In the age of Instagram foodies, business owners will do anything to get social media talking about their eateries. Unfortunately for the new Chinese-American spot Lucky Lee’s in NYC, not all exposure is good.
White restauranteurs Arielle Haspel, a nutritionist, and her husband Lee sought to create a Chinese restaurant for health-conscious crowds with a menu that is gluten-free, dairy-free and wheat-free. Their efforts, however, resulted in a controversy over both cultural appropriation and stereotyping.
The bonfire began when Haspel posted an Instagram photo with a caption that many Chinese Americans felt demeaned their cuisine and culture.
She promised Chinese food that wouldn’t be “too oily or salty” or make you “feel bloated.”
Chinese and other Asian netizens believe that Haspel intended to profit off Chinese culture by vilifying actual Chinese food as gross or unhealthy.
With a name like “Lucky Lee’s” and bamboo and jade furniture, the restaurant certainly wanted to present itself as Chinese on the surface.
The takes were spicier than the food for sure.
Ohhhh I CANNOT with Lucky Lee’s, this new “clean Chinese restaurant” that some white wellness blogger just opened in New York. Her blog talks about how “Chinese food is usually doused in brown sauces” and makes your eyes puffy. Lady, what? #luckylees pic.twitter.com/ASXtVs3kFS
— MacKenzie Fegan (@mackenzief) April 9, 2019
Lucky has become code for something awful.
Lucky Cricket: Andrew Zimmern's new Chinese restaurant (dragged by @hooleil)
Lucky Cat: Gordon Ramsay's upcoming "authentic Asian" restaurant, with no Asian chef
Lucky Lee's: nutritionist Arielle Haspel's "clean" Chinese restaurant https://t.co/McAqc6BTAu
— Cathy Erway (@cathyerway) April 9, 2019
In an Instagram rebuttal, Ms. Haspel apologized for unintentionally offending people, but defended their right to cook Chinese food, as Jewish-American New Yorkers. She also claims that she never meant to portray her food as superior to actual Chinese food and declared, “Shame on us for not being smarter about cultural sensitivities.”
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The other day we received some negative comments on an Instagram post. 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. A number of comments have stated that by saying our Chinese food is made with 'clean' cooking techniques and it makes you feel great that we are commenting negatively on all Chinese food. When we talk about our food, we are not talking about other restaurants, we are only talking about Lucky Lee's. Chinese cuisine is incredibly diverse and comes in many different flavors (usually delicious in our opinion) and health benefits. Every restaurant has the right to tout the positives of its food. We plan to continue communicating that our food is made with high quality ingredients and techniques that are intended to make you feel great. Chef/owner, Arielle's husband's name is Lee and his life-long love of Chinese food was inspiration for the restaurant. The name Lucky Lee's reflects the story of how the recipes were conceived. We also received negative comments related to being owners of a Chinese restaurant but not being Chinese. Owners Arielle and Lee are both Jewish-American New Yorkers, born and raised. Similar to many other Jewish New Yorkers' diets, bagels, pastrami sandwiches and yes, American Chinese food, were big and very happy parts of their childhoods. New York is the ultimate melting pot and Lucky Lee's is another example of two cultures coming together. To us, this is a good thing. We love American Chinese food and at Lucky Lee's it is our intention to celebrate it everyday and serve great food. #luckyleesnyc
Meanwhile, right-wing netizens, most white, some Asian, have leapt to Haspel’s defense, claiming that she is the only party receiving racism here as an innocent woman trying to start a Chinese restaurant.
Gothamist co-founder Jen Chung described the nuances behind what Haspel failed to grasp in great detail:
I think her approach would have been better as, ‘Hey, I’m a nutritionist, I see so many people with dietary issues now. I love Chinese food and came up with these ways for my clients to enjoy it… and I wanted to share it with you now. I just have a lot of questions: Did she study Chinese cuisine? Or work with Chinese chefs or go to China to better understand the roots of the cuisine she loved? I wouldn’t claim to make ‘Better tasting Italian food’ without going to Italy to actually understand it. Right now, there’s no acknowledgement that she’s done any work to understand the culture she says so interested in.”
The issue isn’t that Ms. Haspel doesn’t have a right to start a Chinese-inspired eatery, the issue is that she used dangerous and lazy stereotypes about Chinese food to do so, clearly not understanding the plight of Chinese restauranteurs in America. While Chinese-American food is a staple of American takeout and delivery today, Asian chefs and business owners faced great racism in creating that culture and market for decades. Haspel’s comments both ignore that history and presume that she somehow knows more than actual Chinese people when it comes to their food.
Lucky Lee’s Yelp page was temporarily suspended after a deluge of negative reviews.