Discover more from on hand
Christoph Grosse, Elaine Mao, and Nat Belkov, food writers and cookbook authors
Three members of the cookbook team at Send Chinatown Love on making their new cookbook, "Made Here."
Send Chinatown Love is a non profit organization that helps Asian-owned businesses in New York City through fundraising and business development initiatives. Since their founding at the onset of the pandemic, they’ve raised millions of dollars through community-building and events, donated tens of thousands of meals to people in need, and helped hundreds of local businesses.
Made Here is their self-published cookbook and it has stories and recipes from different restaurants and merchants from across Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. I spoke with Christoph Grosse, Elaine Mao, and Nat Belkov, three members of the cookbook team, about writing the book, what it means to self-publish, burnout, and more.
The book comes out in November and you can pre-order it here.
Brianna Plaza: Can you each give me a quick rundown of your professional background and your role in this cookbook project?
Christoph Grosse: My name is Christoph and I am an editor for Made Here. I was doing social media copywriting for Send Chinatown Love (SCL) as a volunteer gig for about a month before Alice, the managing director of the cookbook, who couldn't be with us today, onboarded me onto the cookbook project. At the time, she was recruiting for the cookbook team like she was assembling The Avengers. She read a few of my writing samples, and all of them happened to be about restaurants that they were planning to feature in the book. So she was like, "Hey, you already write about these restaurants and have an eye for that. Would you want to come on board as a writer for the project?" That was when the team was essentially Alice, Nat, and Elaine, and then it bloomed into 60 people over time. That was my foray into this.
Outside of this, I’d been writing for myself to try to break into food writing and food media because that was always my goal. So for me, this project is a confluence of everything I wanted to do. Professionally, I work in advertising and it's advertising, but it's how I pay my rent.
Nat Belkov: My day job is that I am the design director at Eater. I joined SCL in 2020/2021 to do some recipe editing on the digital cookbook at the time. I have a graphic designer-photographer-food stylist background by trade, but I’ve been wanting to switch a little bit and get more into food writing. So I joined SCL to help out with that. We did the Zine that we launched a couple of years ago, and then that was the impetus behind the beginnings of this cookbook because we got a lot of feedback that folks wanted more recipes in there.
For the Zine, some were home recipes sent in from a family member, and we had one or two that were from chefs. People were really curious to see more of those. For this cookbook, I work on the creative for the book content and partner with Elaine on the content, but we've worn a couple of hats. We've done some restaurant outreach, we've designed a little bit, we've written some, we've edited. As it goes.
Elaine Mao: I am the editorial director of this project. Nat mentioned the digital cookbook, which I believe was maybe late winter of 2021, and that was my first project with SCL. I came on to help with copy editing and then afterwards I was doing some basic storytelling stuff. We have a department called Seller Empathy, where we work with different businesses that are in need. We used to do a thing where we would interview them and write a short little biography or a why they need help or what they need help with, because at the time a lot of them needed help making rent or recovering from a disaster or there were many kinds of those things happening. And then obviously that was a natural fit for this cookbook project.
For me, I have a background in journalism and storytelling and I've always been super interested in personal and cultural histories. But my day job is in music recommendation algorithms at Pandora. It's a very 180 sort of thing. And I think, unlike Christoph, I feel like I never really did food writing prior to coming onto this project, and I think I wasn't really sure if I would be okay at it. The first bit of food writing I did was the writing sample I was asked for. I was a week late giving it to you because I had to write it, but it worked out. It turns out I really like it.
Brianna Plaza: The organization does work providing relief in a variety of capacities. How have you seen those needs change since it was founded?
Elaine Mao: So I think at the founding of the organization, obviously there was a lot of need for direct relief and there was a lot of fundraising like, "Please donate to help this business stay open" and that kind of thing. That was when we launched the Gift-a-Meal program, which is still our flagship product. We take donations and then we use them to buy meals or other products from our businesses to give to communities in need around the city. So that's still going pretty strong.
