Restaurateur Danny Lee has a message: “Be relentless, do not stop, do not be silent.” That’s how he signed an Instagram post that has since been seen and shared by hundreds of people. Taking the time to post any message condemning racist hate, he argues, is not trivial. Even if you only have one follower, someone will read it. But he’s doing more than expressing himself on social media. When chefs feel passionate about forcing change, they often unite and cook together.
The Korean American co-owner of Mandu, Anju, and CHIKO is putting on a fundraising dinner with top talent from D.C. and New York on April 21. Proceeds go to EmbraceRace, a nonprofit initiative that provides resources to caretakers and educators of young children. The organization’s goal is to “raise a generation of children who are thoughtful, informed, and brave about race.” (Get a sense of their critical work in a webinar scheduled for this Wednesday night: “Violence Against Asian Americans: How Do We Support the Children?”)
Lee has watched anti-Asian hate escalate locally and nationally over the past year and has been gutted by what he describes as deafening silence and lack of support from the public and the media. Early on in the pandemic, Chinese restaurant owners spoke out as they saw their sales drop because customers wrongly believed they were more likely to catch COVID-19 at a Chinese restaurant than other establishments. Some closed altogether.
Then, Lee says, you heard about hateful insults. “I had several incidents earlier on where it wasn’t a violent attack, but people passing by in a car or on foot would look at me and say ‘Chinese virus’ or ‘Kung flu,’” he says. Both phrases were uttered repeatedly by former President Donald Trump. One driver, stopped at a stop light, stared Lee down and used his index fingers to stretch the corners of his eyes sideways. “I hadn’t seen that since I was 6,” Lee says.
Lee subsequently watched insults evolve into violence. “To see the progression from very racist rhetoric and actions go into violent attacks, robberies, stabbings, and now a mass murder shooting is unfortunately not surprising,” he says. A White shooter killed eight people inside Atlanta spas on March 16. Six victims were Asian. “As these attacks started to get more and more frequent and violent, I would go down all of these dangerous rabbit holes. I couldn’t sleep. I really couldn’t function.”
Lee says he found a lot of finger-pointing in dark corners of the internet. “Different ethnic communities were calling each other out for lack of support throughout the years,” he says. “To me that’s how the system was built—for us to argue with each other instead of coming together to fight the overall problem of racism. I thought it was important to showcase a dinner and identify a charitable organization that showcases unity in our diversity.”
The line-up for the April 21 event includes Chefs Angel Barreto and Lee from Anju, Paola Velez from Compass Rose and Maydan, Masako Morishita from Otabe, Tae Strain formerly of Momofuku CCDC, Rock Harper from Queen Mother’s, Bobby Pradachith from Thip Khao and Hanumanh, Lucas Sin from Junzi Kitchen and Nice Day in New York, and Eric Sze from 886 in New York. Drinks come from Al Thompson of Thip Khao and Hanumanh and Phil Anova from Anju.
There are two seatings—5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.—and tickets cost $225 for an eight-course tasting menu. Beverage pairings are available for an additional $60. The dinner takes place at Anju and tickets are already on sale. While seats are almost sold out, more could become available if the city increases indoor dining seating capacity next month or if the weather looks promising enough to open up patio reservations. You can still make a donation to EmbraceRace if you cannot attend the dinner.
“I directed the chefs that just because it’s at Anju doesn’t mean you have to cook a Korean dish,” Lee explains. He also made sure they would all be vaccinated before cooking in a tight kitchen together. “They’re to showcase who they are and what they do.”
Lee is careful to communicate that this is just the beginning. “We’re not going to do this one dinner and say, ‘We’ve done our part,'” he says. “We want to be vocal and relentless and active in promoting diversity and unity and love company-wide.”
Friends have come to him asking what they can do to help. Lee encourages his chef and restaurateur colleagues to use whatever platforms they have to bring awareness to important issues, find ways to have a direct impact like raising money for organizations doing meaningful work; and have regular conversations with staff to make sure BIPOC employees feel comfortable and supported. Lee relays that he’s always appreciated having Chef Scott Drewno as not only a business partner, but also as an ally on important issues like work culture and inclusion.
“There’s no recipe for how to solve this problem,” Lee says. “This dinner we’re doing is not going to solve racism and racial injustice, but is it going to help? Yes. If we can affect one person, cause one person to look into this more and tell another person, I find that to be a success.”
For those looking for educational resources on anti-Asian hate, EmbraceRace recently published a webinar on “Asian Americans, racism, and antiracism in the COVID Era.”