Decorated in shades of jade, with bamboo rattan lamps, a restaurant called Lucky Lee’s opened this week just outside of Manhattan’s ritzy Gramercy neighborhood. The fast-casual eatery, which serves “feel-great food inspired by American-Chinese Cuisine,” per its Instagram, was launched by Arielle Haspel, a New York-based health coach and wellness blogger.
A now-deleted Instagram post touted the restaurant’s “HIGH lo mein” as a version of the dish that was “not too oily. Or salty” and promised that the noodle dish wouldn’t make you feel “bloated and icky.” The restaurant is named for Haspel’s husband, Lee, who, like his wife, is white. Lucky Lee’s noted in an Instagram post that both Haspels are “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.”
And Lucky Lee’s name was perhaps the most pardonable misstep in a series of gaffes in the roll-out of the restaurant, which promised healthy and “clean” versions of Chinese food, explaining that the menu was for “people who love to eat Chinese food and love the benefit that it will actually make them feel good.”
The backlash came swiftly, with chefs, food writers, and others pointing out that Haspel was playing into longstanding and racially tinged narratives about Chinese and Chinese-American food being unhealthy:
“Ohhhh I CANNOT with Lucky Lee’s, this new ‘clean Chinese restaurant’ that some white wellness blogger just opened in New York” wrote food writer MacKenzie Fegan on Twitter. “Her blog talks about how ‘Chinese food is usually doused in brown sauces’ and makes your eyes puffy. Lady, what?”
The celebrity chef Eddie Huang also took to Instagram to castigate the eatery:
Haspel has since apologized for the marketing and Lucky Lee’s social media was scraped of the controversial language (as well as many of the comments criticizing it). She told the New York Times that her goal with was to provide a restaurant where “she and her food-sensitive clients could eat.”
“Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”
The notion that Chinese food is inherently unhealthy—particularly because of the use of the flavor-enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG)—is a myth that chefs, writers, and restauranteurs have been trying to dispel for decades.
The commonly used term for this myth was coined in the late 1960s when researcher Robert Ho Man Kwok, a recent Chinese immigrant to the US, published a short letter (note: not a research or data-backed study) in a medical journal in which he described “numbness” and “general weakness and palpitation” shortly after eating Chinese food. “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was, he said, probably due to excess sodium or MSG.
Discovered in Japan the early 1900s, MSG is a compound that basically brings out the umami flavor of food and whose “health risks” have been thoroughly debunked. It’s present in American staples such as Doritos and Hidden Valley Ranch, but still, as Annaliese Griffin wrote last year in Quartz, “looms largest as an additive to Americanized Chinese food.”
And there’s another problem with the language used to promote Lucky Lee’s, said Jason Wang, the CEO of the family-owned Xi’an’s Famous Foods, a beloved New York City northwestern Chinese food chain: a basic ignorance about what Chinese cuisine is.
“Let’s first distinguish between Chinese food and Chinese American food,” he wrote to Quartz over email, “Chinese food is full of elaborate techniques and high-quality ingredients, and are quite varied, with thousands of years of history. Chinese American food, though, historically has been about sustenance for immigrants that are trying to make a living in the US by creating and selling dishes like General Tso’s chicken in order to appeal to Americans.”
Wang’s sentiment was echoed by Twitter user Tiffany Weitien, who noted that Haspel’s description of American Chinese food was disparaging to Chinese immigrants:
“Clean” food suggests there’s a dirty alternative
Of course, cultural appropriation doesn’t have to be offensive. Embracing other cultures—and even building businesses such as restaurants, fitness studios, or beauty products—can be done in a way that’s not ignorant or patently racist.
When done respectfully, there’s nothing wrong with altering Chinese or any other culture’s food to suit local tastes. And indeed, current wellness and health-food trends in the US might well suggest that an eatery positioned as a healthy version of any cuisine would have a market. That said, Lucky Lee’s cultural faux pas is symptomatic of a larger problem, which is that the current obsession with “clean eating” is often tone-deaf about cultural appropriation and race.
As a movement, “clean eating” arrived as a branch of diet culture in the mid-aughts, via food and fitness bloggers’ brightly lit Instagram photos. It revolved around eating a “plant-based” diet and lean proteins, and generally counseled avoiding refined carbs/processed foods, as well as replacing “bad” ingredients with “good” ones, a problematic mindset in itself.
Put simply, the suggestion of a “clean” recipe is that the traditional versions are somehow “unclean.” The mostly white Instagram-anointed tastemakers of “clean eating” often tweak non-Western cuisine for “healthy” versions, implying that they’re superior to the original, “ethnic” foods (itself a problematic term). “Clean” versions of dishes from around the world—Kung Pao chicken, chicken tikka masala, or pho—proliferate on the internet.
Lucky Lee’s is only the latest in a series of Chinese restaurants launched by white restauranteurs that claim, in a various ways, to be a superior alternative to other Chinese food. Just last year, Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmerman opened “Lucky Cricket” in Minnesota, which he said would save Midwesterners from dining at other “horseshit” Chinese-American restaurants. He later apologized for the comments, and his two Travel Channel shows were bumped from their prime time slots.
The food writer Cathy Erway pointed out a theme in the naming of Chinese restaurants run by non-Chinese people:
The PR nightmare that each of these restaurateurs found themselves in probably didn’t make them feel lucky at all.
This post has been updated with a quote from Lucky Lee’s Instagram.