Then we do other things like business development services. So we'll help businesses if they need help, for instance, getting online to be able to work on delivery platforms, or we have built out websites for some businesses. Or we've helped with branding design or menu redesign for instance. So that's also an ongoing thing, but it really depends. A lot of our businesses struggle with things like technology or social media. We have helped with applying for different grants and certifications, because that's also a barrier if you aren't so familiar with English or just in general how these things work. So that's also been something that can carry on over time.
I think the main thing that's changed is that we can't really do the same kind of direct fundraising because at the beginning, there was a very direct emergency because of COVID-19, because of all the xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment that was really impacting these communities. But now it is late 2023 so we have to shift towards a more long-term vision of setting these businesses up for continued success without these momentary cash provisions. This cookbook project is part of that vision. It's creating a legacy and a celebration, and hopefully this will drive a lot of press and a lot of awareness of these communities and these businesses.
Brianna Plaza: What made you think that the cookbook was the logical next step in the organization's evolution?
Christoph Grosse: I think what the cookbook is, is this culmination of all of the work that Nat and Elaine both have spoken about. From providing meals to the community members in need, to working with businesses or establishments. There's a handful of businesses in the cookbook that aren't restaurants at all, like Grand Tea and Imports or purveyors like Hana Makgeolli in Greenpoint who make Korean rice spirits. This is a snapshot in time of New York City right now. And the funny thing about it, is when we got this first test print, we started talking about each profile on each business and we realized that even then a year and a half into the project, some of those addresses had changed, some of those businesses no longer existed.
This really is the work that we do as an organization. Here is this ecosystem of New York as it stands right now and we want to celebrate it. And maybe it doesn't drive explicit foot traffic to these businesses. Or maybe people pick it up and go, "I live in Seattle, I don't know when I'm going to get to New York next." But it's educational and it's just fascinating to see the pathways the different Asian diasporas have created in New York City.
Nat Belkov: We wanted to educate around the organization. So if 2020 is the emergency relief time period, let's do everything we can to support community members and work to save businesses that were jeopardized. Then we move maybe a little further from the epicenter of that sentiment. How do we celebrate and help more folks understand the massive complexity of New York City's Asian and Asian American populations?
They are not just Chinese folks and Vietnamese folks and Thai folks, but let's talk about the fact that there's regional subsets of all these cultures that are inherent to what our city is: a food and cultural city. It is an entry point for everybody to understand the differences between different areas. The way that New York has things that have become decidedly a New York thing.
Elaine Mao: I think that's a great point. That’s one of the common threads that we hear both from our businesses in the book as well as the businesses that we work with. One of the challenges that Asian and immigrant owned businesses face is around public perceptions and the perceived value of food. Usually people expect that you go to a place in Chinatown and you should get really cheap food, you spend $3 and get a whole plate of food. And while some businesses can do that and that's really great, with rising rents and rising cost of ingredients, it is becoming more of a challenge. Then at the same time, people aren't really willing to pay more for something that they perceive to be of low value.
I think one thing that's really interesting about some of the recipes is that they are very simple on the surface. But something like the turnip cake from Golden Unicorn. It seems kind of simple — it's just a cake of turnip with some dried shrimp in it — but the process of making it is so involved and it takes so long. I look at it and I'm just like, "I am never going to make that. I will gladly pay whatever price you want to charge me" because I don't have this many hours to salt and press and strain this turnip.
Nat Belkov: What an appreciation you have for that dish! The opposite is also true, right? Some things that are so complex and layered in terms of flavor are simpler. It goes both ways.
Elaine Mao: I think having people understand that, like you said, a lot of people have a surface understanding when they go to Chinatown or go to K-Town and they interact with the neighborhood as a sort of superficial outsider. But then the book has behind the scenes photos and we have profiles, and you really get to understand the context behind what you're tasting and eating. So I think that's one of the really important things that this book is doing.
Brianna Plaza: Talk to me about the process of making a cookbook. What does it mean to self-publish?
Nat Belkov: I mean, we knew very little about this process. None of us had published any sort of hard copy book of this magnitude, especially not a cookbook.
