Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant at Museum of Food & Drink celebrates the birth and evolution of Chinese American restaurants, tracing their nearly 170-year history and sparking conversation about food culture, immigration, and what it means to be American.
Here, we catch up with the museum’s Curator, Catherine Piccoli to find out more about the background of the exhibition, and what makes it a special experience to visit in NYC:
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind Chow and how long it was in development for it to eventually open as special exhibition?
Our first exhibition, Flavor: Making It and Faking It, was science and technology focused. Since we display one major exhibition at a time, we wanted the following show to focus more on food culture and history. Our curatorial team had been researching diaspora cuisines in cities around the country, and we were really struck by the story of early Chinese immigration to the US and the creation of Chinese American cuisine.
In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, functionally cutting off immigration from China for almost 80 years. Yet during that time, Chinese American restaurants flourished across the US and the cuisine they became iconic. (Jennifer 8. Lee says it’s “more all-American than apple pie.”) At MOFAD, we like to tell stories of what we call “the invisible everyday,” or commonplace objects that have shaped our contemporary experience in often surprising ways. Chinese American restaurants certainly fit that bill: everyone has a favorite local takeout place. But the 170-year story behind those restaurants is incredibly compelling and allows us to talk not only about food culture, but also immigration and what it means to be American.
Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant was in development for about a year before it opened. We’re always learning more about this story, and adding to the exhibition and museum experience when we can.
How does the exhibition relate to the local history of Chinese American food in New York City, and what importance did this play in the curation process?
We want to be a museum for the whole country (and one day, the world), so we try not to focus too heavily on New York City. That said, New York City certainly plays a role in this story. The history and evolution of Chinese American restaurant cuisine in New York paralleled what was happening across the country. Manhattan’s Chinatown came about in the 1870s and continues to evolve (you can learn more about that history here).
What are some of the key highlights of the exhibition and how does it differ to rest of the museum experience?
We have a menu wall with over 100 menus dating back to the early 1900s. It’s an amazing visual element on its own, but it also holds so many layers of information. You can trace the history of Chinese immigration to the US through different dishes and regional cuisines. You can marvel at the graphic design. You can pinpoint historic moments in the US.
And, of course, the experience rounds out with a taste of the exhibition at our culinary studio. We work with Chinese American chefs from across the country, who provide recipes for our culinary studio. Recipes rotate monthly and focus on cooking techniques like stir frying, velveting, and corn starch thickening. The MOFAD culinary studio is a place where you can literally digest the information you’ve just figuratively digested, but it’s also a place where our visitors can interact with our chef and one another.
As a food writer, what are some of your favorite Chinese restaurant experiences you enjoy around the NYC/Brooklyn and did any of these influence the final exhibition?
We worked quite a bit with Wo Hop, one of the oldest restaurants in Manhattan’s Chinatown. It quickly became one of my favorite go-to spots for delicious and classic Chinese American food. I also really enjoy Chef Jonathan Wu’s beautiful, yet new take on Chinese American dishes. We were lucky enough to have both Chef Wu and Chef Lee (from Wo Hop) provide recipes for our culinary studio. One of my personal favorite places (that didn’t make it into Chow) is the food court at the New World Mall in Flushing.
Are you able to share any other exciting new projects you are working on that will follow after Chow?
We’re currently working towards an exhibition that showcases the many ways that African Americans (named and unnamed) laid the foundation for American cuisine. Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D. – the foremost expert on African American culinary history – is leading our curatorial team, and we have an amazing group of advisors made up of scholars, chefs, farmers, and practitioners. Stay tuned to mofad.org for more information as we continue to research and plan!
Hilton guests can save 20% on admission to the exhibition when booking the Weekend Like a Local Package