This week, a new Chinese-American food restaurant opened in New York City. This would usually be an unremarkable occurrence in a city where new eateries open up regularly, but this one was different because the owner, Arielle Haspel, is a white woman who has been heavily scrutinized for her branding of her restaurant, Lucky Lee’s, calling typical Chinese food “too oily” and salty, claiming in a since-deleted Instagram post it makes people feel “bloated and icky.” Not a brilliant move.
A word about Haspel: she’s probably partially coming under fire due to her tone-deaf marketing strategies, but also due to the fact that she’s a fitstagram influencer wannabe type; a nutritionist focused on “clean eating.” The New York Times reports that Lucky Lee’s “entire menu is gluten-free, dairy-free, wheat-free, corn-free, peanut-, cashew- and pistachio-free … We use non-GMO oil, and never refined sugar, MSG or food coloring.” This leads me to wonder how the food gets its flavor, but I digress.
The basic complaints against Haspel have to do with her obnoxious comments about Chinese food, which understandably frustrate many Chinese restaurant owners and Chinese-Americans who have an appreciation for their unique food history. There’s also a credible racial insensitivity undertone, more so than with other cultural appropriation food scandals. A Time magazine piece from 2016 touched on the Americanization of Chinese food, and how Chinese-American food adapted to fit Americans’ palates:
Regardless of its dubious authenticity, such adaptation of Chinese cooking to American palates was a key element in the proliferation and popularization of Chinese cuisine in the United States. Throughout the early 20th century, ‘Chinese’ dishes became sweeter, boneless, and more heavily deep-fried. Broccoli, a vegetable unheard of in China, started appearing on menus and fortune cookies, a sweet originally thought to be from Japan, finished off a ‘typical’ Chinese meal.
(For more on this, David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious” explores how American palates still aren’t interested in the range of texture in traditional Chinese food.)
Haspel is effectively trying to capitalize on Americans’ love for not-very-authentic Chinese food, while attempting to make bank on the clean eating trend and posh, wealthy schtick of knowing where your food comes from (not exclusive to New York, of course). This is extra ironic given that Chinese food became less “clean” to adapt to American preferences, the irony of which seems to be a bit lost on Haspel. This isn’t a capital offense, but it’s still a frustrating one.
Still, God bless the free market for allowing her to see a gap in food options for people with allergies, celiac disease, and the like, and choosing to fill it. If this is, in fact, a desired type of food for that group, Haspel will probably do quite well, and perhaps some of the ostensibly sensitive and well-intentioned social justice devotees who are getting mad at her should also consider that she’s catering toward people who have major medical problems.
People’s anger might also have to do with the fact that Haspel seems like she’s trying to pull wool over people’s eyes. She named the restaurant “Lucky Lee’s,” after her husband, Lee. As one blogger noted, “Oh boy. Someone on IG had already posted this, but if her husband’s name was ‘Chad,’ would she have named this restaurant Lucky Chad’s?” Sub in “Justin” or “Shane,” and the thought experiment just keeps working. It seems a bit like Haspel has an eye for branding, but didn’t expect people to do quite so much sleuthing. How naive in the internet-scold day and age!
As a matter of principle, I don’t think there should be a hard and fast moratorium on white people cooking the food of cultures that they cannot claim. This will limit the range of good food, and needlessly limit people’s creative freedom. All that aside, piling on a single woman—when you might, in fact, be frustrated by the more complex legacy of how Chinese food has been treating in America—feels like a bit much.
Still, nuance gets lost when we’re talking about cultural appropriation and food: the end product might simply be less good, and a crappy representation of the food genre, if the person creating it has no clue what she’s doing and hardly cares to learn. Plus, it’s frustrating for those who have worked to show American audiences the nuances of their food culture.
Of course, maybe Haspel isn’t aiming for a Chinese audience at all. Maybe she’s going for the people who don “Rosé all day” shirts and looking for some gluten-free noms after Soulcycle (the most cringeworthy possible type of person, but whatever. They still need to eat).
The takeaway, though, should be that Haspel deserves a bit of criticism for rudeness, but not a full-on a–hole social media mob (in fact, very few people deserve mobs! They are bad for our souls). The market will decide whether her restaurant stays afloat or not (early reviews suggest that the food isn’t good). It’s yet another excellent function of the glorious free market that giveth and taketh away.