On a surface level, Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco has everything you’d expect of a Michelin-starred restaurant: elaborate plating, an immaculately curated Instagram presence and a revolving tasting menu. At the helm of the kitchen and its vibes is executive chef Brandon Jew, who, like many of his peers, is navigating culinary expression through his blended, Asian American identity. Specifically, he wants to rejigger the space that contemporary Chinese cuisine occupies in the American food zeitgeist.
The menu at Mr. Jiu’s (a reflection of Jew’s overall cooking ethos, it seems) is both innovative and reverent of San Francisco’s old Chinatown, bejeweled with slightly remixed Cantonese-style dishes meant for sharing, as well as a tasting section that leans a bit more adventurous. He never strays too far from home, though — his choices feel cohesive and cozy.
For those in the East Asian diaspora, sharing a meal is quintessential to forming and nurturing bonds. Food is sometimes a unique type of love language that rescues us from having to be unnecessarily sentimental, even borderline uncomfortable. The word “love” in Mandarin, for example, carries a lot of weight — and for many of us, asking someone if they’ve eaten yet is an easier way to express it.
There’s love in community, too, which has become crucial during the uptick in anti-Asian rhetoric and racist crime. This need to band together and seek comfort in the familiar was the impetus for Jew’s most recent event, a Chinese banquet-style dinner for artists and other prominent community members in the Bay Area. It’s his hope that through the gathering, which he called the Golden Generation dinner, the larger AAPI community and its allies can foster support and strategy to combat anti-Asian violence.
A little context for why simply coming together in this way can be a radical act of resistance: Too often and for a number of reasons, many Asian Americans have avoided getting deeply involved in U.S. sociopolitics. It’s a broad assessment, but it’s linked to the fact that many immigrant families have been too focused on adapting and assimilating into American life to worry about high-level politics. Many Asian immigrant elders believe that keeping a low profile and taking up less space will ensure easier survival. Another harsh reality is that most American politicians and cultural activists have simply ignored Asian communities until fairly recently, even in places like the Bay Area, which is full of people of Asian descent.
And so, coming together to eat, talk and celebrate is the joyful form of advocacy that Jew has been craving. Some of the esteemed guests in attendance at the Golden Generation dinner included contemporary artist So Youn Lee, “Beef” actor Young Mazino, and journalists Mariecar Mendoza, Tim Chan and Dion Lim.
Anti-Asian violence reached a peak nearly three years ago, during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Asian Americans are still vulnerable to racially charged hate crimes, especially in San Francisco.
“The violence that was happening within our communities in the Bay Area was upsetting and disheartening, but it also brought us together,” Jew says. “We want to continue using that momentum we’ve created in our communities, and continue to have forums where we come together, celebrate each other and have a place to check in with each other and strengthen our connections.” Through this demonstration of organized community building, Golden Generation itself becomes political — a sign that silence and isolation are things of the past.
This shift brings an intentionality to Jew’s style of cooking and organizing, but he has always hoped his culinary pursuits can fundamentally change how Chinese food is perceived. His career took him from his training in Italy to working in Shanghai, and then in 2008 to San Francisco, where he initially experienced some pushback to this type of reimagining of Chinese fare, even in one of the most Asian and progressive regions of the country. “I was determined to open a Chinese restaurant, but it was tough at the time,” he says. “People did not understand what I was trying to do.”
Jew’s story sounds painfully similar to the initial reaction that San Francisco residents had toward Chinese restaurateurs in the mid-1800s, when Chinese people were still seen as shady undesirables in America. And even though this experience happened literal centuries ago — and under entirely different circumstances — it goes to show that America is not the infinitely compassionate melting pot we were promised. It’s probably for the best: We shouldn’t have to “melt” into anything to thrive together.
Chinese food continues to play an integral role in bridging the gaps between AAPI communities, and there’s more work of all types to be done. It just so happens that in some spaces, that work is warming, satisfying and ripe with unspoken affection.
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