It would have been an understatement to say that I had my doubts about Fat Choy.
A Chinese vegan restaurant? It raised some questions.
I was brought up as a voracious carnivore, encouraged to eat whatever the animal kingdom had to offer. I had eaten everything from stingrays to kangaroos, simply because I could. Jumanji would have run out of animals trying to take me down.
Still, I was interested. It is important to always try new things.
One humid afternoon on the Lower East Side, I met with the owner of Fat Choy, Justin Lee. After being offered several recommendations, I ordered from the mint-green counter. A Chinese lion with a shattered jaw stood guard outside the restaurant (someone apparently tried to steal the 200-lb statue and dropped him).
My tray was piled high with mushroom sloppy, sticky rice dumplings, and salt + pepper cauli. I sat outside, where you could hear “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones playing through a speaker.
3 minutes, 48 seconds. Before the song was over, I was wiping my mouth and feeling a little embarrassed about how quickly I had eaten every item on the tray.
The mushroom sloppy (which was kind of like a burger) was true to its name. With slaw spilling out from the sides, I thought I would need to unhinge my jaw to get a proper bite. The buns were incredibly soft, like fluffy, savory pancakes that nestled the messy filling. The dumplings, described on the menu as “grandson style,” were a little salty, but that certainly didn’t stop me.
But etched into my taste buds were easily the salt + pepper cauli, fried florets of cauliflower. I would dare say that it was better than a French fry. A firm bite, with all the greasy goodness of fries, I don’t know if I can ever look at a cauliflower the same way again.
And it looked like the rest of New York City agreed. Within minutes of opening, I watched as customers poured through Fat Choy for their vegan delights.
“I think it’s very important that we’re open about the fact we’re omnivores,” said Lee. “The restaurant itself is built to be inclusive, a non-judgmental space.”
His initial interest in the vegan diet stemmed from environmental concerns, seeing wasteful restaurant practices and the dangerous factory farming systems. More than anything, Lee was searching for a brighter future.
“We wanted to change practices that we see in other restaurants,” said Lee. “Hopefully, we can do less harm, so that our kids can grow up in a world we had the opportunity to grow up in.”
Even though Lee himself wasn’t vegan, it wasn’t from a lack of trying. His first dive into veganism was filled with nothing but potatoes, pasta, and rice. Outside of that, he didn’t find many fulfilling alternatives either. Restaurants serving vegan options often left Lee disappointed.
“I want to save the planet,” said Lee. “But I also don’t want to be miserable. If this is my first step into veganism, why would I ever believe that it’s a worthwhile lifestyle?”
Lee took matters into his own hands. Apparently in a “vegan stupor” during Chinese New Year, Lee decided to name his restaurant after fat choy, a Chinese vegetable symbolizing happiness and prosperity in the New Year. Fat Choy opened in 2020, with the slogan “Kind of Chinese, also vegan.”
“We’re a fast food restaurant,” said Lee. “We want to make you fat with our vegetables.”
It’s a little surprising. Veganism often finds itself in the same lane as other health-conscious diets. Vegetables are healthy for you, aren’t they? No one thinks about getting fat from eating salads.
It’s not what I would call healthy, but let’s be honest. The most delicious food around the world isn’t healthy. With its Chinese flavors and an experienced chef at its helm, Fat Choy shows off a menu that has customers coming back for more.
Kind of Chinese
So what does that mean, “kind of Chinese?” Is it Chinese food or not?
The short answer: not. The long answer was a bit more complicated.
“It’s not real Chinese food,” said Lee. “It’s kind of Chinese. If you look at the menu, there’s a lot of things that are very Chinese, but when you put it next to any other food, you’d be like, ‘I’ve never seen this before.’”
At its core, Fat Choy’s Chinese influences come from its ingredients and flavors. Bok choy and dumplings are familiar to almost all Chinese menus. But the mushroom sloppy and fried cauliflower? Unrecognizable.
But the flavors are there. Not quite Chinese, but certainly familiar. Lee had eaten in Chinatown his entire life, with all the tastes and ingredients that were important to the residents there. His culinary background, on the other hand, was influenced by a different continent altogether in French and Italian cuisine.
It didn’t stop Lee from exploring. “Every now and then, we take a trip to the store to buy things that we’ve never seen before,” said Lee. “Some of them are really great, some of them I clearly don’t know how to use. It’s just part of evolving our cuisine, but it’s also understanding our culture.”
Lee even created some unique condiments with this process, like leopard sauce, a broken vinaigrette made from chili oil and Chinese black vinegar, and Chinese ranch: a tahini-based sauce with pickled garlic, dill, and jalapeno.
Even his dumplings are made with a method called “grandson style.”
“My grandparents never made dumplings like this,” said Lee. “We just fold the wonton skin in half. Grandma’s going to put these folds and pleats into it, but her grandson’s like ‘hurry up!’”
To top it off, the response from the community seems to be a blessing.
“We’re right on the outskirts of Chinatown,” said Lee. “At first, you see aunties and uncles with an incredulous look of ‘what is this?’ But people have been trying it, and it’s wonderful to see the older generation of Chinese come out, eating it, loving it, and coming back.”
Lee also acknowledged how important it was for him to be at the forefront of Fat Choy.
“If Fat Choy were helmed by a white man, I don’t think people would have responded in the same way,” said Lee. “People would have come a lot harder at it, and said a lot meaner things about it.”
Fusion and cultural appropriation have been controversial for quite some time. The issue pops up from time to time, from Shake Shack to the New York Times; but with Lee’s own Chinese background, he believes that his contribution to an evolving cuisine is justified.
