Chef Lucas Sin is on a mission to make Chinese food accessible to all. Whether whipping up northern Chinese staples at his restaurants Junzi & Nice Day or leading a discussion on the connections between Chinese cuisine and other cultures, Sin is always looking for opportunities to infuse his dishes with a little perspective. For him, it's not enough to simply make Chinese food — he wants to tell a story and open people's eyes to where this rich, compelling, and often misunderstood cooking tradition actually comes from.
To learn more about his takes on cooking and storytelling, check out our full interview with the chef below!
What does Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month mean to you?
I would like to see AAPI month as a month of celebration of culture and diversity. What’s so outstanding about a place like New York City is not only the vibrancy of each individual culture, but how they come together.
How has your heritage shaped the person you are today?
At both of our spots [Junzi Kitchen & Nice Day], our primary goal is a cultural one. Both of those restaurants are trying to the answer the question of why Americans think Chinese is only one thing. We're asking people to think twice about what they consider to be "Chinese American" food. I think heritage and culture is a huge part of why we open restaurants.
Personally for me, going back to this idea of cultural confluence, I'm from Hong Kong, which is a classic example of cultures coming together. Popular food in Hong Kong takes a lot of influences from different cultures and perspectives.
It's necessary to adopt good ideas from other cultures — that's how Hong Kong was built. What I love about where I grew up is its real sense of cultural diversity. It's a huge part of my DNA as a chef and I'm dedicated to bringing that into our restaurants.
What, for you, is the magic of food?
The magic of food is that it's a really accessible way to initiate deeper conversations about culture. It's a gateway to conversations about identity, culture, immigration, all of these things.
Before the pandemic, we ran this program called "Chef's Table," which illustrated the connections between Chinese culture and other cultures... what's the relationship between Chinese food and food from the Dominican Republic, for example. Is there any influence from DR cooking into Chinese cuisine? Are there any similarities to how Dominican and Chinese restaurants are run? Examining the two-way influence can be really cool.
How can you tell your story through food?
First, you have to figure out what your story is, and that requires a lot of self-reflection. For me, that self-reflection is about thinking of the things I grew up eating, but also requires research, historical research, into these childhood memories to make sure that my own memories are substantiated by real facts. Just as you would learn about another cuisine, you have to look at the cuisine you grew up with through the lens of a professional chef.
Storytelling through food also requires empathy. You have to put yourself in the shoes of your customer and think about how they'll receive the food. The importance of sharing cultural stories is all about helping people to understand that the world is a good and diverse place.
What do you think people and organizations can do to combat escalating acts of racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans?
Support AAPI restaurants. Also, think about your local Chinese take-out restaurants... they're facing unprecedented challenges, even before the pandemic. What we usually describe as a "Mom and Pop" shop is still very much the reality for these restaurants — mom out front and dad doing the cooking in the back. But they're getting older, and their sons and daughters are super educated and maybe don't want to take over the restaurants any more, even though their livelihoods still depend on them. Oftentimes, these families don't have an easy way out.
So, you should absolutely order from those places. From a conversational perspective, we have to stop disparaging this type of Chinese cooking and cuisine. American Chinese is incredibly authentic and these restaurants have amazing efficiencies that people can learn from. It's vital to respect how these businesses are run, how lean they are, and how effective they are at doing what they do.
(All photos provided by Lucas Sin, courtesy of Matt Taylor-Gross)