(CNN) — If you don’t already have a wok or have plans to buy one, chances are you will after speaking to Grace Young.
But like the thousands who have attended her wok demonstrations or read her award-winning books over the past two decades, you won’t regret it.
This year, the respected food writer, historian and “wok therapist” has been named the recipient of two of the world’s most prestigious food culture awards: the 8th annual Julia Child Award and the 2022 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year Award.
The awards recognize not only Young’s work promoting Chinese culinary culture, but also her recent efforts to advocate for mom-and-pop businesses in the United States’ Chinatowns – neighborhoods devastated by Covid-19 – during the pandemic. lockdowns and anti-Asian hate crimes.
Table of Contents
An advocate for Chinatown
On March 15, 2020, as New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio considered a citywide lockdown in response to the rapidly spreading virus, Young was in Chinatown with videographer Dan Ahn discussing the community’s suffering and insecurities about the future of documented their livelihoods.
“It was a very powerful experience for me to be in the middle of living history and see Chinatown on one of its darkest days. That motivated me to do everything I could to help,” Young tells CNN Travel .
While the pandemic has hit businesses across the city, the small branches in New York City’s Chinatown had the worst as people felt unsafe going there — “although no cases of Covid had been reported from Chinatown at the time,” Young adds. .
“People were afraid to come to Chinatown because of misinformation and xenophobia,” she says.
Grace Young, award-winning food author and wok therapist, is the recipient of the Julia Child Award 2022.
As reports of such crimes increased, companies began closing their doors early so that their employees could go home before dark, a trend that continues today.
“Chinatown, before the pandemic, was very lively until 10 or 11 am. Now it is very painful for me to see many shops and markets closing their doors at 5 am. During weeknights it can be very quiet” , says Young.
Most businesses in Chinatown are mom-and-pop stores — often with no website. Young began to use her influence to advocate for them.
She donated the proceeds to four old companies in Manhattan’s Chinatown: Hop Lee, Hop Kee, Wo Hop Upstairs, and Wo Hop Downstairs. In turn, the companies provided meals for people with food insecurity.
“Each restaurant only received about $10,000 — and they had to use the money to cook meals to feed residents in need. But having to cook these meals helped boost staff morale because there was something to do after they’d had their day off.” day,” says Jong.
She plans to donate the $50,000 grant she received as part of the Julia Child Award to several non-profit organizations that support Chinatowns across the country.
Wisdom of Chinese cuisine
Young and her childhood inspiration, Julia Child.
The Julia Child Award represents more than just the advocacy of Young’s Chinatown. It’s also personal.
“I don’t think I would have started a food career without Julia Child’s influence. She was the one who made me so fascinated and interested in cooking,” says Young, who fell in love with Child’s cooking when she was a teen.
Young grew up in San Francisco and says she enjoyed many excellent Cantonese home dishes.
In college, she tried to mimic the dishes she grew up with using Chinese cookbooks, but had little success. So when she was in her thirties, she asked her parents to teach her how to cook the Cantonese classics – from tomato stir-fry with beef to cashew chicken.
The experience led to her first cookbook “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen”, which was published in 1999.
Young’s book has received much praise. It was a James Beard Foundation International Cookbook Award Finalist, nominated for the IACP Julia Child First Cookbook Award, and won the IACP Best International Cookbook Award.
The almost forgotten tender chicken on rice
Young says she wanted to do for Chinese cuisine what Julia Child had done for French cuisine.
Working on the book was more rewarding than Young could have ever expected.
After about two years of intensively documenting the goings-on in her family’s kitchen, she thought they had covered all the dishes she wanted.
That is, until her father said “but we didn’t teach you wat gai faan.”
One of his favorite dishes, it was the last recipe Young learned from her parents to include in “Wisdom of Chinese Cuisine.”
Waat gai faan is a simple dish made by steaming chicken, shiitake mushrooms and rice in a pan. The process makes the chicken very tender, hence “what” or “smooth” in Cantonese, and the rice melds with the savory chicken flavors. The recipe is titled “Tender Chicken on Rice” in her book.
“The ‘Wisdom of Chinese Cuisine’ was published in 1999, and about 10 years later I got a call that my mother had had a stroke,” says Young.
She flew back to San Francisco to visit her mother in the hospital.
“She couldn’t talk. I sat there with her. They brought the hospital food. It was like meatloaf and mashed potatoes. She picked up her fork and poked the food, but she didn’t take a bite,” Young recalls.
So the concerned daughter went back to her family’s house and made tender chicken on rice in a small pot.
“I took the jar to the hospital. It was still warm when I walked into the hospital room. The moment I walked in, she smelled the scent and she looked up. I discovered the jar and she ate the whole thing,” says Young.
As her mother got older, Young continued to cook for her. Despite having dementia, Young’s mother would always recognize her food. Cooking became a way to reach her.
“When I wrote ‘The Wisdom of Chinese Cuisine’ I thought I was writing it for my generation and generations to come so we wouldn’t forget the old recipes,” she says. “But I never dreamed that it would allow me to comfort my parents in their moment of need.
“Now both my parents have passed away. It was one of my greatest gifts in life that I took the time to cook with my parents. Making some gai faan now makes it feel even more meaningful. I almost missed that recipe .”
A wok therapist
Over the years, Young realized that many Chinese Americans—like herself when she was younger—had no idea how to use a wok.
In an effort to preserve the art, she devoted her next two books to stir-frying and stir-frying: “The Breath of a Wok” and “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge.”
“In America, many people call the wok the stir-fry pan,” she says. “They have no idea that you can use the wok to steam, boil, poach, pan-fry, stir-fry, deep-fry, smoke and braise. I use my wok to scramble eggs, to make a steak in popcorn.
“Making popcorn in the wok is actually really good for intensifying the patina of the wok.”
For those unfamiliar with the concept, patina is a brownish film on the surface of metals that is produced after a long period of continuous use. It is like a natural non-stick coating for the wok.
Among the undisclosed number of woks in her collection — Young won’t tell us how many she has because she doesn’t want her husband to find out — she says there’s a 14-inch flat-bottomed carbon steel wok, which she affectionately calls the nicknamed “wok man”, which she takes with her when she travels for work.
“Wokman has logged a lot of frequent flyer miles. If only he could have earned his own free ticket,” says Young.
Protecting an integral part of American culinary culture
After three cookbooks, Young says she still doesn’t consider herself a chef.
But she has a passion for preserving and unraveling Chinese culture, especially through food.
Whether she writes wok recipes or advocates for Chinatowns, she says she doesn’t just do it for the Chinese communities in the US.
For her, Chinese cuisine and Chinatown culture are an integral part of American culture and history.
“I think people forget that Chinese food actually has such a long history in America, dating back to the 1840s, and that it’s a really important part of the American culinary landscape,” says Young.
“To me, Chinatown is a sacred part of American identity and it represents the story of America. It takes you to another world. It’s a bit of a bygone era.”
Top image: Respected food writer, historian and “wok therapist” Grace Young. Credit: Dan Ahn.