Chinese chefs Eric Sze and Lucas Sin both immigrated to the U.S. in 2011 for college — Sin studied cognitive science at Yale and Sze studied hospitality at NYU. Both were born in 1993. Neither has professional culinary training. Lucas was born and raised in Hong Kong, and Eric was born and raised in Taiwan. In 2015, Sin founded Junzi Kitchen and in 2018, Sze, along with partner Andy Chuang, opened Manhattan-based Taiwanese eatery 886, named after Taiwan’s international calling code. Before the pandemic, the friends hosted pop-up dinners as the Shy* Boyz Club.
Last month, Sin and Sze (and Moonlynn Tsai of Kopitiam) joined forces for a video project called “Always Keep Evolving,” which highlights their experiences with COVID-19 and xenophobia. Since the pandemic began in China, more Asian Americans have experienced racism-fueled violence and been called racial slurs, and this winter, Chinatowns and Chinese restaurants across the U.S. saw a decrease in business, which in some cases has been attributed to xenophobia. In separate as-told-to interviews for HuffPost’s Voices In Food series, Sin and Sze spoke to Garin Pirnia about how their restaurants are weathering the pandemic, misconceptions about Chinese food, their experiences with racism and their optimism for the future.
I think the biggest misconception about Chinese American food is that Americans still think Chinese food is greasy and it’s just takeout only. Over the past nine years that I’ve been in America, that misconception has improved drastically. If you think about it, Chinese takeout is kind of like the fast food of American food. You have the expensive new American or the nice sit-down experiences, and you have the fast version of it — the same as Chinese food. You have the nice, delicate imperial food that you sit down to and it’s a genuinely life-changing experience, or you have the dirt-cheap, quick and easy version. These are the same things. But because the dirt-cheap easy version was so prevalent in the beginning for Americans and due to the nature of the Chinese immigrants, that has stuck around. Now that we’re seeing more wealthy Chinese immigrants coming to America and starting their own businesses and bringing a different layer of Chinese cuisine to America, the misconception is changing drastically.
“Come March, business was down 80%, even before the shutdown. … March was when Italy had more cases than China, but all the Italian restaurants were still packed. It’s hard to ignore that fact when it’s presented like that. I think there are definitely factors of xenophobia.”
– Eric Sze
Chinese American food was invented in America because it had to adapt to the local American flavors. But I think the next chapter of Chinese American food would be blending American flavors with other traditional Chinese techniques and dishes. I think it’s a very different way of thinking about Chinese cuisine, and I’m pretty excited for it.
On the virus’s effect on business
On July 11, 886 turned two years old. I’m proud to still be here. We take huge pride in having very low staff turnover because we pay them a living wage. We pay them equally. We have upward mobility. As a business owner, I think that’s what I’m most proud of.
But depending on the hour, my emotions change. I feel like this has been the story of the past four months. Right now, I’m pretty optimistic because, frankly, I’m very happy about the state government pushing back the indoor dining, because now we have time to actually focus on recovering from this pandemic, and it gives me a little bit more time to make changes to the restaurant that we originally planned to do. But I’m a little bit worried, a little bit helpless in terms of thinking about how we’re going to get more staff back, how we’re going to stay above water if this continues. Even though our business is picking back up, delivery platforms are still taking 20%, which is exactly our profit margin. Dine-in is good, but it’s so, so dependent on the weather and we’re entering hurricane season. Usually at night is when all the problems hit me.
On xenophobia’s impact on Chinese restaurants
January is a slow month for all restaurants, but we were down about 15% from the previous January. February is when we knew something was wrong, because February, after Chinese New Year, is normally when things pick up for us. But in February, we were down 20%. Come March, business was down 80%, even before the shutdown. And I don’t like to be the one to victimize myself, but March was when Italy had more cases than China, but all the Italian restaurants were still packed. It’s hard to ignore that fact when it’s presented like that. I think there are definitely factors of xenophobia. Viruses start from every corner of the globe and this one happened to be from China. I think the Asian American community has come together quite strongly to prove that this isn’t a race thing. We are people and this virus gets Asians sick, too. We want people to heal, and we want the community to get better.
Personally, I’m lucky to not have been a subject of xenophobia — not that I’m aware, at least. But I’ve had friends who have been called “coronavirus” and been shoved on the subway because they’re Asian. It sucks.
Asian people are not known to step up when they’re being discriminated against. I think it’s important for us to lead the way and to show others that, hey, we get that you’re scared because the virus started in China, but it has nothing to do with us.
For me, a conflict-averse [personality] has been something that I’ve been living with. My parents are conflict-averse. We don’t like to start things. It’s much easier for us to ignore you than to confront you. But now things are changing, so I’m glad to be a part of that change.
Most Chinese food in the U.S. is understood to be pretty monolithic. And by that, I mean Chinese American food is all based on a couple of flavor profiles, a couple of techniques, a couple of main dishes like sweet-and-sour something, General Tso, lo mein, chow mein. I think that’s just one region of Chinese food. There’s a lot more to it. Chinese food is probably at least 5,000 years old. There are 50 minorities. There are 20-plus provinces. It’s a huge wealth of culinary expertise that people have built over thousands of years.
“It sucks that people use the word ‘authentic’ as code for ‘ethnic.’”
– Lucas Sin
Our goal at Junzi is to shine a light on some of that diversity. We’ve been eating Chinese food for a long time, but here’s Chinese food that is cooked sort of homestyle, vegetable-forward. And it fits the type of food that you’re looking for on an everyday basis.
It sucks that people use the word “authentic” as code for “ethnic.” Chefs can only be authentic in themselves. Chefs have to be careful not to represent the entire culture, but also if you’re drawing ideas from other cultures to say, “Hey, I am also in the process of learning. You can eat this and cook this with me while we go on this journey of learning about other cuisines and cultures.” As much as possible, I would love for people to stop using that word because it seems to pigeonhole multiple cultures into one.
I think it’s a lot of fun to cook historically. Yaka mein is one of my favorite beef noodle dishes that I discovered when I was reading and trying to figure out more about the relationship between Chinese cooking and Black cooking in America. Since the George Floyd protests started here in New York, a lot of us in the food industry have been thinking about how important Black chefs have been to the foundation of American culture, but a lot of that has been silenced in food media. The more you dig, you find that there is an interesting relationship with yaka mein, which is sort of a Asian-ish dish that is now made primarily by Black chefs in New Orleans.
On racism in the Chinese food community
We want to start the conversation within our Chinese food community about systemic racism — especially around immigrants — in the Chinese language, when a lot of people might not think about it as much. Seventy-two percent of our employees are Black, and we need to make sure that their mental health is taken care of and they feel both safe to come into work and they feel that this is a healthy work environment. The phrase that we turn to is “junzi,” which is obviously the name of the restaurant. The translation is “equal but different.”
During lockdown, I would take the subway to and from work and people would throw things at me. And there’s a couple of times when near my apartment here in Manhattan, people were throwing neon light tubes at me. You just chalk it up to people being crazy and like a crazy time. I don’t want to say that they are xenophobic or anti-Chinese acts, but certainly when you tell other people, they say it’s definitely an act of racism. But at the end of the day, you go into work and you try to do what you can for the community, despite all of that.