How NYC's 'Asian Food Mafia' Empowers Restaurant Owners
Protect ya neck (and your dumplings).
All photos by author.
"A lot of what Asian Food Mafia stands for is unity in the chef world, especially centered on restaurant ownership. We have to help each other out, because at the end of the day, no one else will. You know what I mean?"
The question lingers in the air, accompanied by the cacophony of a kitchen in motion and the shallow hiss of Doron Wong's ragged breathing into his cell phone as the mid-week lunch rush comes to a close. The executive chef of Northern Tiger—a Manhattan-based restaurant focused on the dumpling-and-noodle-heavy cuisine of Northern China—Wong is taking the time to describe to me a loosely formed coalition of veteran chefs of which he is a member—the cheekily named Asian Food Mafia.
The group was created a little more than a year ago by Chris Cheung, the "New Yawk"-accented chef-owner of East Wind Snack Shop in Brooklyn and, more recently, Tànsuŏ in Nashville. He had the idea to bring together a group of chefs, most of whom own Chinese or Asian-American restaurants in Brooklyn or Manhattan, to share information, air grievances, shoot the shit, and maybe even do a little good for charity. Thus, a hashtag and a collaborative were born.
The group leverages the camaraderie, support, and connections to accomplish feats what would be all but inconceivable for each chef on his or her own. It doesn't matter if that task is finding a replacement line cook 15 minutes before the start of service, or convincing America to pay the same price for a scallop covered in black bean sauce as one covered in beurre blanc. Just like Tom Joad, the rest of the Asian Food Mafia will be there to help.
"Shouldn't Asian restaurants serving high-end ingredients with high-end service and atmosphere be judged next to their Western counterparts, and not to other Asian restaurants that have low-end offerings?"
In addition to Wong and Cheung, regulars in the AFM include Lien and Edward Lin of Bricolage; Erica Cho, Wong's partner in Northern Tiger; Medwin Pang of Hunger Pang; Chef Bao Bao of Baoburg; Eric Kwan of 5ive Spice; Christine Lau , a restaurant consultant who used to be a chef at Bar Chuko Izakaya; Pichet Ong of Chaan Teng and Sugar and Plumm; Jonathan Wu, the chef at Fung Tu; and Wilson Tang, Wu's business partner and the owner of Nom Wah Tea Parlor. Eric Rhee, a filmmaker who produced the Kimchi Chronicles, is also known to stop by.
To a person, each member of the Asian Food Mafia agreed that the social aspect of the group was an amazing benefit, given that that the chefs spend incredibly long hours isolated in the kitchens they run. Cheung, whom many of the chefs call "the Godfather" or a "brother from another mother," remains essential to pulling the group together.
"I noticed we were all kind of separated and apart," he told me, "and I thought banding together would give us a bigger voice in the industry itself. First, to deal with industry problems—how hard it is to do business in New York. We also wanted to influence our food, in a way, and kind of drive what Asian food meant to us personally. And then third, [we wanted] to get together, have a few drinks once a month, kind of rant and rave."
While most of the chefs in the collective had previously heard of one another, they now consider each other friends. Meetings take place monthly, after work hours on a weeknight, sometimes at a member's restaurant, but other times at a local joint they've heard good things about. Christine Lau describes a typical meeting: "We tend to start off by sharing stories and blowing off some steam—it's comforting when other people understand your staffing issues, your latest plumbing fiasco, your frustrations with your vendors. And if there's an agenda at hand, we all need to get wrangled together, like a herd. It's actually quite funny. When you put so many heavy hitters in one room, it's interesting who ends up taking the lead and makes sure we stay on point. And in the end, in classic chef fashion, we get it done."
Each of the chefs I spoke with emphasized that, when it comes to the practical issues of running a kitchen in New York City, being a part of the Asian Food Mafia is an indispensable resource. According to Jonathan Wu of Fung Tu, "We have email threads where we'll share resources and talk shop. Like if somebody needs an induction burner, out of 9, 10, 12 people somebody has one that can be borrowed. Somebody's looking for a cook or dishwasher, we'll get the word out. One of my sous chefs was getting kicked out of his apartment, and I sent an email to the group and Christine Lau said, 'I've got somebody who's looking for a roommate.'"
