Food is, by definition, a means of nourishment. We consume it to sustain life, provide energy, and promote growth. This is known. But what is less known, or less often considered, is how food nourishes in other ways—be it our spirit, identity, even belonging. For Moonlynn Tsai, chef, entrepreneur, and co-founder of the non-profit Heart of Dinner, food is all of this—and it’s a vehicle to give and receive love.
For Tsai, who lives in Manhattan’s Lower East Side-Chinatown neighborhood with her life and romantic partner Yin Chang, food is a service of love that culminates in her providing meal care packages with Chang to the East Asian American community in lower Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. The effort—Heart of Dinner—is the 2020 evolution of a supper club Tsai and Chang originally founded in 2015. As the pandemic’s early grip began to choke communities across New York and the country early last year, the duo had to find a way to help.
Tsai, who has built an established career as a chef and restaurateur, saw early on the impact of COVID on the Asian American community, particularly on hospitality workers and their families. There were “heartbreaking” restaurant closures. There was hatred and violence fueled by racism and bigotry and xenophobia. There were people left hungry. And she and Chang were spinning over all of it. “We heard about the local high schools shutting down, so the kids weren't able to get their meals,” Tsai says, “and the families that were depending on those meals weren't able to get those meals—so we're like, what can we do to help?”
Speaking with urgency and kindness, Tsai tells me all of this over the phone. With each of us on our respective coasts—she on the east, me on the west—it feels as if we’re in the same room, speaking face-to-face. For her, the story of her co-founding Heart of Dinner with Chang is more than an answer to a need. It’s an endless hug given to those who have suffered and felt othered—an issue that has echoed throughout her life.
Tsai, a Taiwanese-American, grew up in San Diego where her parents owned and ran Chinese-American restaurants. “I remember classmates would ask ‘can you bring us to your restaurant? We want to go to your restaurant,’” she recalls. This excitement changed—nearly instantly—with the SARS outbreak when Tsai was a high-schooler. “All of a sudden it was, ‘why would I go there?” she recalls. “You're going to get people sick.’” Tsai remembers being angry. “I would internalize everything. So fast forward to April  and seeing all the closures happening before the World Health Organization declared COVID a pandemic, it was so heartbreaking.”
Like countless others, those early COVID days burned a vivid memory in Tsai’s mind. She worried about her community, and about those who worked at her restaurant at the time. She and Chang would stay up late obsessing over what they could do. Then one night, a light went off: What if they made meal kits? “I remember thinking Trader Joe's was closing at 9 o’clock, and it was 8:45. We ran—we literally ran—to Trader Joe's before they closed. Tsai and Chang gathered their TJ goods and spent the night creating shelf-stable meal kits—a pasta combination, an oatmeal breakfast—that they then brought to Tsai’s restaurant to hand out to “anyone who needed help at the time.”
The kits were just the start. A few days later, Chang was further researching people’s pandemic-exacerbated needs when she came across a video of an elderly Asian man being blindly attacked while collecting cans. Tsai and Chang watched in horror. “He just broke down,” says Tsai. “You rarely see anyone in our culture, especially from the older generation, crying.” From this video, a question—perhaps the one that came to define Heart of Dinner—came into Tsai and Chang’s minds: Who is taking care of our elders through this?
Chang started calling social service organizations in the area. Food insecurity within the elder Asian community, “was already a longstanding issue,” says Tsai. (The non-profit organization Robin Hood reports that poverty amongst Asian Americans in New York City is thefastest growing in the city.) “But now on top of COVID, a lot of their aides weren't able to come in to cook for them. And a lot of family members weren't able to travel over.”
This meant that these elders were going hungry. Albeit the government offered some assistance—but that was in the form of thoughtless foods, “things like canned tuna and sliced apples,” says Tsai, who says offering such culturally insensitive food items to elderly Asian-Americans can “lead to even more othering” and feelings of depression. “When you’re at home, you’re already hungry and you have this object in front of you and you don't even know how to cook it,” says Tsai. “Then you're watching the news and just hearing about all these attacks, it gets really scary.”
That’s where food as a means of love—and identity, and spirit, and belonging—really comes in. What these elders needed was to feel seen and decided on cooking meals together from their tiny apartment,. They reached out to social service organizations about the idea of providing home-cooked, “culturally thoughtful” meals to local Asian elders. When Tsai and Chang asked about the need, the answer was bigger than they anticipated. “They were like, just to let you know, in one building alone, there are about 1500 elders who are hungry,” recalls Tsai. “We were just so humbled. We had no idea, because we both grew up privileged where we never had to worry about food.”
What ensued was a flurry of urgency. Tsai and Chang rolled up their sleeves and started with 200 meals, creating them to be nutritionally packed, to honor Asian culture and heritage, and to be sensitive to elders’ needs. There they were, in their 250-square foot apartment. Tsai cooked the first lunch, a dish of “ braised white fish and tofu with some leafy greens,” and Chang assembled the care packages and wrote notes of kindness on the bags. They called it the #LovingChinatown initiative and posted what they were doing on Instagram. An outpour of support followed, says Tsai. “We had friends asking how they can be a part of this. Jing was one of the first to reach out.”
This was an incredible response given that Tsai and Chang were personally funding the meals at the start. But also, this outpour revealed another opportunity: They could give business to many of their fellow restaurant owners and workers who were, as Tsai describes it, “kind of in this gray area, not knowing what to do” because of COVID. They started to pay a low stipend to colleagues to help cover ingredients. This led to working with local distributors. “And we had a baker friend, Jacqueline, who created soft, squishy brioche, milk toast for elders. And now she makes these scallion buns, and it became this collective community effort.”
In the over year-and-a-half since that first Trader Joe’s run, and later the first #LovingChinatown lunch, Heart of Dinner has served more than 85,000 collective meals and weekly meal care packages. A visit to their Instagram page is a dose of joy. There are beaming elders holding their meal packages. There are volunteers—from drivers to note-writers to cooks—beaming. And there are Tsai and Chang, next to one another, smiling.
“It’s been a lot of healing, I think on both ends,” Tsai says about last year-and-a-half with Heart of Dinner. “We get feedback from social service organizations telling us how shocked these elders still are—every week—when they get these meals. They're just so surprised that people would take this time to think of them, and to spend time making these meals and preparing these care packages for them.”
Tsai gets audibly emotional when talking about this. The impact is still raw. And it’s still growing, as is the entire endeavor of Heart of Dinner. She and Chang are working on growing the endeavor, which is now a full-on non-profit, so it can feed more elders in the area. And they’re always looking for volunteers. “It’s amazing, we have people from all backgrounds who want to show up for our elders,” says Tsai, proving that the combination of conviction and love are fuel for tremendous change.
As Tsai speaks to this, she recalls a particularly cold, trying time last winter. “It was a snowstorm and hail and people were still coming up to show up to bring the care packages out. And the elders would see that. They would call us—it was so cute— and be like, ‘we're checking the weather and it's showing that it's going to snow again, so please don't worry about our care packages. We can wait until next week.’”
Tsai takes a beat before continuing. “And we’re like, no no no, don’t worry! We got people coming! They're going to bring it to you.”
Words by Stacey Lindsay. To learn more about Moonlynn Tsai and Heart of Dinner, and to explore ways to volunteer and support, visit heartofdinner.org.