On a Sunday morning in April, more than a dozen Atlanta chefs—all women, and all of Asian and Pacific Islander descent—crowded into the dining room of Ba Bellies, a trendy Vietnamese gastropub in Peachtree Corners. Donning face masks and disposable gloves, the women stood over steaming trays of bacon fried rice and braised fish cakes, arranging snack-sized versions of their signature dishes into hundreds of takeout boxes.
They’d come together following the March shootings at three Atlanta-area spas that left eight people dead, six of them women of Korean or Chinese descent. “We felt traumatized and paralyzed,” says Thip Athakhanh, chef and co-owner of Doraville’s Snackboxe Bistro. The morning after the shootings, Athakhanh and others started brainstorming ways to raise money for the victims’ families. A plan soon emerged to create a grazing box, with food contributed by each of the 17 women who signed on. When orders opened online, the fundraiser sold out within hours.
In the wake of a pandemic that has disproportionately hurt communities of color and rising anti-Asian violence across the country, the benefit felt like a political act. But it also felt like another step in the ongoing transformation of Asian dining in Atlanta, the women at Ba Bellies representing not just a breadth of cuisines but a bridging of generations. Half were the second- or third-generation cooks in their families, with roots stretching from India to the Philippines. Some, like Heirloom Market BBQ chef Jiyeon Lee, are known for blending flavors they inherited with Southern cooking methods. Others are passionate preservationists of vanishing techniques, like the Korean royal court cuisine that inspires Seung Hee Lee’s pop-up dinners.
Already making their way in the business as an earlier wave of Asian American restaurateurs retires, many young AAPI chefs have been further emboldened by the pandemic and the spa killings to embrace their identity and culinary traditions, inserting their own family narratives into a scene that—for their parents’ generation, at least—had been largely arranged around the preferences of white diners. “It feels like it’s my duty to share the stories of traditional Korean cooking, because appreciation builds with knowledge,” says Seung Hee Lee, who often showcases humble dishes like acorn jelly, which Koreans have made for centuries by foraging their own nuts. “Our generation isn’t going to tailor our food to someone else’s tastes.”
Marisa and Ben Hsiao moved to Atlanta from Taiwan in 1980—two of some 2 million Asians and Pacific Islanders arriving in the U.S. in the 1980s. Although a significant share of those immigrants had college degrees, language barriers and skeptical attitudes toward foreign credentials excluded many from white-collar careers, leading to high rates of self-employment. In Georgia, the number of businesses owned by AAPI immigrants quintupled over the decade to 8,961 in 1992, according to Census Bureau data, from just 1,793 in 1982. Grocery stores, dry cleaners, restaurants, and other services accounted for three-quarters of the new businesses.
The Hsiaos opened their restaurant, House of China, in 1982, after working in the Buckhead kitchen of Grand China, whose owners—fellow Taiwanese immigrants—taught them to cook American favorites like moo goo gai pan. Seven days a week, House of China served a similar menu as other Chinese restaurants in Atlanta. “We were just trying to survive,’’ says Marisa Hsiao, who turned 66 this year. “Our generation didn’t think the work was too hard. We just thought about how lucky we were to have a job.” To encourage their sons to pursue careers beyond the kitchen, Ben—who was born Tsung-Jung, and who passed away in 2014—discouraged them from learning to cook. (This goal met with mixed success: Their sons, Joseph and Matthew, don’t work in kitchens; instead, they lead a restaurant group that includes two locations of the Flying Biscuit Cafe.)
“Traditional Chinese restaurants dominated the Asian food scene in Atlanta for decades,” says Steve Josovitz, senior vice president of Shumacher Group, one of the largest restaurant brokerages in Georgia. “If a new Kroger or Walmart opened up, it was almost guaranteed that a Chinese restaurant owner would be looking at space” in the same strip mall. Many of those restaurants are now closing, as the first generation of Asian immigrants enters retirement age. Industry experts and members of Atlanta’s AAPI restaurant community say the financial strain of Covid-19 has added to the pressures of an already tough business model—forcing the shuttering of, for instance, Chinese Buddha, a Midtown restaurant that for over a decade served American-style classics like beef chow mein.
But the closures also come amid broader shifts in both demographics—Asian immigrants and their families are now 4 percent of the state’s population, compared to less than half a percent in 1980—and the preferences of non-Asian diners. Demand for prime restaurant real estate today comes from a diverse crowd of AAPI chefs, reflecting the variety of Asian foods gaining popularity with American eaters. Josovitz says that, of the dozens of proposals for Asian concepts he receives each week, glancingly few are for old-school Chinese buffets or eateries. “I couldn’t even tell you the last Chinese restaurant that opened up here,” he said, referring to the neighborhoods within the Perimeter.
When they do open, they don’t adhere to the old-school model. Chef Guy Wong is resurrecting Chinese Buddha as Big Boss Chinese, a more casual version of his chic Old Fourth Ward lounge Ruby Chow’s—taking the restaurant over from his mother, the titular Big Boss. He’s among the recent crop of AAPI chefs raising Atlanta’s culinary profile, including Richard Tang, proprietor of Girl Diver, Char Korean Bar & Grill, and the forthcoming Press Start. “I love the fact that the evolution of Asian cuisine has surpassed chop suey,” says Tang, the son of a Chinese father and a Vietnamese mother—both chefs. “Why is it that we have the one cuisine that has to rely on the thinnest margins possible? Early on, I was like, You know what? I’m not going to be a part of that game.”
Still, the city’s growing appreciation for diverse Asian cuisines hasn’t miraculously resolved the other challenges inherent in running a restaurant. In 2020, a second Snackboxe outpost in the food hall Ph’east fell victim to the wave of pandemic closures. “I was devastated,” Thip Athakhanh said. “I felt like a failure.” Athakhanh and her family immigrated from Laos when she was a toddler; members of her family own Thai restaurants in this area, and the now 39-year-old chef spent much of her childhood cooking with her aunts. She sees her own cooking as a way of connecting her family’s former home with their new one; she wants her food “to show that this is our home, too.”
When Snackboxe opened in 2018 on Buford Highway, diners welcomed the arrival of a cuisine not common in Atlanta. But the success that the restaurant has experienced in its first few years didn’t feel inevitable—and now, Athakhanh says, she and her husband are throwing everything they can into ensuring its survival. “When I pitched the idea to our family, they said it was really risky, because no one knows what Lao food is in America,” Athakhanh said. “I told them, ‘That’s okay! We’ll teach them.’”
This article appears in our June 2021 issue.