Lucas Sin has an intense interest in the overlooked and unconsidered—which is evident in how he views food. Take ranch dressing. Sin, who sometimes tops his golden fried rice with a swirl of the American favorite, loves ranch not only for the way it marries with other elements —"It has a high amount of fat in the dairy that encapsulates the capsaicin that’s in the hot sauce, therefore it tastes good,” he tells us—but also because there’s a story behind it. A reason for its existence. As he says, there’s “a history thing” with food. “I liked this because this person made it, and this is how this came to be.”
To know Sin’s work is to be familiar with his eagerness to reveal the narrative behind something edible. Food cannot exist without a story. Or at least, it shouldn’t if you’re seeking to experience it to the fullest—which it seems Sin, who grew up in Hong Kong and came to the States to study at Yale, is. As both a chef and food activist, his approach is far-reaching and unhampered. Sin does not proselytize. He illuminates details that make you stop to think about the how and why behind the dishes he serves and the Chinese cuisines of his home.
“It’s natural for me to want to be able to tell a story through food, especially if those stories are cultural and they're about expressing a certain history and identity,” he says. “Food is a very easy way to get people to start thinking about that and talking about that.
Sin, who is the chef of the fast-casual restaurants Nice Day Chinese and Junzi Kitchen, divulged to us over the phone why he leans into storytelling, how we can have a more open mind around Chinese—and all—cuisines, and his steadfast approach to making meatloaf. The following are excerpts—edited and condensed for clarity—from our conversation.
Lucas Sin on…
...his love of storytelling through food:
A huge part of what I'm trying to do is to use food as an activator, or as the platform to start telling stories. I am attracted to this theory that the only difference between human beings and animals is the ability to tell stories, create stories, and receive stories, and to see patterns in the world that fall into place that we call a “narrative.” Narrative, in and of itself, is a convenient metaphor for explaining the way we interact with the world.
In college I was enamored with this idea of being able to tell stories. My bachelor's degree is in cognitive science, and I wrote my thesis on storytelling and time travel and all these neuroscience, cognitive-science stuff. It’s natural for me to want to be able to tell a story through food, especially if those stories are cultural and they're about expressing a certain history and identity. Food is a very easy way to get people to start thinking about that and talking about that.
...the nuances that make food engaging:
The reason why I like food so much is because when I was a kid, we would eat three times a day, like everybody else. And very early on in my life, my parents would ask me, ‘do you like what you're eating?’ And ‘why do you like what you're eating?’ You could answer that by saying something like, ‘because it tastes sweet,’ but the more you think about it, you could answer, ‘I liked it because it was cooked like this. I liked it because it has this element that is a little bit more aesthetic.’
And there’s a history thing. ‘I liked this because this person made it, and this is how this came to be.’ Finding those stories has made food more engaging, which I’m excited about showing.
...what people overlook about Chinese food:
Chinese food has a lot to offer—and I know this because I am Chinese. Jing is one of the best people in the United States right now who is telling people that. Chinese food is wonderful and deep and diverse and wide. It’s very, very, very interesting to talk about. I'm of the opinion that the more people know about Chinese food, the better Italian food is going to get. The better French food is going to get. It's just that Chinese food is one of those cuisines that unfortunately, especially in the United States and in the west, is oftentimes coupled with this idea that it's not of high quality, it's not technical, and that sort of thing. So cultural education is a big motivator for me.
...other elements that are paramount in his work:
On the other hand, I'm also more and more excited about the idea that these physical restaurants themselves can affect the food system, specifically, starting with Chinese American restaurant restaurants. It’s an odd and complicated thing, but Chinese American restaurants face unique obstacles that many other types of restaurants don't. A lot of that is due to its history, due to the supply chains that have been established, and how this cuisine has evolved. In some ways, it's a time of crisis and it needs to be improved upon because the people that are running these restaurants need to be taken care of. And also, because the system itself is beginning to be antiquated both in terms of perception of the customer and the way businesses are run.
