Inside cookbook author Grace Young's work to revitalize Chinatown businesses hit by pandemic: 'The most meaningful work I've ever done'

During the pandemic, this cookbook author raised funds for Chinatown restaurants amid anti-Asian violence. Now, she's received a Julia Child Award for her work.

Cookbook author Grace Young says Chinatown restaurants
Cookbook author Grace Young says Chinatown restaurants "need steady, loyal business if they are to survive." (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals; designed by Maayan Pearl)

In early 2020, Grace Young was gearing up to start working on her fourth cookbook. The award-winning author's first three books contain collections of beautifully detailed recipes, packed with historical and traditional references and personal stories that bring cooking in a Chinese-American kitchen to life. But when it became clear that New York's Chinatown was deeply in need of help early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Young set that project aside to help advocate for the residents and small businesses in Chinatown.

Hit early and hard, JPMorgan Chase reported that Asian-owned businesses saw an average revenue drop of more than 60%, a steeper decline than any other demographic, with many suffering even more dramatic drop-offs. To Young, it was painfully clear the neighborhood was struggling just by walking through the streets. She was compelled to do something about it.

As Grace Young saw New York's Chinatown struggle during the pandemic, she was compelled to help. (Photo:  Jenny Kellerhals)
As Grace Young saw New York's Chinatown struggle during the pandemic, she was compelled to help. (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals)

Through documentary videos, social media campaigns, fundraising for non-profit support and good old-fashioned personal relationship-building within the community, Young became a powerful advocate for Chinatowns in New York City and across the country. In 2022, she was awarded the 8th annual Julia Child Award from the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts for her work advocating for Chinatown residents and small businesses over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and escalating anti-Asian violence in its wake. Young, author of Stir Frying to the Sky's Edge, was also named the 2022 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year for her work.

Chinatown's long road to recovery

Young and I meet for lunch at Pasteur Grill and Noodles, the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown, where she tells me about the challenges the neighborhood has faced and continues to grapple with as people are moving on from COVID-19.

"We need to remember that the majority of the restaurants and shops in Chinatown are family-owned and one of a kind," Young says. "They need our steady loyal business if they are to survive." The high number of family-owned small businesses in Chinatown means there's more of a risk of entire pockets of businesses in the neighborhood being wiped out as a result of financial stress.

Young says it's not just restaurants in Chinatowns that are struggling: grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses are in need of support. (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals)
Young says it's not just restaurants in Chinatowns that are struggling: grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses are in need of support. (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals)

Frustratingly, Chinatowns across the U.S. have taken the longest to recover, with many Asian-owned businesses still operating at a fraction of their pre-pandemic numbers and struggling to make ends meet on already tight margins. Many businesses are also faced with enormous debts and back rent payments that accumulated quickly during the pandemic. For many small business owners in Chinatowns, there are additional barriers to financial help, including language, technology and difficulty qualifying for aid.

On top of the struggle to stay afloat financially, violence towards Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) grew rapidly in the wake of the pandemic, causing residents and visitors to spend less time casually lingering or to avoid Chinatowns altogether. Less foot traffic due to safety concerns and racial stigmas are as much a threat to these neighborhoods as the fallout from the COVID-19 virus.

Taking on the fight for Chinatowns

At the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Young launched the video series Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories in collaboration with Dan Ahn and Poster House Museum, featuring several small businesses struggling to figure out what to do next. From there, her work advocating for Chinatowns everywhere grew exponentially.

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She partnered with the James Beard Foundation on several social media campaigns, including #saveChineserestaurants, #LoveAAPI and #supportChinatowns, encouraging diners to support local Chinese restaurants and take a stand against the rising anti-Asian violence across the country.

Not only has Young's work brought greater visibility to issues facing Chinatowns, but her fundraising work with Welcome to Chinatown and Asian Americans for Equality provided over $65,000 in 2021 alone to help protect, feed and support Chinatown residents and businesses. With fundraising support, Welcome to Chinatown was able to successfully launch the Longevity Fund, providing grants to small businesses in Chinatowns.

Pasteur Grill and Noodles was one of the early recipients of the Longevity Fund, and is a prime example of the irreplaceable small businesses working hard to stay open in Chinatowns. With the Welcome to Chinatown grant, the family-owned and -operated Vietnamese restaurant was able to make capital improvements to the dining room and outdoor seating spaces, as well as create a new beautifully-illustrated menu and website with artist and designer Jenny Acosta.

Young says lunchtime traffic to Chinatowns has improved as businesses have reopened after the pandemic, but says the dinner shift is still an empty time in most restaurants. (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals)
Young says lunchtime traffic to Chinatowns has improved as businesses have reopened after the pandemic, but says the dinner shift is still an empty time in most restaurants. (Photo: Jenny Kellerhals)

Many of the cosmetic upgrades were overdue, but they're also a good-faith effort to attract diners back to the neighborhood. In an area that sees high traffic for lunch, many diners have returned during daytime hours since offices began reopening in lower Manhattan. But dinnertime crowds are still sparse due to safety concerns from local residents after dark and rising inflation that's prompting people to cook at home more often. Pasteur Grill and Noodles is also located next to a new large city construction site, which adds another unexpected hurdle to recovery as many tourists and regulars find the area too much of a hassle to navigate.

Restaurants are some of the most visible businesses in Chinatown to show signs of distress, but Young emphasizes that restaurants are just one facet of the community facing deep economic hardships. "Many people think of Chinatown for great meals, but you can find nearly everything you need," says Young, "from hardware stores to pharmacies to markets which also carry non-Asian groceries and staples."

Even more support through the Julia Child Award grant

The Julia Child Award Young received in 2022 came with a generous $50,000 grant, which Young chose to evenly divide between five organizations in New York City, Boston, Oakland, San Francisco and Honolulu. "In every city," says Young, "$10,000 of the grant money will go to a Chinatown non-profit who will then distribute the funds to restaurants to feed those in need."

"It's a win-win that the restaurants receive much-needed business and those faced with food insecurity are supported with meals," she explains.

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"I'm extremely humbled and honored by the awards from the Julia Child Foundation and the James Beard Foundation," Young continues. "I don't even know how to put it into words. It's still unreal that I've received so much recognition. My advocacy for America's Chinatowns and AAPI mom-and-pop businesses has been the most meaningful work I've ever done. I only wish I could make a bigger difference."

Young's work has had a substantial impact on the community she serves, but it's the little things done to keep it going that will help the most, she says. "Chinatown locals demand quality and low prices so shopping in Chinatown is a great way to stretch your dollars while supporting mom-and-pop businesses," says Young. "I often offer to pick up takeout or groceries for my friends and neighbors just so I can give businesses a little more support."

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