On a more profound note, though, the group spends quite a bit of time talking about the importance of raising the profile of Asian food—especially Chinese food—to a place where the public is willing to pay for the quality ingredients and elevated cooking techniques these chefs use. According to Bao Bao, "We want Asian cuisine to get a proper recognition, as more complex, more sophisticated, more diverse than many give credit."
Lien Lin explains further: "In the media and in social media, like Yelp, we often find Asian restaurants that push the envelope derided as being expensive compared to the existing neighborhood takeout and Chinatown restaurants. Shouldn't Asian restaurants serving high-end ingredients with high-end service and atmosphere be judged next to their Western counterparts, and not to other Asian restaurants that have low-end offerings? Though the Asian Food Mafia is a small collective, we strive to reverse the stereotypes that continue to surround Asian food."
The collective also provides the chefs with a newfound ability to attract media attention. Wu says that nowadays, restaurateurs have to market and promote all the time, just to stay afloat. After all, he pointed out, "You're calling. And I'm not Danny Bowien or Dave Chang, that's for sure—I'm not as big in mainstream media. So yeah, I suppose it does work out to all of our benefits to be part of a collective and therefore raise everybody's profile."
"I think it's important that we stand up and lobby for what we believe in. Who knows? Over time we may bring a wave of change and make an impact. And we can make some friendships and lasting relationships in the process."
The group is currently composed entirely of ethnically Asian chefs, so I asked the members whether they felt that the Asian Food Mafia is in some way inadvertently reductive or a form of tokenism. Every member vehemently disagreed with that notion and said that they would be totally fine with inviting a non-Asian chef into the collective.
"It's kind of just coincidental that everyone in the group is Asian," explained Doron Wong. "I mean, that's obviously why we started calling ourselves the Asian Food Mafia, but we don't really discriminate. This isn't just about the Asian community. It's bigger than that."
Several of the chefs said that anyone who cooks Asian food could be a member of the group. "To me, it doesn't matter who you are or where you're from, as long as you have a passion and interest in Asian cuisine. I don't see any problem to have other non-Asian brother and sister chefs in this community. They're definitely more than welcome to be a part of our team," Bao Bao said.
Still, being part of a group with common life experiences—especially minority experiences—has been important to these chefs. Jonathan Wu said, "I grew up in the suburbs of Hartford, Connecticut, and I was almost always the only Asian kid—or one of, like, two—and I've always felt like an outsider in that way. It's been nice to be part of an Asian-American community in terms of that sort of diaspora experience."
Recently, the group has morphed into an organization that does good for New York City and the food industry at large, even though it isn't easy being charitable while trying to run a profitable enterprise. "The reality is, almost all of us are like, eh... making it, surviving, but definitely not rolling in cash," Jonathan Wu said. "So the fact that so many chefs and cooks are down and willing and game in terms of hosting charitable events and contributing, it's, like, a lot. That's really sacrifice, that's putting money where one's mouth is."
The AFM is now committed to raising money for Allan Batman, a top food photographer in New York City who started a line-cook school, which he has been funding himself.
Earlier this spring, I attended a meeting of the AFM held at Bricolage on a cold night, when half the city seemed to be home celebrating Passover. At 10 PM, the members of the AFM filed into the restaurant. Drinks were poured, voices raised in laughter, and I had to agree with Jonathan Wu, who described AFM meetings as "therapeutic" and reminiscent of "those early Bourdain episodes, where Drew Nieporent is there and I think even Bobby Flay showed up. Just cooks, late night, eating something tasty and kind of talking about their days."
As Bao Bao and Pang eagerly dig into piping hot tamarind-hoisin pork ribs, Lien stops joking with Cheung about viral food trends and briefly peeks over at the baby carriage holding her infant son, Elliott. The group is all that can be heard as Lien and Ed's staff see to the last lingering customers and begin to clean up for the night. Conversation fluctuates between a range of topics, from the unsureness of what to do about rising minimum wages to why a competitor was forced to close and where to find the best fried chicken in the city.
Clearly, en masse, the chefs of the Asian Food Mafia have found a balm in each other, one that helps them navigate the difficulties of running an Asian restaurant in New York City in 2017. In the words of Chef Bao Bao, "As a group, we can help influence more and more people and spread the message across. I think it's important that we stand up and lobby for what we believe in. Who knows? Over time we may bring a wave of change and make an impact. And we can make some friendships and lasting relationships in the process."