scarlett Johansson—as a “guilty” indulgence.
So my eyebrows shot up when I stumbled across the Instagram account of a new American-Chinese lunch spot in Manhattan called Lucky Lee’s. The restaurant, which is owned by a white woman, bills itself as “clean Chinese cuisine,” an alternative to the standard Chinese restaurants that leave patrons feeling “bloated and icky.” The graphic and interior design are chic, all teals and jades; the marketing slogans include “Get Lucky,” “Wok In, Pick Up,” and, most confusingly, “Lo Mein, High Mein.” Lucky Lee’s offerings are free of gluten, dairy, peanuts, wheat, refined sugar, and MSG. One Instagram post, which has since been deleted, features a prettily designed graphic quote: “I was just telling my husband last night, I wish there was a place to get healthy Chinese food! —Ashley C.”
The owner of Lucky Lee’s is Arielle Haspel, a health coach, parenting blogger, and designer of the iloveme jeWELLry collection. She and her husband Lee Haspel—the restaurant’s namesake, who works in finance and is also white—both love Chinese food. Ms. Haspel grew up eating it every Sunday, much as Chinese people do the world over, except often we eat it Monday through Saturday as well. But, according to Ms. Haspel’s blog, “Chinese food is usually doused in processed oil and brown sauces which are full of sugar…Most restaurants add MSG, globs of processed butter and sodium-rich soy sauce.” (Dairy does not feature in Chinese cuisine.) On another post devoted to tamari, she writes, “You know the morning after you go to your favorite chinese (sic) restaurant or sushi joint and you feel bloated, your eyes are puffy and your rings hardly fit on your fingers?”
While I won’t argue about Ms. Haspel’s personal experiences with Chinese food, which frankly sound terrible, this doesn’t gel with the cuisine that I know. The peasant food my family brought over from Hunan province doesn’t include MSG or sugar, because such luxuries were out of reach. Aunt Meng Tao tells me they were too poor even for soy sauce. They purchased scant cooking oil and salt, and the rest of their mainly vegan diet was homegrown. I’m no wellness blogger, but that reads like a GOOP-approved menu to me.I am not without sympathy for Ms. Haspel. She’s just a normal mompreneur who is trying to balance parenting and work while avoiding gluten, dairy, sugar, GMO oils, brown sauces, and anyone who could have tipped her off to the cultural insensitivity of her branding. My guess is she doesn’t make it out to Flushing or Sunset Park very often, and that her experience of American-Chinese food is limited to restaurants that cater to Western tastes by deep frying or adding sugar or overdoing it on the MSG. (A note on MSG: “monosodium glutamate” sounds like a carcinogenic chemical, but so does “sodium chloride”—or, as we call it, salt. MSG, which is completely safe, is a naturally occurring compound that was originally extracted from sea kelp. Kelp noodles can be purchased in a matcha cashew cream sauce at By Chloe.) No doubt Ms. Haspel saw a lucrative business opportunity in Chinese food catering to the current dietary whims of the wellness community, and she didn’t anticipate the backlash that is lighting up AZN social media accounts.
That’s the tragedy of Lucky Lee’s—that this all could have gone so differently with a modicum of forethought. Ms. Haspel could have called her restaurant something innocuous like Chopsticks (which, incidentally, she is a big fan of, calling them “a great weight management tool”) and billed it simply as “gluten-free Chinese food.” I'm personally not opposed to someone opening an inauthentic Chinese restaurant that serves cauliflower fried rice. I'm personally not opposed to people cooking the food of a culture to which they don’t belong. I am, however, opposed to labeling the entire cuisine of a sprawling, diverse country as “unhealthy” and suggesting that the half-million people of Chinese descent living in New York have all been waddling around, bloated and puffy-eyed, waiting for a white wellness savior. And I'm definitely opposed to cherry-picking the parts of a culture that you like and may profit from without listening to the concerns of the people who belong to that culture. If Ms. Haspel had played things slightly differently, she still may not have gotten many Chinese customers—then again, this concept was never for us—but she also wouldn’t be getting Instagram comments like, “My ancestors will haunt your restaurant.”Regardless of what Ms. Haspel thinks about the healthiness of Chinese food, literal billions of people—some of them hale enough to invent such things as the magnetic compass and paper currency—have managed to do just fine for centuries. And as any New Yorker knows, those aunties doing tai chi in the park at dawn are fit as hell, schlepping grocery bags of fresh produce up six flights of stairs to cook a delicious, nourishing lunch for their families just like my Aunt Meng Tao. To eat her food? You should be so lucky.