Here’s a piece of advice for aspiring restaurateurs out there: If you are going to open a restaurant, particularly one that serves a cuisine from a culture that is unfamiliar to you, you’d damned well better do your research. Otherwise, you might end up like Arielle Haspel, a white nutritionist who decided to open up Lucky Lee’s, a “clean” Chinese restaurant in Manhattan last spring. Lucky Lee’s is now closed, after just eight months.
Lucky Lee’s was the center of controversy even before it opened. As Chinese chefs and food writers point out, the word “clean” implies that other Chinese food is “dirty,” a stereotype that Chinese restaurants have been fighting for decades. Haspel didn’t help her cause by posting messages on Instagram like, “We heard you’re obsessed with lo mein but rarely eat it. You said it makes you feel bloated and icky the next day? Well, wait until you slurp up our HIGH lo mein. Not too oily. Or salty.” Then it was revealed that the restaurant was named after Haspel’s husband Lee, who is also white, leading to charges of cultural appropriation. The backlash was such that Yelp had to disable Lucky Lee’s listing.
The New York Times published a lengthy article about the controversy including an interview with Haspel, who explained that “clean” was a reference to the clean eating movement, which involves consumption of organic foods and olive oil and the avoidance of MSG, and apologized for misrepresenting Chinese food. “We were never trying to do something against the Chinese community,” she said. “We thought we were complementing an incredibly important cuisine, in a way that would cater to people that had certain dietary requirements.” The Times also quoted Haspel’s critics at length, who pointed out that many Chinese restaurants already used organic ingredients and that they didn’t feel bloated when they ate Chinese food. A story about the closing by NBC News added that bias against MSG is less about scientifically proven health effects and more about racism.
Lucky Lee’s was one of a group of “lucky” Chinese restaurants founded by white people, including Andrew Zimmern’s Lucky Cricket outside Minneapolis and Gordon Ramsay’s Lucky Cat in London.
Both of those, however, remain open.