Asian Americans have characterized the Pacific Coast food culture all the way back to the California Gold Rush when immigrants planted the United States’ first domestic rice crops. From home to restaurants, the cuisine has seen a rise in popularity, becoming mainstream outside of the Asian American community. More people are familiarizing themselves with the staples: dumplings, seaweed, curry, dashi, ube. Yet, the U.S. food industry’s gold standard has remained purely Western, praising French cuisine and leaving its Eastern counterparts far from fine dining. Chefs Cecilia Leung, Isa Fabro, Sonoko Sakai and journalist Jean Trinh are changing this paradigm with unique approaches. Read more about the recent panelists and moderator in Vision & Voices’ Sweet and Salty: A Conversation With Asian American Women Chefs as they speak about their journeys and relationships with Asian American cuisine.
Isa Fabro: Chef Consultant & CEO of IsaMADE
Isa Fabro’s work extends far beyond her Filipino-inspired pastries. Her company IsaMADE is a collection of projects that include everything from her famous pop-ups at local restaurants to her philanthropic endeavors. Since she traveled to the Philippines in 2016, Fabro has been at the forefront of the Filipino food movement, creating her own dishes at the culinary incubator Unit 120, which allows chefs to experiment with their cooking free from the financial constraints of opening a restaurant.
“I was just making [Filipino] food and then I realized, wow, this is actually kind of important,” Fabro said. “People are saying that the foods I’m creating are making them feel proud.”
Yet despite not always cooking the food of her heritage professionally, Fabro is proud of the art. For Fabro, cooking Filipino food has been a way to directly connect with her culture, an alternative from “book learning” as she calls it.
Her desserts combine classical pastry technique with a Filipino twist. Whether it’s in the ingredients or flavors, her heritage shines proudly in her dishes.
When talking about her inspiration behind her signature Mango Royale, she said, “The Mango Royale [is] like having a mango in the Philippines in peak season. You know, ‘how do you capture that experience?’ You know, make a dessert where it really does the fruit justice.”
Jean Trinh: Award-Winning Food and Culture Journalist
As a freelance journalist, Jean Trinh writes about cuisine, history and culture. Her articles include the evolution of Thai cuisine, hybrid pastrami and the importance of tang yuan during the Lunar New Year. The one thing these works have in common? Trinh shares the stories behind the inspiration of each dish, beyond the formulaic cooking methods and ingredients.
“Back in the day, when you wrote about any other food from another culture that people didn’t regularly know, we would have to italicize it then explain what it was,” Trinh said. “And I think it’s moving, now, towards not having title-asides. Like, not everyone’s doing that anymore. And I love that.”
Despite current increases in representation in food journalism, Trinh suggests there are still more ways the industry can improve.
“It’s a much deeper issue where you have to do mentorship of people of color, or different genders and actually give people opportunities and not just pigeonhole people,” Trinh said. “[Not] like if I’m Asian, I only write about Asian foods. Give people the opportunity to write about other things; don’t tokenize them. It’s changing the way you think about it.”
Cecilia Leung: Chef Consultant & Former Executive Chef at Little Flower Candy Co. and Lincoln Restaurant
Despite growing up with her family’s restaurant, Cecilia Leung was discouraged by her father from pursuing the culinary arts. Through fierce determination, she watched the restaurant’s chefs and learned how to cook and bake. Leung’s passion powered her motivation and her work ethic.
“Sometimes I really run on that adrenaline rush of hearing the tickets being printed and just moving those tickets down the rail and pushing the food through,” Leung said. “I mean that it just gets me really pumped up, and seeing what is accomplished at the end of service is amazing.”
In the food industry where more than 75% of chefs are male, Leung said, becoming the executive chef at both Little Flower Cafe and Lincoln, located in Pasadena. Her inclusive philosophy sets a positive atmosphere in her kitchen.
“When I hire cooks, regardless of what their gender is, I have to also set that tone for my staff,” Leung said. “It doesn’t matter who this person is, you have to treat them like you’re their teammate.”
Sonoko Sakai: Culinary Instructor & Cookbook Author
As a child growing up in Japan, Sonoko Sakai was surrounded by artisans, from her mom and grandmother cooking family meals to the chefs she saw through the shop windows on her walk home from school. For her, food emphasized freshness and care.
When reminiscing about the pickled plums, umeboshi, her grandmother taught her how to make, she said, “I’m making [umeboshi] here every season in May, and I’m just getting the finished product. But they’re not the same plums, because the trees are different, the climate’s different, the environment that you’re in is different, but you still have the memories and those memories are so precious.”
As an instructor, her classes and books echo this approach to cuisine, emphasizing the stories behind her recipes. Ever since her return to Japan in 2009, Sakai has published “Japanese Home Cooking” along with two other cookbooks to teach people the fundamentals of the cuisine, starting with the basics. Amid the pandemic, though in-person classes have come to a halt, Sakai is offering online courses, making Japanese cooking more accessible to a diverse audience.