Food-writer Francis Lam is perhaps best known for his appearances on popular reality cooking show Top Chef Masters. But did you know that, after graduating from college, Francis worked for Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) for 3 years? Ahead of AAFE’s 40th anniversary gala, an event Francis will emcee, we caught up with him to find out more about his background in community development and the impact it had on his later work.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New Jersey. My parents are immigrants from Hong Kong. They came to the states in ’73 and worked in Chinatown in the garment industry. In Jersey, we weren’t surrounded by other Asian families. In school there was only one other kid in my class who was Asian.
How did you first get involved with AAFE?
I went to Michigan for college. I stayed in Ann Arbor for a couple of years after I graduated. It was time for me to leave and time for me to move on and I didn’t know exactly where I would go. I came to New York and a friend of mine was on idealist.org and she saw this listing for an organization that she thought I might be interested in looking into. That organization turned out to be AAFE. The listing was for a manager of a community technology center. I ended up getting that job, but I had also come also with a background in writing, and pretty soon I was doing proposals and fundraising, and I transitioned into becoming a grant writer.
What attracted you to AAFE’s mission?
I majored in Asian studies in college, but what really interested me the most was Asian American studies. I was interested in the idea of American identity and my own experience as the child of immigrants and trying to feel my way through what America means if it doesn’t mean blonde-haired, blue-eyed white person. And here’s an organization that was doing really exciting social justice work focused on not just on immigrant communities, or Asian immigrant communities, but also recognizing that they are Americans. I was always attracted to the idea of this place that was doing important social justice work and putting a stake in the ground for an immigrant American identity.
How did you transition into your new career as a food writer?
I left AAFE to go to culinary school. Food was always really important to me. I cooked in college and working with food stayed in my brain. While I was in school, I was learning all these mind-blowing techniques and immersing myself in this world where all I had to do was learn about food, so it was a fantastic existence. I was writing these emails to my family about my life in school and what I was learning. About halfway through the program I got a phone call from the editor at the Financial Times saying, “Hey a friend of yours has been forwarding me your emails, and they’re a lot of fun. Would you want to write for us?” It was incredibly lucky.
Did your work with AAFE have an impact on your writing?
The stories that I love writing the most are the stories about invisible people: The stories of the people behind your food, the people behind the kitchen door. What I cherish about being able to write about these people is that if I can help tell their story to the larger world, and help diners pause for a moment and think that the person who makes this food is a human being just like me, and they have as rich a human story as anyone. I feel like that’s a political act. And I feel like my experience in social justice, and my experience working at AAFE, has been important in my work ever since.
It’s AAFE’s 40th anniversary this year. Can you summarize what the organization means to you, and explain how its work continues to be so important?
First of all, I would say that the fight isn’t over. The struggle is never over, and I think that for all the progress that has been made in our country with the idea that immigrants are the foundation of who we are as a nation and that every person should be equal under the law, we have seen over and over again that there is still a lot of work left to be done. When it comes to what AAFE means to me, I’d say this: I used to take people on a walking tour of Chinatown when friends from other cities would visit, and I would always end it by walking down to Confucius Plaza. I would tell them the story of how, when this building was first being built, it was being built by a contractor who explicitly said that they didn’t want to hire any locals because they thought Asian people were too weak to do the work. And I’d explain to them how a group of local residents said, “You can’t do that, you can’t do that here, you can’t do that anywhere, that’s not acceptable.” It proved that you have to be able to say, “This is our home and these are our rights and how can you tell us we can’t work here because you don’t think we’re up to it?” I was always so proud to tell my friends that group of people would become the organization I would work for 30 years later.
Francis Lam will emcee AAFE’s 40th anniversary gala, to be held at Tribecca 360, November 18.