Elaine Mao: One ridiculous thing that people are always shocked to know is in the beginning we legitimately thought that Christoph and I, between the two of us, would write the entire thing.
Nat Belkov: That was a quick learning. There was a point in time when I was doing editorial and creative.
Christoph Grosse: Thank god Elaine came onto the project. With self-publishing a cookbook, let alone publishing anything, my main takeaway from this was, especially because it's in a volunteer capacity, is that there's almost an infinite amount of hours that you can pull from to dedicate to this depending on your commitment to the cause. So I think we were almost trying to see how many hats we could balance on top of our heads until we needed to give those hats to other people.
We took this project to the greater org to see who would want to help, and then also called friends to come in and help on different parts. It was a big learning that while we wanted to get this book together so badly, we needed to bring on other brains to give them our hats. So growing the team was a big learning for all us.
Nat Belkov: Yeah. There's a level of humility needed, that we don't know what we're doing. I should've said that off the record.
We utilized a lot of connections that each of us had in our own greater spheres, that we know somebody who does something, and we reached out and said, "We would love to tap your brain." We got into a community of photographers and writers in this vast city and beyond. So we've been talking to a bunch of really creative folks to bring content together. And so we’re up to about 60 volunteers.
Elaine Mao: Our core team is definitely smaller, closer to 20. But once we brought in recipe testers, proofers, people who help with translation or getting us interviews, it just ended up around 60 and it could actually be higher. I'm not sure.
Nat Belkov: Any combination of this core team has traipsed across this entire city to interview in person or have an onsite photo shoot and sometimes even another visit to follow up and grab some additional shots.
Elaine Mao: One of the things that really makes me still stunned is that we pulled this off and most of us have full-time jobs or are students.
Nat Belkov: At the end of the day, the main goal for this project was to raise money to go back into the machine that we have built to support the communities. So for self publishing, it was pretty clear that we want as much money from this as possible to do just that. So I think creative control for sure is a piece of it — that's a huge process of working with a publisher and relinquishing a little bit of that control. Obviously, what also comes with that is being able to tap into their expertise on process. I definitely don't want to make publishers out to be this terrible thing because there's so many pros to working with one. But I think that we were all really clear and aligned on what we wanted, the story we wanted to tell, and the fact that we wanted as much of that money raised to go back to the community.
Brianna Plaza: To your point about not having a publisher’s muscle, how do you sell something like this?
Christoph Grosse: I think this is the slippery slope — and I say this in a very non-jaded way — but when volunteering for anything, if you mention that you have experience doing something, you end up doing that thing. Something that we quickly realized was that we need a PR strategy, we need a marketing strategy. We need to leverage every connection we've ever made as an org, going back to any local news outlets that were covering our work in 2020, to “does anybody have an email at Bon Appétit that we can reach out to?”
We shipped this out to print and took one breath and were like, "Oh my God it’s going to be so nice to relax and chill out." And then we were like, "Oh my God, we’ve got to sell this thing." So we've all been doing cold outreach to pubs. I've been doing a lot of social media, DMing influencers and doing organic marketing on the Send Chinatown Love social channels, and we've all told our family, friends, and coworkers about it.
We don’t have the publisher and that crutch of being like, ”All right, now you take on all the marketing and PR. Get us into every publication you know, plan some events, book us a tour." We are doing all that ourselves. So I think it's a secondary part of the project that I don't think that we were even expecting, just because I don't think any of us have launched a book to this capacity.
We are doing that ourselves. So I think it's a secondary part of the project that I don't think that we were even expecting, just because I don't think any of us have launched a book to this capacity.
Elaine Mao: I guess it is important to call out that for the social media and the PR and event stuff, it isn't just our core team. We do have help from other teams in the organization, so we have additional people. So that's been extremely helpful, but some of the time it does feel like we are just trying stuff and just seeing what sticks. I think at one point we were trying to finish the book and Christoph was also cold messaging the Woks of Life family and Frankie Gaw.
