As It Happens

N.Y. restaurant promising 'clean' Chinese food is offensive, insensitive: food writer

Chinese-American writer Mackenzie Fegan is calling on the white owners of Lucky Lee's restaurant "to think a little bit more sensitively about how they are representing this food."

Lucky Lee's facing backlash after marketing itself as a healthy alternative to traditional Chinese fare

MacKenzie Fegan is a Brooklyn based food writer and co-host of the podcast 112BK. (Submitted by MacKenzie Fegan )

Read Story Transcript

There's nothing unhealthy, unclean or "icky" about Chinese food, says food writer MacKenzie Fegan.

That's why she's calling on the white owners of Lucky Lee's restaurant "to think a little bit more sensitively about how they are representing this food."

The new New York City restaurant bills itself as offering a "clean" and healthy alternative to traditional Chinese fare, which it suggested in a now-deleted Instagram post "makes you feel bloated and icky the next day." 

Lucky Lee's has addressed the backlash in an Instagram post that reads: "Some of your reactions made it clear to us that there are cultural sensitivities related to our Lucky Lee's concept. We promise you to always listen and reflect accordingly."

Fegan, whose family runs the Henry's Hunan Restaurant chain, wrote about the controversy for the Vice food website Munchies. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What did you think when you saw this restaurant billing itself as selling "clean" Chinese cuisine?

I would like to say that I was surprised to see it, but unfortunately I wasn't. It's incredible that we keep on having to have this conversation about insensitive cultural appropriation.

What do you know about Lucky Lee's?

I have not been in, but it is a seemingly beautiful space. It looks like they spent a lot of time and thought in the decor, in the graphic design. Maybe less thought in the branding and the messaging.

I know that it is owned by a white woman, Arielle Haspel, who is a nutritionist, a wellness blogger, a parenting blogger, and that she was trying to create a what she calls clean alternative to American-Chinese food.

And what this means to her is that it's gluten free, it's dairy free, it's peanut free, there's no MSG.

She's says that she's trying to help people get away from that "bloated and icky" feeling they have when they eat Chinese food.

And that's, I think, where it becomes problematic. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with saying, "I'm going to open up a gluten-free Chinese food." But she's positioning it in opposition to all the other Chinese food out there, which she says makes you feel bloated and icky and isn't healthy. 

There was an Instagram post that has since been taken down. It was a quote from somebody named Ashley C., an anonymous Ashley C., that said "I was just telling my husband I wish there were healthy Chinese food."

To think that there's no healthy Chinese food in New York City, a city of half a million Chinese people, is offensive. 

And you wrote this great column about how offensive it is because you know from good food. You grew up in a restaurant culture. What was the food like at your house?

My mother is from China. She was born in China and her parents opened up a restaurant in the '70s in San Francisco called Henry's Hunan Restaurant.

At the time, American-Chinese food was dominated by American-Cantonese food — so chow fun, fried rice. My grandparents were from a province called Hunan, which is also where Chairman Mao is from, and it's peasant country. The food there is very spicy. It's hearty food. And they opened up a restaurant that was an ode to the cuisine that they grew up eating.

I write in the piece about how my aunts and uncles actually grew up very poor in China. They couldn't afford MSG or sugar or soy sauce or meat, really. So, essentially, they were eating a vegan diet, which, again, is not totally typical of Hunanese cuisine, but it was typical of a certain demographic in Hunan at that time period.

So the idea that the fresh, high quality, flavourful food that my family has been cooking forever is in some way unhealthy didn't gel with me.

Brooklyn food writer MacKenzie Fegan, centre, is pictured here as a child with her grandparents Diana Chung, left, and Henry Chung, right. (MacKenzie Fegan/Instagram)

They're Jewish New Yorkers who grew up eating Chinese food and they wanted, as they say, a healthier option.

The connection between American Jews and American-Chinese people should be celebrated.

My grandparents, for years, at their restaurant every Christmas had a Jewish comedy night. And that's really something that binds us is we both love Chinese food.

So by no way discounting the American-Jewish experience of eating Chinese food. I'm just asking people to think a little bit more sensitively about how they are representing this food.

We did a story on this show recently about this horrible video game called Dirty Chinese Restaurant. And there's this idea that the restaurants are ... unhealthy, they're unsanitary. And this Dirty Chinese Restaurant video game is actually created by people in Canada. So how do you get past these kinds of harmful stereotypes?

I understand that in the wellness community "clean" means perhaps gluten-free, allergen-free, dairy-free. But clean is also the opposite of dirty, and so it can be viewed as a dog whistle or just an uncomfortable reference — this idea that all Chinese restaurants are dirty.

I would encourage Arielle, who professes to love Chinese food, to explore some of our Chinatowns, to explore Flushing or Sunset Park.

I actually think that she's probably well-intentioned, but that she doesn't have deep experience with Chinese food.

And, really, the Chinese offerings in New York City are diverse, are amazing, are healthy, are fresh and you don't have to look too hard to find them.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.