Author, activist Grace Young is a USA TODAY Women of the Year honoree

Xavier Roger


Grace Young is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.

Grace Young is still surprising herself.

The cookbook author and self-proclaimed “Stir Fry Guru” has spent her life in pursuit of perfection in the kitchen. Her books “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen” and “The Breath of a Wok” have brought cooking with a wok to wider audiences.  But the past few years have allowed her to use her platform in a different way: saving America’s Chinatowns.

“I thought that I knew everything there was to know about myself and that there was nothing new to discover,” says Young, 67. “And so to discover that I had the side of my personality that would speak up for a community … I’ve always been a very quiet, very shy, very reserved person, so that has been one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.”

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, Young sprang into action as an activist and advocate for restauranteurs and business owners in Chinatown neighborhoods across the country. Her work shining a light on the mom-and-pop businesses that illustrate the core of the American dream earned her the Julia Child Foundation’s Julia Child Award and the James Beard Foundation’s James Beard Humanitarian of the Year award, both in 2022.

“During the pandemic, New York City had 700 to 800 deaths per day. If I had not focused my energies on trying to help Chinatown, I would’ve completely collapsed,” Young says. “Rather than focus on hearing the sound of the sirens in the distance and reading the headlines and the news, that by just trying to do as much good as I could for Chinatown actually saved me.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Grace Young chosen as one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year


You’ve spoken about your parents’ influence and even the influence of Julia Child. Who paved the way for you?

There’s not one person that paved the way for me. My family, my parents were very important. As you mentioned, Julia Child was a huge influence in getting me interested in cooking. But I had an extraordinary mentor in high school: Her name is Stevie Bass, and I’m still in touch with her. She’s a recipe developer and food stylist, and she sort of took me under her wing and taught me how to test recipes and create recipes and launched me in my food career.

As a child, after I was introduced to Julia Child on television and was so fascinated with French cooking, I found a local French cooking teacher named Josephine Araldo. She also took me under her wing and allowed me to audit her cooking classes. I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford it.

Are there any specific recipes that really stick out to you or that you still love to make today?

The first recipe I ever cooked was Julia Child’s brioche. I saw her making it on television and was absolutely fascinated. And in those days, you had to send away for the recipes, so I sent a self-addressed envelope and I received the recipe. I don’t know at what point I went and bought “The French Chef Cookbook,” but that was a turning point, that recipe. Making it was so exciting, and it turned out so incredible.

Who else might you have looked up to as an influence and someone to emulate in your career?

Julia Child was so powerful for me because she was unlike anyone I had ever seen or met in my life. My mom was an immigrant. Both of my parents were very quiet, soft-spoken people. And so to see this woman who was so exuberant and who was so unafraid of failing – when something would go wrong in the show, she was just unflappable. She would make a joke of it, and it was OK that life wasn’t always perfect. So this was a huge influence on my life to see Julia and to be drawn to that person, drawn to her personality.

What advice would you give your younger self?

To be unafraid. To follow your gut.

For much of my life, I was wanting to be perfect. If it wasn’t just so, I really was hard on myself. And I think I would tell my younger self, and young people today, that it’s more important to do it, and that it’s the process and the journey that actually teaches you more and enriches your life. It shouldn’t be perfect. The imperfection is what makes it great.

Have there been any challenges or moments where you’ve questioned whether you’re on the right path?

Everything that I did throughout the pandemic for America’s Chinatowns and the AAPI community, nothing was planned. There was no strategy.

I’m still worried about San Francisco’s Chinatown, New York City’s Chinatown, Boston, Philly – they’re all struggling. All the Chinatowns are reporting that they just don’t have the foot traffic they used to have.

What is your definition of courage?

During COVID, seeing the people in Chinatown show so much grit and dignity and determination in the face of what they were dealing with taught me what courage is. And I thought before the pandemic, that I loved and appreciated Chinatown, but it was only during COVID that I saw a whole new level of appreciation for the people that make up Chinatown. They showed up every day, seven days a week, 10, 12, 14 hours a day working, and there were no customers. In 2020, Chinatown was shunned because of misinformation and xenophobia, but everybody still showed up.

Grace Young, award-winning cookbook author, activist and food historian, is being honored as USA TODAY’s Women of the Year for 2023.
Grace Young, award-winning cookbook author, activist and food historian, is being honored as USA TODAY’s Women of the Year for 2023.
Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
Are there specific ways you’ve been involved in advancing equality, and do you have advice or tips for how others can do the same?

In 2020, I reached out to the James Beard Foundation and asked them if we could partner in a social media campaign called Save Chinese Restaurants. That’s because at that point, Chinatowns across the United States were seeing their business drop 80% or more.

So we did that, #SaveChineseRestaurants, and it raised public awareness of what was happening to Chinese restaurants across the United States. But by 2021, I realized that it went beyond Chinese restaurants, that Asian American Pacific Islander businesses were all hurting. So we did a new social media campaign called “Love AAPI,” and we asked people to show up to your Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese restaurants, markets, stores, and show your support with a post on social media using #LOVEAAPI.

But sadly, I think there are so many people in this country that have no idea what AAPI is. So Poster House Museum New York City produced this gorgeous, gorgeous poster of a lotus flower. In Asian culture, the lotus flower is really powerful because it grows out of mud, this gorgeous flower. So the idea was that through this adversity, we would emerge stronger and more powerful and more united. This last year I just started a new campaign with the Beard Foundation called “Support Chinatowns,” because there’s been so much media attention to the work that I’ve been doing trying to save America’s Chinatowns, that I thought since people aren’t catching on to “Love AAPI,” let’s focus the energy on supporting Chinatowns, which are in so much trouble right now.

Women making an impact are chosen as USA TODAY’s Women of the Year


Is there a guiding principle to what you do every day or some sort of mantra that you tell yourself to keep going?

In the middle of the pandemic, my friend Linda Pagan shared with me a quote from Desmond Tutu: “Do your little bit of good where you are. It’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

That has been my mantra really. I think that those words are so true, and it’s just absolutely astounding that I went from being a cookbook author to an activist. When I received the James Beard Humanitarian Award and the Julia Child Foundation’s Julia Child Award, those were two absolutely unreal, unfathomable experiences in my life.

Why is it important to protect America’s Chinatowns?

Chinatowns represent the American dream, and so many immigrants have been able to get a foothold in this country and it’s empowered so many immigrants through backbreaking work and sacrifice to pursue the American dream. There’s no other place in America that actually shows us the immigrant story. And in New York’s Chinatown, 98% of the businesses are mom-and-pop. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, there are a thousand family-owned businesses.

This country used to be made up of mom-and-pop businesses; that used to be the backbone. And now instead, here in Manhattan south of 96th Street, I would say Chinatown is the only neighborhood left that is predominantly mom-and-pop. And so it behooves us to support the American dream by supporting these businesses. When you go to Chinatown, it’s a reminder of what it means to have human connections, and that enriches our lives immeasurably.

Grace Young
Chinatowns represent the American dream, … and it’s empowered so many immigrants through backbreaking work and sacrifice to pursue the American dream. When you go to Chinatown, it’s a reminder of what it means to have human connections, and that enriches our lives immeasurably.




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