You may know author and self-proclaimed “Stir-Fry Guru” Grace Young for her cookbooks, but what USA Today recognized her for was for her advocacy for restaurants and shop owners in the many historic Chinatowns across the U.S..
Since 2020, Young recognized the dire situation during the COVID-19 pandemic and how it affected the businesses when there were 700-800 deaths a day occurring in the city. There also were boycotts of Asian-owned restaurants that resulted in business to decline drastically.
Seeing businesses in the Chinatown communities shutting their doors one after another, Young could see stting on the sidelines was not an option. “Many (AAPI) family-owned eateries and shops saw their businesses drop 40 to 80 percent,.” she said in an interview. In her own community by San Francisco’s Chinatown, there had been 46 store closings within the first year of the pandemic. Others were on life support.
“There’s no other place in America that actually shows us the immigrant story,” she said. “And in New York’s Chinatown, 98% of the businesses are mom-and-pop. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, there are a thousand family-owned businesses … And so it behooves us to support the American dream by supporting these businesses,” she added. “When you go to Chinatown, it’s a reminder of what it means to have human connections, and that enriches our lives immeasurably.”
In March 2020, she co-created a video series, “Coronavirus:Chinatown Stories” that featured restaurant and shop owners sharing heart-breaking stories of the impact of COVID on their businesses and lives. By October, she started the #SaveChineseRestaurants campaign on social media with the goal of raising awareness of the hardships faced by these businesses, and encouraged the public to order from them. When it was apparent that the issue affected all AAPI businesses as well, #SaveChineseRestaurants morphed into the #LoveAAPI campaign. It encouraged the public to post photos or videos of their favorite Asian businesses, and “Tell us what you’re eating and buying or why you love the business, and add the hashtag #LoveAAPI. Tell your friends and followers to do the same.” It also caught the attention of many celebrity chefs who posted their stories and helped spread awareness of the campaign.
In 2021 her Support Chinatown Fund raised over $40,000 in two months to support four legacy NYC Chinatown restaurants in distributing food to low-income, food-insecure, and at-risk senior residents.
Culinary foundations such as the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts and the James Beard Foundation threw their support behind her efforts.
Young grew up in San Francisco and had the privilege of enjoying excellent Cantonese cooking. She learned how to cook from her parents in her 30s after having little success trying to create them on her own with cookbooks during her college years. Her first dishes were stir-fry tomato with beef and cashew chicken, which led to her wrting her first cookbook “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, published in 1999. Prior to her new-found activism role, Young had devoted her career to the culinary arts, “demystifying the ancient cooking utensil for use in contemporary kitchens.” Her “The Breath of a Wok” was described as “a comprehensive treatise on wok cookery.”
In July 2022, she told CNN:
Whether writing wok recipes or advocating for Chinatowns, she says she’s not only doing it for the Chinese communities in the US.
For her, Chinese cuisine and the Chinatown culture are an integral part of American culture and history.
“I think that people forget that Chinese food actually has such a long history in America dating from the 1840s, and that it is a very important part of the American culinary landscape,” says Young.
“Chinatown to me is a sacred part of the American identity and it represents the story of America. It transports you to another world. It’s a little bit of a bygone era.”
The award-winning cookbook author’s “Save Chinatowns” campaign also earned her the following awards: IACP 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award, 2022 Julia Child Award, 2022 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year.