With our first restaurant, Junzi Kitchen, we were about bringing Chinese fast-casual food to the US. It just makes sense that if we're making changes in the US, we must be a part of a bigger systemic change of trying to improve it further, and further evolve the community.
...how we can support Chinese American restaurants and a more inclusive food system:
One of the most amazing things about many Chinese American restaurants is that they're built off the immediate neighboring community. So local support means a lot to many of these people. And we’re not talking LA or we’re not talking New York here. Before the pandemic there were 46,000 Chinese restaurants all through the US and many of these were built on local communities in the middle of America, not on the coasts. So again, those restaurants really rely on local support. So that’s one way.
One of my favorite Chinese American restaurants is in a mall in Muskegon, Michigan. There used to be a Sears there. I go visit them every year for Thanksgiving. When we chat, they say that business is not doing well because of the Sears closing. And I just think: They and their cousins moved to this country because Sears put foot traffic into that mall so that they could then open their restaurant. So strengthening your relationship and your bonds with your local Chinese community, and not thinking of the food as just take-out, is a strong thing to do.
...and how we can keep an open mind:
The other thing I would suggest is keeping an open mind whenever you’re eating any sorts of cuisine, and don't be too enamored with the idea that something has to be authentic, or chefs have to be authentic to an entire culture, for it to be good. There is a huge amount of diversity even within any sort of perceived single culture—especially when it comes to Chinese food. There are different regions and different people that have different experiences in these different regions. Keeping that open mind is important in terms of educating ourselves with regard to what we're eating.
...finding inspiration, and even confidence, in the kitchen:
I don’t really do a lot of home cooking because, as you may know, professional chefs don't really cook that much at home. But the way it happened during lockdown was that I was thinking I really missed home. I was making food in the way that my parents and grandparents had taught me to do. For example, when you're making meatloaf, [I was taught to] mix it in one direction. So as I'm doing that, mixing it in one direction, and I'm thinking to myself: Is this legit? I was trying to interrogate it with as many modern sensibilities that I have. As a chef, that led me down this curiosity rabbit hole over the science behind it and the reasons why this is done this way and how it works. That was from a scientific perspective, but also from a historical and cultural perspective. So as we're cooking at home, if we interrogate this intergenerational home cooking knowledge that is oftentimes passed down to us, it lets us be more in tune with what we're doing.
Also, in a very exciting way, it allows us to import those ideas and techniques to other dishes. If you know that Chinese meatloaf has a better texture when only mixed in one direction, that then might apply to your Italian meatballs. All of these things are interconnected, and it takes a little bit of curiosity about home cooking knowledge that is so valuable but also taken for granted.
...whether he still mixes his meatloaf in one direction:
Yeah, I do! The sciences side doesn't really hold up. But you realize that mixing it in one direction is just easier. It achieves the effect that you want to achieve, which is the elongation the protein strands. If you’re doing it this way, that makes it as long as possible, it checks out. It's not the only way to achieve this effect, but it's a smart idea.
A better example is in Northern China in the winter, a lot of the pears and fruits are left outside to store. So these pears freeze. Then you bring it back in to thaw and you put them outside again to freeze. And then you bring them back in to thaw. You do it over and over again until the skin oxidizes. What effectively happens is the water inside of the pear becomes ice. It macerates itself inside out, and you have this poached pear texture from a pear that's only been frozen and thawed over and over again. It is this magical transformational process that they’ve been doing in Northern China forever. And you're looking at this and you're asking: How does this work? Why does it work? And you realize it's because the water is becoming ice crystals and the ice crystals are puncturing the cell walls. Once you know this fact, you can then start to apply it to other things. To tofus. To certain types of fish. To different fruits and vegetables to get a little bit more sweetness out of them even before you cook them.
That’s how chefs like to think. They see some interesting technique that was passed on through some cultural knowledge and then they transform it into something a little bit more creative or in a way that wasn't done before. Home cooks can do a lot of that, because a lot of them start by cooking with their parents or the guardians or whoever that gives them that knowledge. But being curious about that knowledge really sets you on the path to thinking like a chef.