Everyone knows Grace Young is a Chinese food writer. She’s won national awards for each of her three Chinese cookboooks. But as with most successful people, there’s much more to her than that.
Recently she took a subversive turn, mixing traditional and Western dishes to cook in a wok. In this video, newly nominated for a Jame Beard award, she uses a wok to make French fries, steak, and even popcorn.
Is this mixing of cultures a new thing for Grace Young? For us, yes. For her, no. Does she feel constrained by her reputation as a Chinese food writer? Read on.
Here’s how Chinese food writer Grace Young straddles two cultures:
Q. Ruth Reichl once said she was not a food writer but a writer. Are you a Chinese food writer or a food writer?
A. Hmm. I’m a food writer who’s known for my expertise on Chinese cooking.
Q. You’ve written three award-winning cookbooks about Chinese food. Are you done writing on this subject or do you have more books in you?
A. I’m actually putting together a proposal for a new book on Chinese food.
Q. Exciting! But do you feel pigeonholed in your career?
A. No I don’t. Because most people don’t know about my other food life: that I’m known for my expertise in healthy cooking.
My interest in cooking that’s not Chinese goes back over 40 years. It started at age 13 when I watched Julia Child on TV. I studied French cooking by offering to help out in the kitchen of a local cooking teacher. That way I didn’t have to pay. In high school I had an internship with Dole Pineapple. In college I worked for a recipe developer and got a job at General Foods, where I worked in their test kitchen for three years.
Then I worked on Time-Life Cookbooks for 18 years as the head of the test kitchen. I did over 40 cookbooks for them. I also did the recipe testing for the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter’s food encyclopedia, and was the test kitchen director of their cookbook.
And then, because I learned about healthy cooking, I started doing recipe development for Shape, Fitness, Eating Well, Cooking Light, Men’s Health, Health, and Better Homes & Gardens.
In the last few years, I do the Stir-Fry Guru video series for Weight Watchers, which are not at all traditional, like Cajun Shrimp and Pepper Stir Fry, or Beef Stroganoff Stir Fry. I also write a Market Watch column for Weight Watchers, which is not about Chinese or Asian cooking at all.
Q. But everyone knows you as an author of Chinese food cookbooks.
A. The people in the health food world know about my Chinese expertise but they also know of my secret “healthy food qualifications.”
Q. What if you wanted to write a book that was not about Chinese food? You are certainly qualified.
A. My books are well researched and reliable. I think I’d be able to make the crossover.
Q. Do you feel typecast in any way?
A. No. In the magazine world, I work in both genres.
It’s like straddling two cultures. When I wrote Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, I was American and I was Chinese. The only time I felt Chinese was when I was eating. Otherwise I identify myself as American in everyday life. All the relatives would say “You’re so American,” almost disdainfully, like “You are not really Chinese.” And my family didn’t do American things, like I didn’t go to Girl Scouts, and my parents didn’t go to PTA meetings.
But being Chinese American was to my advantage as a writer. I was the only Chinese food writer to write about wok hei, for example, this coveted quality of a stir fry. My other huge advantage is that the American side of me understood what was challenging for the American audience about Chinese cooking, such as how to season and care for a wok. It had been one paragraph or three sentences — a huge obstacle overlooked by previous writers.
Q. Do you see things changing for younger Chinese-American food writers?
A. I do. Everyone can write their own story. Before a Chinese cookbook was limited to a traditional ingredient-driven format, or technique driven, but now it’s your story.
Q. And what if they don’t want to write about Chinese food?
A. I don’t think they have to. The whole frontier is open now.
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