29 November 2018 Courier Oct/Nov 2018

What Chris Ying did next

The co-founder of Lucky Peach magazine on how immigrants are shaping San Francisco’s food scene.

When the first issue of Lucky Peach dropped in 2011, it felt completely idiosyncratic: an irreverent food magazine that broke down barriers between street food and fine dining, writers and cooks. Each issue went deep into a single topic: ramen one issue, breakfast another.

There were award-winning stories such as ‘America Your Food Is So Gay’, tracing how the LGBTQ community shaped US cuisine; more playful but no less rigorous features comparing supermarket butters; and the plain weird like the one insisting China invented spaghetti with tomato sauce (a spoof).

‘There was never really a plan,’ says Chris Ying, who founded the cult magazine with writer Peter Meehan and David Chang, one of the most celebrated chefs in the US and star of the Netflix series Ugly Delicious.

According to legend, the three of them scribbled a business plan on a napkin and just went with it. By the time they stopped making the magazine last year – citing creative differences, though they remain close friends – the magazine had more than 30,000 subscribers. Lucky Peach’s death, like its life and the careers of its founders, was chaotic, original and unpredictable.

Ying has many projects on the go. He is part of the multimedia business Majordomo Media and founded a nonprofit organisation called Zero Food Print, helping restaurants reduce and offset their carbon emissions. But it is his latest project which he describes as ‘similarly as provocative’ as Lucky Peach. With MAD, an international non-profit organisation founded by Noma’s René Redzepi, he has released a book called You and I Eat the Same: On the Countless Ways Food and Cooking Connect Us to One Another. The collection of essays looks at how immigration is fundamental to food and, in turn, how good food can form common ground between different cultures.

‘Considering the political and economic climate, it’s a risky time to be bringing out a book like this,’ says Ying. ‘But no matter where you stand politically, it’s undeniable that food and ingredients are better when mixed.’

Growing up, Ying and his family didn’t eat at fine dining restaurants often. ‘We tended to eat at cafeterias and malls,’ he says. As such, many of his favourite spots across his home city are noodle joints, taco stands or restaurants like El Buen Comer, where he meets Courier for lunch.

The restaurant was founded by Isabel Caudillo in 2016. Looking for a better future, she immigrated to the US from Mexico City with her husband and five kids in the late 90s. In 2001, wanting to support her husband, who was working as a taxi driver, she placed a big table in her dining room and started selling home cooked Mexican food.

‘I would make rice, or soup with soft pasta, guisado (meat cooked in salsa), tortillas and agua fresca, all for $7,’ she explains in a chapter in the book entitled ‘Food is a Gateway’.

As her food grew in popularity, she became increasingly nervous about operating without a permit. Instead of shutting down, she gathered the confidence to join La Cocina in the Mission neighbourhood of San Francisco. Ying describes La Cocina as ‘this amazing incubator kitchen that helps low-income entrepreneurs – mainly female immigrants – start their own food businesses. Some of my favourite restaurants in San Francisco have come out of it.’

The organisation provides commercial kitchen space, training and marketing opportunities for chefs to develop concepts and the skills to open their own restaurants. Since La Cocina opened in 2005, it has helped more than 50 businesses get off the ground.

The book is full of such stories. ‘It’s partly an attempt to identify some common ground, so that maybe we can talk about immigrants as fellow humans and not demons from different planes of existence,’ says Ying, who is the embodiment of the kind of immigrant spirit of resourcefulness and radical inventiveness he makes a point of celebrating in the book. Ying himself is the son of Chinese immigrants who owned food businesses (ice-cream stores and a Mexican restaurant).

He no longer cooks professionally but remembers one of his unconventional early forays into the food industry. ‘One day I walked into a busy Chinese restaurant in the Mission District with some friends. And we just asked if we could work out of their kitchen once a week, making our own food, kind of like a pop-up,’ he explains. Taking over the dining room of the still-operating Chinese joint, Ying and other chefs cooked from kitchens coexisting and serving simultaneously for the first year. ‘At first we screwed up a lot and all the Chinese chefs working there laughed at us,’ he continues. ‘Back then, when I was in my 20s, I could fly by the seat of my pants and failure was a part of the process. Thankfully we eventually worked out what we were doing.’

Their restaurant, Mission Chinese, was so popular people happily queued, waiting hours for platters of fiery kung pao pastrami, salt-cod fried rice and cumin lamb. Today many critics credit the restaurant with changing what it means to cook Chinese food in America.

For Ying, the path for many immigrants in the US often involves working in the food industry. ‘San Francisco has something like 300,000 immigrants, many of whom identify as entrepreneurs,’ he says. ‘Food is a way they’re able to make a living. Introducing and exchanging ingredients, flavours and techniques – there’s nothing better.