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Danielle Chang, LUCKYRICE

“…people are so obsessed with learning about culture through food – it’s the most appetizing way to understand other people’s heritage.”

Entrepreneur Danielle Chang is the founder of LUCKYRICE, which spotlights Asian culinary culture through festivals in cities all over America. Born in Taiwan and based in Downtown Manhattan, Chang created LUCKYRICE in 2010 to share her passion for Asian cuisine and lifestyle – and to fine-tune the tastebuds of adventurous Americans who want to learn more about her favorite subject. As the LUCKYRICE motto says, “After all, if we are what we eat, we’re all part-Asian.”

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Please describe the philosophy of LUCKYRICE, for those new to the event?
LUCKYRICE is really a celebration of Asian culture through food. It’s a way for us to bring together a lot of trends that have collided over the past few years: the interest in Asian culture and food, and the number of Asian restaurants transforming the culinary landscape and bringing new flavors to dishes all across America and the world. LUCKYRICE is a patform for that.

What are the highlights of LUCKYRICE this year?
It’s the Year of the Sheep, so we launched with a party on March 20th called the Grand Feast, our signature event. It’s a large walk-around tasting hosted by the Culinary Council, which is comprised of chefs that have helped define what Asian food in America stands for, people like Masaharu Morimoto and Anita Lo, as well as non-Asian chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud, who have all contributed so much to the understanding of Asian food in America. We’re bringing the Grand Feast to each of our markets, and at these feasts we have 30-40 chefs and bartenders create a variety of Asian dishes as well as cocktails.

How do cocktails fit into the LUCKYRICE concept?
Bartenders were among the first to catch on to Asian flavors! Lemongrass, yuzu, kaffir lime … a lot of ingredients were introduced at the bar, so a lot of people who were unfamiliar with Asian food tasted them for the first time through cocktails. So now a whole group of large marketers are reaching out to people that are interested in jumping on the Asian cultural bandwagon. We work with Bombay Sapphire East, which is a gin that’s infused with Thai lemongrass and Vietnamese peppercorn. As chefs take more and more interest in getting behind the bar, they’re using more Asian ingredients, so we actually hold a cocktail feast every year. That takes place in New York in September. We’ll put eight chefs behind the bar and have them make the cocktails. Morimoto hosted the event last year.
We also have many events throughout the year. In New York, we’re doing a dinner on May 19th to celebrate Buddha’s birthday; it’ll be at the James Beard House. And later in the year, we’ll be doing a cocktail feast that will take place over the lunar new year. So it’s not just food and drinks; we’re also introducing a bit of culture too. To learn about all our events, visit www.luckyrice.com and subscribe to our newsletter. You can also follow us on Instagram and Twitter @LUCKYRICEDOTCOM

LUCKYRICE is now held in five cities. Are there any regional differences in audience reception ?
Yes, in addition to New York, we’re in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and Las Vegas – and on September 17th we’re coming to Chicago. The Asian food scene and the dining culture is so different from coast to coast. You have places like San Francisco that are so predominantly Asian that you feel like you stepped into Taiwan – then you have places like Miami, which has the smallest Asian population of any major city in America, but yet has a huge love affair with Asian restaurants. In Miami they love the exoticism of places like Hakkasan, Nobu, and Mr. Chow. In Miami we do our event on the beach at the Raleigh Hotel, so it’s really sexy. We try to fuse it with the regional Latin culture, so we’ll pair a ceviche with a sashimi dish. And regional specialties often have Asian influences, like Lomo saltado, which is the national dish of Peru. It’s essentially a wok-fried dish, definitely influenced by Chinese food culture but regionalized by Latin influences, like the addition of potatoes. Our event is really popular in Miami. We always sell out because there’s a huge population interested in Asian food.

What’s the most valuable, or surprising, thing you’ve learned from your experience with LUCKYRICE so far?
I think that right now we are at a really interesting time, when innovation is about cultural collisions and, of course, culinary collisions as well. Asian food is really changing so much, even in the six years I’ve been involved with it. When I used to tell people I was born in Taiwan, they would say “I love Thailand!” Nobody says that anymore, because people are so obsessed with learning about culture through food – it’s the most appetizing way to understand other people’s heritage. So that’s been amazing, and I love being part of a group that is helping to spread awareness, and to change perceptions. I’m really glad people don’t think Chinese food has to come in a takeout box anymore – or that a white guy can’t make good pad thai or ramen.

How did you first realize your mission was to popularize Asian food culture in the United States ?
I studied art history; I have a Master’s degree in Critical Theory from Columbia University, and I’ve worked in the art world. I’ve always been involved and obsessed with popular culture; I wrote about it, curated shows, worked in branding. I’ve always been fascinated by art as a way to understand culture, psychology, people, and history – as an expression of pop culture. And really, that’s what you can do now through food – but it’s so much more accessible, such a better vehicle to learn about culture today than any other art form. Food itself has become an art form.