Brianna Plaza: A sidebar from the cookbook conversation, but related to what you said about learning a lot of new skills. Do you think about things like that as being a positive or negative? And how do you, with full-time jobs, deal with burnout?
Christoph Grosse: Who wants to take it? Because this is a question that I think we could spend the rest of the evening talking about.
Elaine Mao: The short answer is we did all get very burned out multiple times.
Nat Belkov: It helped to remember why we were doing this. We felt instantly better whenever we got together in person, got out from behind the computer screen. We met up with each other, had drinks, had food at the restaurants that we were featuring. But we did totally faced some burnout.
Christoph Grosse: I definitely had a bit of imposter syndrome. I still have imposter syndrome where work that we have done is now published and I'm still like, "I'm an aspiring writer.” When in reality, the work is out there and you have done and you can confidently speak to yourself being a writer. And at the risk of sounding like an opportunist, I definitely joined this project not solely for the sake of being able to participate in something like this, but for the sheer fact that these kinds of opportunities to work with so many creative, intelligent people and befriend them, are rare. And to be able to traverse New York City and talk to all of these business owners. I think about that opportunity to be able to speak to someone and hear their stories. I might go and get a bowl of Thukpa at Cafe Himalaya, but if I'd never worked on this project, I probably would've never learned the intimate family story.
But I'm not going to lie, I spent the month of August after we sent this to print playing video games. It affected my day job too. So burnout is definitely real, but to Nat's point, to come together and be like, "Hey, we did this thing" I think that's really cool.
Brianna Plaza: Back to the cookbook. How did you find who was going to participate and how did you figure out the recipes that they were going to share?
Nat Belkov: At the beginning, we went back and forth on whether we wanted to compose a book of recipes just from the merchants that we work with as a greater org. But we decided to focus on that goal of educating around the depth and breadth of the various API cultures that are present in New York City.
Elaine Mao: I think historically when SCL was founded, they were primarily working within the various Chinatowns just because those were hit pretty hard in the pandemic. And I think part of that was due to our volunteer base and who they had relationships with or who they were able to communicate with. But even since then, SCL’s merchant base has gotten bigger.
Nat Belkov: So many interesting stories have come out of stepping outside of that initial set of restaurants. One of my favorites is Northern Wang Mandoo where we were able to discover and talk about the Chinese-Korean diaspora that's very specific to a certain part of Queens and the food that is coming out of that cultural convergence. We wanted to have representation of as many boroughs and cultural enclaves as we could and to tell as many of these stories as possible.
It was a combo of cold calling, emailing, and reaching out on Instagram. We found out our recipe sectioning later once we really were able to zoom out and look at everything that we had, but we knew we didn't want to follow a classic Western meal structure doing appetizers, salads, entrees, dessert.
We knew that we wanted to have a nice range of dishes across categories, both meat-centric and veg options. So we asked folks to name three recipes that they would be willing to nominate. Then we looked at everything together and a nice spread came up that we thought was diverse enough to both represent and also attract many different types of eaters. And then we filled in some gaps. Later on, we saw that we wanted to level the playing field a little more with certain cultural representation and reached out to some additional spots to make it as well-rounded as possible.
Elaine Mao: We did have some businesses that were like, "This is the recipe I want you to use,” and that was also interesting. They wanted to share those recipes because it was their most popular thing and they thought people would really enjoy it.
Christoph Grosse: A big part of sourcing the recipes and stories for this was to almost give the businesses creative control over what they were representing themselves as. We did not want to speak for or plant a flag in the ground for these restaurants.
Brianna Plaza: The book heavily features East Asian and South East Asian restaurants, but there are also some Punjabi and South Asian spots. How did you define what communities would be included in the book?
Elaine Mao: I think for the South Asian angle in particular, is that a lot of our creative team felt that it was important to include that community just because they are often left out in talking about the Asian American community. And there are, as Christoph mentioned, just so many different connections so it’s not a crazy stretch. So Cafe Himalaya is Tibetan, but also influenced by Nepali and Indian food. Or one of our other restaurants is Spice Symphony, is Indian-Chinese food, which is sort of an offshoot of Chinese food reinterpreted in India. And now it's a distinct cuisine in New York.
