What does a T-shirt depicting a bottle of Sriracha holding hands with a bottle of Ketchup have to do with a launch party for a new PBS film? It’s an apt image for a documentary soon to be made by filmmaker Grace Lee, with the working title “Asian Chops,” that aims to discover the changing landscape of Asian America as seen through a food lens.
Last Saturday, 150 Asian food fans attended KQED’s kick-off party and brainstorming session for the co-production of the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and KQED. After enjoying the crowd-pleasing array of Chinese, Vietnamese, Balinese and Filipino dishes prepared by panelist Tim Lyum of Attic Restaurant, the gathering heard brief remarks from Grace Lee about her new project which has not yet begun filming and is scheduled to air on PBS Prime Time in June 2014.
In an interview before Saturday’s event, Lee told Bay Area Bites that her films often use an unconventional storytelling approach.
“Exploring Asian America through the conduit of food will allow us to examine bigger themes.” Lee hopes to dig deep into communities across the country to find unexpected stories, characters and juxtapositions. She is actively soliciting ideas for people and subjects to include. “We want this to be interactive, because we are trying to do something new. There’s no recipe for this. It’s kind of like Asian America. How do you define that anyway? Part of excitement of the project is using the process to really explore the topic itself.”
After remarks from Lee, KQED producer Louise Lo, PBS food blogger Mark Matsumoto and Chef Lyum, moderator Leslie Sbrocco (of KQED’s Check, Please! Bay Area), invited members of the audience to come to the microphone and share their stories. Some people honored departed members of the Asian American community who had given generously of their time, food and wisdom. Many younger speakers typified a new energy and dedication.
Lisa Murphy, 27, owner of Sosu Sauces and the person wearing the ketchup/sriracha T-shirt, has started her own business making spicy sauces. She told the crowd how she immigrated from Shanghai to the U.S. when she was nine, speaking only Mandarin.
“Learning English in fifth grade was the hardest thing, but everyday after school, when my aunt cooked traditional Chinese food for dinner, I watched and learned. It was a way for me to build confidence. Food was also a way to communicate with my Irish-American step-father who only spoke English.”
Murphy says she did “typical Asian American things,” like attend UC Berkeley and work in banking and finance, but realized that she usually spent her days talking about food with friends. When she told her “very traditional mother” she planned to quit her well-paying high-tech job and do something she loved, her mother was shocked, “A food business?” her mother demanded, “Why are you are going backward?” Murphy explains that as Asians immigrate to the U.S., their first jobs are commonly cooking or doing deliveries for a restaurant. Now that her expanded line of spicy sauces is carried in stores like Bi-Rite Market and Rainbow Grocery, however, she reports that her mother is more accepting.
Murphy’s story of re-invention might be the perfect narrative for Lee’s film. One thing Lee is quick to admit is not perfect, however, is the film’s working title, “Asian Chops.” She hopes someone will suggest a better one. “PBS held a focus group and ‘Asian Chops’ was the best they came up with. It beat out other titles like ‘Wok Across America’ and ‘Chop Suey Nation.'”
Another attendee at Saturday’s launch, Eric Ehler, chef at Gung Ho Restaurant, asked Lee to include stories with regional diversity. “Originally I’m from Iowa and I’m a Korean adoptee. It would be great for this show to connect with other Asian adoptees. We’re still Asian American. As a cook, I feel it’s my duty is to educate and help Korean adoptees understand more about their culture and traditions. When I left culinary school at 18, I went to Italy thinking I wanted to cook Italian and French cuisine. But ultimately I decided I needed to learn to cook Korean, it’s part of my heritage. So two years ago, I took my first trip to Seoul, tried to learn the language, and cooked at a restaurant there. I came back and started a pop-up called Seoul Patch. This show is important; it can inspire people.”
Grace Lee definitely wants her film to explore boundaries beyond the big cities of the East and West Coasts. Lee was born and raised in Columbia, Missouri, where she was afraid people thought her Korean American family was “weird and exotic.” “We had two refrigerators (one was for kimchi) and always worried about offending our neighbors.” She plans to include film shoots in the South and Midwest. “I’m excited to embark on this journey,” says Lee, “but I realize the topic is almost limitless. It’s not specifically about cooking, travel or famous chefs, but more about people we’ve never heard of: farmers, suppliers, the guy who introduced sushi to Texas.”
Producer Louise Lo told the crowd, “This unique point of view will hopefully come from people like you, who want to submit ideas. This is the first event to find out what you think should be included in the film. For the ideas that don’t make it into the film, we’ll also have web videos, blogs, recipes, photo essays on PBS.org/Food.”
“I don’t think you can really talk about Asian food in America without talking about racism and identity,” commented Indigo Som, a visual artist, who worked on a project photographing Chinese restaurants in places like Wyoming where there were very few Chinese people.
“One of my pet peeves is the perception that Asian food should be cheap. And it’s supposed to be grungy and dive-y. Then I think, ‘Oh, is that because Chinese people are cheap and dirty?’ And as a foodie,” Som said, “it’s very frustrating to me because I want really good ingredients in my Chinese food and it’s hard to find a restaurant that does that because I guess most people won’t support it. For example, at the Ramen Shop in Oakland, most people are like ‘Oh my God, $14 for a bowl of ramen! It’s a crime.’ No it’s not, it’s because the ingredients are so much better.”
Hyunjoo Albrecht, came to the U.S. from South Korea 10 years ago. “As the oldest daughter in the family, I did a lot of housework and learned to make my grandmother’s kimchi…but thanks to my grandmother, now I make her kimchi and sell it at grocery stores and the farmers market.”
“I think every Korean child has this experience:” Albrecht added smiling, “you eat a lot of galbi or barbeque and your stomach gets upset and your grandmother always brings you a bowl of kimchi juice and makes you drink it and it really calms your stomach. So now besides the kimchi, I have the juice left over and I’m selling this and I named it ‘Kimchi Aid.’ My grandmother couldn’t read; of course she didn’t know what ‘probiotic’ was, but she learned from experience it was good for the digestion. Now I have chiropractors and doctors asking me if I have any kimchi juice?”
With one story easily leading to the next, time was for the launch was soon over. “I know this is a huge project for one-hour documentary,” said Grace Lee, “But maybe it can be a jumping off point for more. It’s important to go to places that we haven’t been before, even if it’s just down the street.”
You can listen to the audio of Saturday’s brain-storming launch party below and participate directly in shaping this exciting project by answering the following questions, which were on a survey distributed at Saturday’s event. Or share YOUR story; you might end up in Grace Lee’s new film.
- What’s a great title for this project?
- What topics or stories or communities are you interested in seeing in this film?
- If you could only eat one Asian dish for the rest of your life, what would it be?
- Suggestions for the best/worst named Asian Restaurant. Where is it?
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