You didn’t just popularize Asian food culture in the U.S., but you also made it chic! How has your fashion background played into your success in the culinary field?
Thank you for the compliment, but I take no credit for it at all! I think Asian food has just become chic in America; people are obsessed with eating ramen, with making their own kimchi … it’s part of the zeitgeist, and it’s the result of lots of things happening at the same time: immigration, travel from the U.S. to Asia, economic shifts. People really want to consume culture through food. You used to go to a movie then sit in a restaurant and talk about the movie. Now, we go to a restaurant and talk about the chef. People are spending more on eating at the newest ramen shops than they would on a new pair of shoes. Last year, more money was spent in the U.S. at restaurants than at grocery stores. That’s a major shift in cultural attitude, and luckily, Asian food has somehow become the cool kid in the class. Back when I worked for [fashion designer] Vivienne Tam, I realized that there’s this strong desire to consume Asian culture. But fashion can be limiting – not everybody looks good in a qipao or other forms of Asian traditional dress. But it’s different with food; it’s non-polarizing, it’s appetizing, and it’s a great way to learn about culture.

Asian cuisines are so diverse, but if you could describe or summarize them in one short sentence, even just a few words…
One word really sums up Asian cuisine: rice, the grain that feeds most of the world. Ninety percent of rice is produced and consumed in Asia. And the second word is communal. When I chose the name LUCKYRICE I wanted to convey the idea of Asian food as a cultural metaphor. I didn’t want it to be exclusive, I wanted it to be about feasts and symbology, and rich traditions of a communal, celebratory dining experience.

Every year, LUCKYRICE shines a spotlight on an interesting new angle – Night markets, pungent fermented food, slurping culture, etc. – what is the next one?

We’re bringing the Ramen Fest to Los Angeles this year – it’s something that’s been very popular in New York. We basically introduce different types of ramen from different prefectures across Japan, like the corn-miso ramen of Sapporo or the soy-sauce based ramen of Tokyo. Guests move from table to table every thirteen minutes, which is the average time if takes to slurp a bowl of ramen. It’s a really authentic experience, and a great way to learn to differentiate between the different types of ramen.

Miso, wasabi, sriracha, yuzu, shiso … there are so many Asian ingredients that are now used not only in restaurants, but in households all over the U.S. What do you predict is the next big thing in terms of Asian ingredients going mainstream?
Fish sauce is definitely becoming a staple in America. It’s used so much in Thai and southeast Asian cooking, and I think the whole idea of fermentation and funky foods is something Americans are beginning to gravitate towards. That’s another major shift: before, a lot of people would have been turned off by the smell of fish sauce. Often we find that what smells good to people of one culture might make people from another culture queasy. Many Asians cannot stand the smell of parmesan, but it makes Italians salivate!

You have another exciting project in the works, please tell us about it?
“Lucky Chow” is my new TV series, launching on PBS in May. I’m the host, and I co-produced with Bruce Seidel and the Center for Asian American Media. It’s all about Asian food in America, so unlike other travel food shows that take you to Asia, ours focuses on what’s happening in our own backyards. We’ll travel from coast to coast and explore everything we just talked about, meeting personalities and discovering Asian food’s evolution in America, and talking to chefs about why they’ve devoted their lives to, say, making kimchi. It’s not a cooking show, it’s more story driven.

And speaking of cooking, you have a cookbook coming out too?
Yes, it will be published in 2016 by Clarkson Potter. It’s not titled yet, but it will have recipes that I hope will inspire people to create feasts at home. I wanted to do the exact opposite of any “Asian 101″ cookbook that’s already out there. So my cookbook is really about the stories and the culture of Asian food, as well as what’s going on right now with the culinary collisions we’re obsessed with, like kimchi tacos. I’ll also share my grandmother’s recipe for zongzi, traditional rice parcels stuffed with sausage and mushrooms. Just like LUCKYRICE, it’s about awareness of Asian culture through the lens of food.

—— Interview by Julia Szabo

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LUCKYRICE is rolling out nationwide. Chang with James Beard Award-winning chef, Michael Schwarz, at the gala event in Miami in 2013.

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Chef Susur Lee, Hong Kong native and Toronto-based international chef, joined
the event in New York.

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The Slurpfest in 2013 featured various ramens in New York, inviting prominent ramen chefs including Ivan Orkin (second from left) and Shige Nakamura (fourth from left).

All photo images courtesy of LUCKYRICE
www.luckyrice.com
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