The nutritionist behind Lucky Lee’s — the “clean” American Chinese restaurant that instantly drew backlash for insensitive marketing language, sparking a viral conversation about cultural appropriation — has issued an apology.
The restaurant opened earlier this week in Greenwich Village with a menu that owner Arielle Haspel promoted as having “clean” Chinese-American food that will “actually make [diners] feel good” — phrasing that set off a firestorm on social media from people criticizing the owner for seemingly putting down New York City’s existing Chinese restaurants in comparison to her own “healthified” version.
Today, Haspel apologized in the Times, saying her intent was never to go against the Chinese community.
“We thought we were complementing an incredibly important cuisine, in a way that would cater to people that had certain dietary requirements,” she said to the Times. “We have been listening and learning, and we have been making changes and we will continue. Shame on us for not being smarter about cultural sensitivities.”
Haspel tells the Times that naming her lo mein “Hi-Lo Mein” was supposed to be perceived as “cute,” not superior to other versions of the noodle dish. She’s also making decor alterations and will no longer place a “Wok in, Take Out” sticker on the restaurant window like she had planned.
She has since deleted Instagram posts labeled as insensitive like one that had a caption saying, “We heard you’re obsessed with lo mein but rarely eat it. You said it makes you feel bloated and icky the next day? Well, wait until you slurp up our HIGH lo mein. Not too oily. Or salty.”
A few local Chinese restaurateurs have weighed in on the subject. Chris Cheung of East Wind Snack Shop in Windsor Terrace says Haspel was promoting a stereotype that Chinese restaurateurs have been working against for years: that their food is unhealthy or unclean.
“She mentions that every time she goes to eat Chinese food, she’s bloated. Well, I don’t know where she is going to eat Chinese food, but that doesn’t happen to me or anyone else who I know when they eat it,” he told the Times.
People who have spoken out against the restaurant have said the way it was marketed displayed cultural appropriation at its most obvious — but that it didn’t have to be that way. As Esther Tseng wrote for Eater NY, Haspel’s stated intent was to make Chinese-inspired food for people with dietary restrictions, which on its face, is not an offensive concept. But by championing her cuisine as “clean” while at the same time saying other Chinese restaurants make her feel “icky,” she disrespected the very cuisine that she was trying to celebrate.
Despite all the controversy, on Wednesday, the restaurant was busy with diners.