USA TODAY – Winner of Woman of the Year
Grace Young is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition for women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
Grace Young still surprises herself.
The cookbook author and self-proclaimed “Stir Fry Guru” has spent her life striving for perfection in the kitchen. Her books The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen and The Breath of a Wok have brought wok cooking to a wider audience. But the last few years have allowed her to use her platform in a different way: saving America’s Chinatowns.
“I thought that I knew everything there was to know about myself and that there was nothing new to discover,” says Young, 67. “And so to discover that I have that side of my personality that is for a community would speak… I’ve always been a very quiet, very shy, very reserved person, it was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.”
When the coronavirus pandemic first broke, Young took action as an activist and advocate for restaurant owners and business owners in Chinatown neighborhoods across the country. Her work, which sheds light on the mom-and-pop businesses that exemplify the core of the American Dream, earned her the Julia Child Foundation’s Julia Child Award and the James Beard Foundation’s James Beard Humanitarian of the Year Award, both in year 2022.
“During the pandemic, New York City had 700 to 800 deaths a day. If I hadn’t focused my energy on helping Chinatown, I would have completely collapsed,” says Young. “Instead of focusing on hearing the sound of the sirens in the distance and reading the headlines and news, trying to do as much good for Chinatown as possible actually saved me.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grace Young was named one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year
There is not one person who paved the way for me. My family, my parents were very important. As you mentioned, Julia Child got me very interested in cooking. But I had an extraordinary mentor in high school: her name is Stevie Bass, and I’m still in contact with her. She’s a recipe developer and food stylist and she sort of took me under her wing and taught me how to test recipes and create recipes and introduced me to my food career.
When I was introduced to Julia Child on TV as a child and was so intrigued by French cuisine, I found a local French cooking teacher named Josephine Araldo. She also took me under her wing and allowed me to attend her cooking classes. Otherwise I couldn’t have afforded it.
The first recipe I ever cooked was Julia Child’s brioche. I saw her do it on TV and was absolutely mesmerized. And back then you had to mail the prescriptions, so I sent a self-addressed envelope and received the prescription. I don’t know when I bought The French Chef Cookbook, but that was a turning point, that recipe. It was so exciting to do and it turned out so amazing.
Julia Child was so powerful to me because she was unlike anyone I had ever seen or met in my life. My mother was an immigrant. Both my parents were very quiet, soft-spoken people. And so to see this woman so exuberant and so unafraid of failure – if something went wrong on the show, she was just unwavering. She would make a joke of it, and it was okay that life wasn’t always perfect. So it was a big impact in my life to see Julia and to be attracted to that person, attracted to her personality.
not to be afraid. to follow your gut feeling.
For most of my life I wanted to be perfect. If it wasn’t just for that, I was really hard on myself. And I think I would tell my younger self and the young people of today that it’s more important to do it and it’s the process and the journey that actually teach you more and enrich your life. It shouldn’t be perfect. The imperfection makes it great.
Everything I’ve done for America’s Chinatowns and the AAPI community during the pandemic was unplanned. There was no strategy.
I’m still worried about San Francisco Chinatown, New York City Chinatown, Boston, Philadelphia – they’re all struggling. All Chinatowns report that they just don’t have the foot traffic they used to have.
During COVID, watching the people of Chinatown show so much determination, dignity and determination in the face of what they were dealing with, I learned what courage is. And I thought before the pandemic that I loved and appreciated Chinatown, but it was only during COVID that I saw a whole new level of appreciation for the people who make Chinatown what it is. They came and worked every day, seven days a week, 10, 12, 14 hours a day and there were no customers. In 2020, Chinatown was shunned for misinformation and xenophobia, but everyone showed up anyway.
Grace Young, award-winning cookbook author, activist and nutrition historian, has been named USA TODAY’s 2023 Woman of the Year.
Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
In 2020, I reached out to the James Beard Foundation and asked them if we could partner with a social media campaign called Save Chinese Restaurants. That’s because Chinatowns in the United States were seeing a drop in sales of 80% or more at the time.
So that’s what we did, #SaveChineseRestaurants, and it raised public awareness of what’s happening to Chinese restaurants in the United States. But in 2021, I realized that beyond Chinese restaurants, Asian American Pacific Islander businesses were all hurting. So we launched a new social media campaign called “Love AAPI” and asked people to show up in their Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Filipino, Chinese and Japanese restaurants, markets, shops and show your support with a post on social Show media with #LOVEAAPI.
But unfortunately I think there are so many people in this country who have no idea what AAPI is. So the Poster House Museum New York City produced this gorgeous poster of a lotus flower. In Asian culture, the lotus flower is really powerful because it grows out of mud, this beautiful flower. So the idea was that we would come out of this adversity stronger, more powerful and more united. Last year I just launched a new campaign with the Beard Foundation called “Support Chinatowns” because my work to save America’s Chinatowns has garnered so much media attention I thought people wouldn’t take it further to “Love AAPI,” let’s focus our energies on helping Chinatowns who are in so much trouble right now.
Women who make a difference are named USA TODAY’s Women of the Year
In the midst of the pandemic, my friend Linda Pagan shared a quote from Desmond Tutu with me: “Do your little bit of good where you are.
That was really my mantra. I think those words are so true and it’s absolutely amazing that I’ve gone from being a cookbook author to being an activist. Receiving the James Beard Humanitarian Award and the Julia Child Foundation’s Julia Child Award were two absolutely unreal, unfathomable experiences in my life.
Chinatowns represent the American Dream and so many immigrants have been able to gain a foothold in this country and through pioneering work and sacrifice it has empowered so many immigrants to achieve the American Dream. There is no other place in America that actually shows us the history of the immigrants. And in New York’s Chinatown, 98% of the shops are mom and pop. There are a thousand family businesses in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
This country used to be made up of mom and pop businesses; that used to be the backbone. And now, here in Manhattan just south of 96th Street, I’d say Chinatown is the only neighborhood that’s still mostly mom and pop. And so it’s up to us to support the American Dream by supporting these companies. If you go to Chinatown, it reminds you what it means to have human relationships and it enriches our lives immeasurably.
Chinatowns represent the American Dream…and it has empowered so many immigrants through pioneering work and sacrifice to achieve the American Dream. If you go to Chinatown, it reminds you what it means to have human relationships and it enriches our lives immeasurably.
Published March 27, 2023 at 9:06 UTC
Updated on March 27, 2023 at 13:24 UTC