"What kind of food do you make?"
I'm inspecting the inside of a convection oven when the event manager asks this seemingly benign question from across the room. She's knee-deep in event planning knickknacks — picture frames, wire hangers, misfit chairs — and barely paying attention; just trying to make friendly conversation.
I stumble over myself as countless past menus and dishes and memories blur together in an incoherent mess. I think about how simple it is to ask, how difficult it is to answer. I pick the easy answer: "New American, with Asian influences." No matter how many times I say it, it feels foreign, like a shoe that doesn't quite fit.
"Cool," she replies.
It's late in the day, and I'm mentally drained from scouting location after location for a pop-up dinner I'm planning. The last four and a half years have been a long journey, turning what started as a weekly dinner party into a side business. When I first began hosting supper clubs, a somewhat loose term for a social gathering of guests inside a chef's home, there were only a handful here and there in New York City. The practice has since grown almost into a prerequisite for up-and-coming chefs who want to build a following for their food outside the expensive confines of a restaurant. It's funny to think, everything seemed clear and easy when I began. I made kale salads with pomegranate, charred steaks with au jus. Delicious, straightforward food. But over time, as I started digging a little deeper into myself and using food to explore emotional vulnerability in myself and my guests, each dish became a little more difficult to explain, and the answer to the question of what kind of food I really made a little fuzzier.
A month later, in that same space, I stand in front of the crowd and try again to explain what they are eating, why I cook, who I am. It comes out in fleeting pieces, flashes of emotion hiding behind oil splatters and notes jotted on napkins. I start with the space. That's easy: Tonight, we're sitting in a beautiful open-beamed warehouse, multicolor light from floating votive candles bouncing off colored balloons, dancing on everyone's cheeks.
The theme of this evening's meal is radical honesty, and 42 people sit listening with some of the innermost pieces of themselves exposed: written proclamations of their biggest failures, job insecurities, and societal frustrations immortalized in front of them. I tell them the menu is my thanks for their offerings, seven courses of my own fears and confusions, curiosities and conflicts. "This may make you uncomfortable," I warn them. I start the evening with "Privilege," a course of tiny portions: plump mussels carefully shucked, soaking in corn juice, and hand-peeled baby tomatoes. It's about the excess in our conscious choice to waste. "Ultra Cultured Super Woke Duck" follows second, a tongue-in-cheek reminder that taking one trip, using one spice, making one dish from another culture doesn't make anyone an expert. There's a slightly more lighthearted reprieve after that, "Fish That Tastes Like Fish" with oceanic monkfish in a fish-forward broth accented with turnip. "You Make Asian Food, Right?" is not meant to be funny, rather an echo of the same question I've heard my entire culinary career, but some guests chuckle. Maybe it's nervousness, or maybe it's because they wondered exactly that about me before they came.
The clock at the pass blinks 9:17 p.m. as I serve the fifth course. The dish is my interpretation of shame, I explain, dovetailing with my visceral feeling of disgust at our imprinted cultural hierarchies of which foods matter, which do not. The servers bring out metal lunch boxes, two at a time, and arrange them on the table as plates. Inside, each one bears a sticker that reads: "HELLO MY NAME IS:Disgusting!" The dish uses many of the ingredients I once frantically dissociated myself from, now gentrified into something clever and expensive. Garlic chives, an ingredient often punitively described as smelling like farts, now generally regarded as the secret to Chinese cooking; freshwater eel with its brick-red veins but no sweet soy to mask its robust flavor. They are accompanied by a mound of white snow fungus, coated in a thick green emulsion of duck tongue and peanuts, propping up toasted silkworm larvae. Entomophagy (eating insects) is so gross, yet so sustainable — a nightmare for the woke but privileged.
Staring at a point above the audience's heads, I admit that this has been the easiest dish to cook but the hardest one to present all night. That making this dish reminds me that I'm still grappling with my identity, the feeling of being a first-generation immigrant who grew up here but never feels at home. I silently gauge the discomfort in the room, the pause as guests observe the dish in front of them before reaching for their utensils. I see them squirm, reacting to the feeling of being a bystander to their own experience, the same way I did for so many years when I observed my own food culture.
I vividly remember my first day of camp, lining up for dinner with a tray in my small hands. I was six, and for the majority of us, it was our first overnight away from home. Our little voices mingled with nervousness and excitement as we congregated for the buffet of corndogs, tater tots, square mini pizzas. At the very end of the table, I spied pale pink pieces of meat I'd never seen before. I curiously asked for one. It was huge, the thin slice almost completely covering my three-section plate, peering back at me with white sinews and a light-green sheen. As I walked back to my table, I wished for chopsticks, thinking how odd it was to serve food so large and impossible to eat. Everyone around me had opted for pizza, but my uncertainty over etiquette was overtaken by my hunger. I took my fork and stabbed the meat squarely in the middle, letting the sides flap over my hand. I was angling my mouth toward the ham's edge, a little drip of meat jus teasing down my chin, when my teacher grabbed my hand and waved it in the air for everyone to see. She was angry, but I didn't know why.
"We do not eat like this. We have manners."