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Careers New York restaurant faces backlash after promoting ‘clean’ Chinese food

Arielle Haspel, a co-owner of Lucky Lee's, at the restaurant in New York, on April 11, 2019.

Gabriella Angotti-Jones/The New York Times News Service

Arielle Haspel, a Manhattan nutritionist with a sleek social media presence, wanted to open the kind of Chinese restaurant, she said, where she and her food-sensitive clients could eat. One where the lo mein wouldn’t make people feel “bloated and icky” the next day, or one where the food wasn’t “too oily” or salty, as she wrote in an Instagram post a few weeks ago.

She chose a name for her new restaurant, Lucky Lee’s, that sounded stereotypically Chinese, even though she and her husband, Lee, are not Asian. She decorated the restaurant with bamboo and jade touches, and designed her logo with a chopstick-inspired font.

And then, quite predictably, she was flamed on the internet for it.

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The uproar over Lucky Lee’s, which opened Monday, has become the latest front in the debate over cultural appropriation and cultural arrogance, following controversies involving, among many others, Dolce & Gabbana and Miley Cyrus.

On Thursday, Haspel said that she had good intentions, and that she was shocked when she was portrayed by critics on social media as the latest in a string of white restaurateurs who have promoted their Asian cuisine by labelling it as superior to food made by actual Asians.

“We are so sorry,” Haspel said. “We were never trying to do something against the Chinese community. We thought we were complementing an incredibly important cuisine, in a way that would cater to people that had certain dietary requirements.”

Within a day of Lucky Lee’s opening in the Union Square area, Asian-Americans castigated her on social media. Yelp temporarily disabled its listing because of an “unusual activity alert.” And a stream of food writers posted about how Haspel’s decision to brand her Chinese food as “clean” was dredging up stereotypes that were hurtful to Chinese-Americans, not to mention tone-deaf.

“Ohhhh I CANNOT with Lucky Lee’s, this new ‘clean Chinese restaurant’ that some white wellness blogger just opened in New York,” MacKenzie Fegan, a food writer, said on Twitter. “Her blog talks about how ‘Chinese food is usually doused in brown sauces’ and makes your eyes puffy. Lady, what? #luckylees”

This week, Haspel, 36, deleted Instagram posts that could be seen as culturally insensitive, such as the one about feeling icky after eating lo mein. She decided against using a decal that said “Wok in, Take Out” that she planned to put on the window.

“We have been listening and learning, and we have been making changes and we will continue,” she said. “Shame on us for not being smarter about cultural sensitivities.”

Haspel’s blog, and her food videos, promote something she calls “clean eating,” which to her, means things like: eating organic, avoiding additives and using olive oil instead of canola.

“Clean eating” is not related to a particular type of cuisine. Instead, she explained in one online video, it is “all about finding a healthier alternative to your favourite indulgent food.”

“I love health-ifying bad food so you can treat yourself, guilt-free,” she said in another cooking video.

She tried to explain her “clean food” concept in an Instagram post earlier this week, but it didn’t stop the onslaught of criticism. Her detractors said not understanding she was being offensive was not a good excuse. They said that when she decided to open a Chinese restaurant, she had a responsibility to learn more about the culture of the food she was appropriating.

“Where she is coming from is a very dark place, and it’s a very sensitive place in the hearts of Chinese people,” said Chris Cheung, the owner of East Wind Snack Shop, an acclaimed dumpling restaurant in Brooklyn. Particularly insulting, he said, was the connotation in her marketing that other Chinese food was unhealthy or unclean, which is a stereotype that Chinese restaurateurs have fought for decades.

“She mentions that every time she goes to eat Chinese food, she’s bloated,” he said. “Well, I don’t know where she is going to eat Chinese food, but that doesn’t happen to me or anyone else who I know when they eat it.”

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Doron Wong, chef and partner of Northern Tiger, a Chinese restaurant in the financial district, said: “I think she didn’t do her research and was kind of stereotyping everybody, which I found a little bit unfair, but at the same time, very entertaining. I see it as she was trying to come in at a different angle.”

He added that a new generation of Chinese-American chefs were already using ingredients that were gluten free, organic and non-GMO, which she probably should have known. “We are very aware of what we are putting into other people’s bodies,” he said.

Haspel is the latest white chef to be accused in recent months of appropriating Asian cultural tropes in insensitive ways.

In November, Andrew Zimmern, a Travel Channel food host, opened a restaurant near Minneapolis called Lucky Cricket, which he said would save Midwesterners from having to eat Chinese food he described with an expletive; he later apologized. In London, restaurateur Gordon Ramsay will soon open an “authentic Asian eating house” called Lucky Cat.

“Lucky is becoming code for something awful,” Cathy Erway, a food writer of Taiwanese heritage, said in a tweet.

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Haspel defended her concept and menu, while acknowledging some errors in presenting them. She said her decision to brand her lo mein “Hi-Lo Mein,” was just meant to be “cute,” not to denote its superior quality. The décor, she said, was inspired by the 1930s textile designs of her grandmother, and was authentic to her own Jewish-American family traditions.

On Wednesday, Lucky Lee’s, on University Place between 10th and 11th Streets, was busy. The patrons were a mix of people curious about the controversy, supporters of Haspel and others who had just walked in and had no idea about the backlash.

The menu is filled with health-oriented takes on Chinese-American classics, such as baked General Tso’s chicken that comes with kale salad, coconut steamed rice and sautéed string beans. The style is fast casual, with counter ordering, and prices for most items range between $11 and $18.

“Our entire menu is gluten free, dairy-free, wheat-free, corn-free, peanut-, cashew- and pistachio-free,” the menu states. “We use non-GMO oil, and never refined sugar, MSG or food colouring.”

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“We seek to be able to offer food that some people are not able to eat otherwise,” Haspel said.

Jing Sun, who is Chinese-American, came with two friends from a technology firm in SoHo to check out the food. They enjoyed it, particularly the kale salad and charred broccoli. “I support the concept,” Sun said. “I think it’s pretty regrettable the way she communicated about it, though.”

She added: “I don’t think that the stakes should be high enough for the restaurant to fail. But I hope she learns something about the history and cultural context she’s working in as a result of the backlash.”

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