Introducing “Off the Menu” with Director Grace Lee

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Director Grace Lee will World Premiere her new film, Off the Menu: Asian America, about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, food and culture. The film is part of CAAM’s project by the same name that will include food stories and recipes across Asian Pacific America with a website coming soon. The film will have its broadcast premiere on PBS in 2015.

From the Gulf Coast of Texas to Wisconsin’s heartland to New York’s Lower East Side and beyond, Off the Menu: Asian America delves into a wealth of stories, traditions, and unexpected characters that explore what it means to be Asian American today. The documentary is co-produced with KQED and will play Sunday, March 15, 2015 at 2:20pm at the Castro Theatre.

Lee chats with us about what she learned through the year-long process of traveling across America to hear stories from the people behind the food.

—Momo Chang

What is Off the Menu?
I would describe it as a road trip through the United States, where we get to meet folks that reflect an evolving Asian America and a wide ranging relationship with food. We liked “Off the Menu” as a title because it had many different meanings, one of them being that we’re telling stories off the beaten track.

When I say I’m doing a documentary about Asian American food and culture, some people get excited because they think they’ll learn where they can get the best ramen or pho.  But Off the Menu is not a cooking or travel show, even though there’s cooking and travel in the film. The focus is something much deeper about what it means to be Asian American — which in itself is hard to pin down.

How did you choose those locations and stories for the documentary? 
We put out a call for story ideas. We got a lot of suggestions at  a community event at KQED. That generated an opportunity to jumpstart the research. Obviously, it was very hard to narrow down the stories because how can you summarize all of Asian America in one hour?  You could do a feature film on one mini-mall in Koreatown in L.A. But we tried to reflect a  diversity of ethnicity and geography and the way food plays a role in peoples’ lives.

Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

What was the most profound moment when you were traveling around and talking with people?
I had heard about the lungar, a communal meal practice in the Sikh tradition. And then I immediately thought about how a tradition like this would have been affected in Oak Creek, Wisconsin  — where the local Sikh temple was target of a racist shooting attack in 2012. We just reached out and discovered  how lungar is such an important part of the community and its resilience, both before and after that event.

When I think about the stories you have in the documentary—when we think about Asian American food, people know ramen and dumplings and celebrity chefs and people get excited about that. But the stories you chose are still mostly invisible to most of America.

I guess for me, the best dumpling or best Asian dish, is not what I’m interested in.  I’m interested in it as a consumer, but as a storyteller, I’m looking to find something deeper. Food is an accessible entry point for a lot of people. If you can pique peoples’ interests or whet their appetite—excuse the terrible pun—through a food story, maybe they’ll consider who are the people making the food, or behind the food process.

What did you learn after traveling across America and talking to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders about food?
I knew that food would be a great way to talk about a wide variety of stories related to Asian Americans but I wasn’t expecting how readily people would open up as we would sit down over a meal. Or how much pride and love they had for this important aspect of their lives. In many ways, we just scratched the surface. To really do the topic justice, we’d probably need an ongoing series. On a practical level, I learned how to grate a raw coconut and how to make chapatis.

Is there anything else you want to add?
As a documentary filmmaker, I feel very lucky to meet and talk to people about what they do. The different roles that food plays in peoples’ lives is fascinating. I would never think someone restoring an ancient fish pond in Hawaii would be in the same film as a sushi test kitchen (in Houston), where they’re making these concoctions that feature cream cheese and Flaming Hot Cheetos. I just really appreciate the diversity of the community, which was fun. A lot of fun.

Grace’s Top 5 Foods

“I will never get tired of eating these foods”

1.) Doenjang Jjigae (Korean fermented bean paste stew)

2.) Carne Asada Tacos (or any Mexican food)

3.) Caesar Salad

4.) Pain au Chocolat

5.) Chirashi Sushi

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Off the Menu is a co-production of CAAM and KQED for PBS, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Find updates at Off the Menu: Asian America‘s Facebook page!