At A surface On a whole level, Mister Jius in San Francisco offers everything you would expect from a Michelin-starred restaurant: sumptuous dishes, an immaculately curated Instagram presence, and a rotating tasting menu. At the forefront of the kitchen and its atmosphere is Chef Brandon Jew who, like many of his peers, drives the culinary expression through his mixed Asian-American identity. In particular, he wants to reshape the place that contemporary Chinese cuisine occupies in the American food zeitgeist.
The menu at Mr. Jius (apparently a reflection of Jew’s general cooking ethos) is both innovative and reverently inspired by San Francisco’s old Chinatown, peppered with slightly remixed Cantonese-style dishes meant for sharing, as well as a tasting area dedicated to a arranges something more adventurous. However, he never strays too far from home – his choices seem cohesive and comfortable.
For people in the East Asian diaspora, eating together is the epitome of building and nurturing bonds. Food is sometimes a unique kind of love language that keeps us from being unnecessarily sentimental or even borderline uncomfortable. For example, the word “love” has a lot of meaning in Mandarin – and for many of us it’s easier to express this by asking someone if they’ve eaten.
There is also love in the community, which is vital given the rise in anti-Asian rhetoric and racist crime. This need to connect and seek solace in the familiar was the impetus for Jews’ recent event, a Chinese banquet-style dinner for artists and other prominent Bay Area community members. He hopes that through the gathering, which he dubbed the Golden Generation Dinner, the larger AAPI community and its allies can foster support and strategies to counter anti-Asian violence.
A little context as to why simply coming together in this way can be a radical act of defiance: Too often, and for a variety of reasons, many Asian Americans have avoided getting deeply involved in US social politics. It’s a broad assessment, but it’s tied to the fact that many immigrant families have been too focused on adjustment and integration into American life to concern themselves with high-level politics. Many older Asian immigrants believe that keeping a low profile and taking up less space will make it easier for them to survive. Another harsh reality is that until recently, most American politicians and cultural activists have simply ignored Asian communities, even in places like the Bay Area, where people of Asian descent are plentiful.
And so, coming together to eat, talk, and celebrate is the joyful form of advocacy that Jews long for. Some of the esteemed guests present at the Golden Generation Dinner These included contemporary artist So Youn Lee, “Beef” actor Young Mazino and journalists Mariecar Mendoza, Tim Chan and Dion Lim.
Anti-Asian violence peaked nearly three years ago, in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Asian Americans are still vulnerable to racially motivated hate crimes, particularly in San Francisco.
“The violence that happened within our communities in the Bay Area was unsettling and discouraging, but it also brought us together,” says Jew. “We want to continue to leverage the momentum we’ve created in our communities and continue to have forums where we come together, celebrate one another and have a place to share and strengthen our connections.” Through this demonstration of the organized Through community building, the Golden Generation is becoming political itself – a sign that silence and isolation are a thing of the past.
This shift brings purpose to the Jew’s cooking and organizational style, but he has always hoped that his culinary pursuits could fundamentally change perceptions of Chinese dishes. His career took him from his education in Italy, to work in Shanghai, and then to San Francisco in 2008, where he initially encountered some resistance to this kind of reinterpretation of Chinese cuisine, even in one of the country’s most Asian and progressive regions. “I really wanted to open a Chinese restaurant, but it was difficult at the time,” he says. “People didn’t understand what I wanted to do.”
Jewish history sounds painfully similar to the initial reaction of San Francisco residents to Chinese restaurateurs in the mid-19th century, when Chinese were still seen as seedy undesirables in America. And while that experience happened literally centuries ago – and under vastly different circumstances – it shows that America is not the infinitely compassionate melting pot we were promised. It’s probably for the best: we shouldn’t “merge” with anything to be successful together.
Chinese food continues to play an important role in bridging the gap between AAPI communities, and there is still work to be done. It just so happens that in some spaces this work is warming, satisfying, and filled with unspoken affection.