I think it is all so interconnected and almost to an extent, we were at a certain point that we didn't really know where we could stop. We spoke to an Uzbeki restaurant where the dish that they originally gave us was a dish from the Uyghur ethnic group in China. And we were like, "Oh, that's sort of it's different, but it's also related." We also found out about this cool Korean-Uzbeki spot in Brighton and we were trying to get them. We could have just kept on adding restaurants forever and filling out this really dense network.
Nat Belkov: Maybe there will be a volume two.
Elaine Mao: Yeah it sounds like it's going to be a part two.
Christoph Grosse: Once we all recover from the collective burnout.
I think something we wanted to stray away from is even though Chinatown is in our name, it is not just Chinese. As much of a connection that some of us might feel to Chinatowns, I think that term is also one that is thrown around to speak broadly about Asian enclaves in New York City where sometimes the predominant population is Chinese, but sometimes it’s not. Using Chinatown can sometimes be this monolithic term. We didn't want readers or prospective readers to have a bias in mind that these are all going to be Chinese restaurants.
But to Elaine's point, this could have burgeoned into the biggest book known to man. I think we titled it Made Here for the very reason that what we're trying to speak to could have only ever been made here. And the reason why any of these restaurants and cuisines exist in the form that they do is because it's New York City.
Brianna Plaza: The where to get ingredients list is New York focused, but this book is for a national audience. What was the decision behind focusing on just stores in New York?
Elaine Mao: Part of the book that a lot of people have been interested in is the ingredients guide, which was an idea to highlight businesses that weren't just restaurants.
Nat Belkov: There's always that part of the book that's like, what's in your pantry? What's the arsenal of ingredients or equipment that you need to cook this specific cuisine? We're casting such a large net in so many different parts of the city, in so many different countries and diasporas represented in regions within those countries. So we've sort of said, "What's the commonality here?" There are ingredients that need to be used that may not be as readily available, so let's talk about where to buy them. It was a two birds, one stone kind of thing. Let's get some suppliers and wholesalers and shops in the city that we're not grabbing recipes from.
And this is a big point of conversation, especially when it came to naming. Central to this program is the commonality of New York City, and we knew that. We began with an intro and a summary to each section that talks about the importance of supporting local, encouraging folks to source, to seek out similar mom and pop and API-owned businesses within their communities. And if not, obviously the internet is always a resource, but we do start with this aspirational, "If you live here or if you visit here, come see these spots. But if you don't, you’ve got spots too."
Brianna Plaza: What comes after the cookbook? Other than a potential volume two, how does this organization keep moving forward?
Nat Belkov: I think the organization at large has so many exciting plans. In terms of what's next, it could be a published product, a digital product, something of this nature. I think we haven't really chatted about that yet, but there's obviously an opportunity to do more.
Elaine Mao: I feel like a lot of what we've been doing now that things are mostly “past pandemic” is in-person events and trying a lot to get more foot traffic into these businesses. Even from the beginning, a lot of them really weren't comfortable accepting handouts. They wanted to be providing something and they really wanted to continue to conduct business. I think a lot of our events, whether it's the scavenger hunt or different supper club parties, are just to get people out and into these places and hopefully just get more people supporting these businesses.
Christoph Grosse: For the cookbook team specifically, we've joked that the cookbook is a startup. The way that we all work, we have created processes and workflows and levels of responsibility, and we've learned how to organize ourselves in that sense. So we have been acting as a startup company within the greater organization for the duration of this project. So to see that dissipate and we all go our separate ways, it would be a shame. But we'll probably take a well-deserved rest after the press circuit and everything, after the holiday gifting season, et cetera, and see what creative idea springs up next.
Elaine Mao: And I think another thing that I really hope comes out of this, whether it's through continued events or something, is helping people form bonds because like many of the businesses in our cookbook, they don't really know each other yet. But they could because there is so much they have in common. I hope that there's some way to create a lasting community there.