“When you’re trying to introduce something that people love in other countries, it’s gotta be led by the right people,” said Lee.
But if Fat Choy’s vegan angle still throws you off, you’re not alone.
“It’s not easy to make a vegan restaurant that people come back to,” said Lee. “People need to crave it. That’s really difficult, but if they don’t crave it, they’re gonna eat a burger. It could be the worst burger out there, but it’s still going to be better than whatever you’ve been giving them.”
It’s a challenge to create a vegan menu that reels people in. What looks better? That dry, faux-meat veggie burger? Or that fat, plump, beef patty? A mouthwatering burger dripping with cheese and grease?
I don’t think anyone’s ever going to topple the burger from its meat throne. But what about for a quick snack? Something small to share with friends on a warm summer day outside?
Fat Choy is the perfect spot to sit and try something new. Order a couple dishes to share (because you’ll want to try everything) and taste the vegan potential for yourself. In fact, as I was tasting my way through Fat Choy’s menu, it was like a little voice was whispering, “maybe I can be vegan.”
And Lee argues that a vegan lifestyle is crucial to our world.
“In a perfect world, we will absolutely eat animals again,” said Lee. “But to be honest, we have to be vegan in this country first, to fix the systems we’ve failed.”
Lee had done extensive research to reach this realization. Plastic pollutants that fill the ocean. Slave labor used to peel and devein shrimp. Cancerous tumors cut out from pigs sold for meat.
But veganism was filled with its own issues.
“When it’s not vegetable focused, some of that food’s really bad for you,” said Lee.
Vegetable-based diets have been culturally significant throughout history. India, China, and Greece are just a few countries with a history of vegetarianism. But with new industries and methods, vegetables aren’t the only option for a meat-free diet.
Grocery stores and restaurants have been offering some new substitutes and alternatives for vegan diets. There are cheeses made from aquafaba and nuts. Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat are available as fast food.
“Fake meat is really not good for you,” said Lee. “If you ever look at the nutritional facts on a lot of the meat and cheese replacers, it’s not pretty. I’m not saying that my vegan food is healthy. I am saying that it’s at least a plant. You know where it came from.”
For anyone interested in a vegan diet, Lee has a rule of thumb for shopping for groceries or eating out.
“Read the label. Or don’t read the label, and eat a vegetable.”
Too Many Cooks
With a concern for the environment at the front of Fat Choy, Lee tailored his kitchen to stay green as well.
It starts with the little things and some math.
“Let’s say a line of four chefs tastes each component of a dish before serving,” said Lee. “You’re usually using plastic spoons. Four people are taking a taste of one component of a dish with five to eleven components. For one plate of food that goes out, we’re using 44 plastic spoons and throwing them away.”
To Lee, this extreme waste of plastic was unbelievable, mostly because of how simple the solution is.
“You just use a washable spoon,” said Lee. “I’m tasting stuff, washing these spoons, and tasting again.”
The waste of single-use plastic plagues the restaurant industry. Plastic spoons, Saran wrap, and plastic take-out containers can be found in almost every kitchen when a cheaper and environmentally friendly option is right in front of them.
Instead, Fat Choy’s kitchen is stocked with plastic tubs and lids for storage. Their takeout containers are made from recyclable, compostable material. But if the answer’s so simple, why isn’t it more commonly used?
“There’s a wasteful mindset,” said Lee. “There’s this idea that to be clean, you have to throw things away, instead of washing them. If you wipe something down, you throw away paper towels. Not that you should keep a paper towel, but maybe you should be using a cloth that can be washed and reused.”
The same wasteful mindset is even more common with food.
“Everyone talks about food waste,” said Lee. “But no small restaurants, definitely not many big restaurants, other than like the Cheesecake Factory, are really digging deep into food waste.”
It’s a lesson that many restaurants are struggling with, but it’s one that they’ll have to learn.
“It takes so much to grow that product, time and effort,” said Lee. “So that food waste is absolutely insane to me. Even if we compost, there are better ways to use it as human food, as animal feed. We’re gonna have a lot of compost and a lot of starving people.”
The Grass is Always Greener
Every day, it seems like the world learns a new hard truth. The planet is filling up with trash. The meat industry is a spiraling pit of despair. The Cheesecake Factory of all places is now a beacon of hope.
Fat Choy believes that a vegan lifestyle can help us fight for our world, but when that world shoves heaps of burgers, steaks, and barbeque in front of us, it’s hard even to imagine eating vegetables. Even worse, most vegan options aren’t as enticing.
“Just give the people good food,” said Lee. “To be quite honest, a lot of the vegan restaurants that exist aren’t from people with culinary backgrounds. It takes a lot of extreme learning, experience, and skillset to get to a point where you can make vegetables as tasty as meat.”
Lee was proud to show off his creations and success at Fat Choy. “A lot of my chef friends will eat my food and say, ‘thank God you’re not cooking meat, because we’d all be toast.”
And after trying his food, I had the feeling that they were right.
The food at Fat Choy is a fantastic blend of ingredients, flavor, and creativity that takes vegetables to a whole new playing field. For the doubters and carnivores, Fat Choy might be what draws the moths to the flame.
“It’s a slow conversion,” said Lee. “But the best way to convert someone, to help them along the way, is to stop feeding them terrible stuff and start feeding them food that’s delicious.”
With Chinese flavors leading the way, and unique dishes that are stunning in their own right, Fat Choy is sure to have customers coming back for more. As Lee and his team spread Fat Choy’s vegan mission with their delicious food, each new convert is another step towards a brighter tomorrow.