Chef Eva Chin on Reclaiming Culture and Identity Through Food

For Chef Eva Chin, food is a universal language of love. 

Not only does food tell the story of a dish to a guest, it is also a way of nurturing and communicating within the family. Born of mixed Samoan, Singaporean and Chinese descent, food is her mother tongue.

Photo Credit: Hakan Burcuoglu.

Chin’s culinary adventures have taken her around the world. She has worked in Japan, Australia, and the three Michelin-starred Norwegian restaurant Maaemo, before landing in Toronto as the Chef de Cuisine of Momofuku Kojin. After 16 years, her journey has brought her back to her roots.

“I spent my whole life cooking for brands and cooking other people’s food,” she said. “It took me until the pandemic to freeze, and start cooking food from my heritage.”

Read more on identity and food: hot for food’s Lauren Toyota on her career journey, racial identity, and new cookbook

Now working on her own brand and pop-up, Chin reflects on how she has come full circle to embracing her identity as an Asian of mixed heritage, and reclaiming her cultures through food.

“I’m still in the process of [feeling] proud to be Asian,” she said. “I’m at the part of my journey where I’m just connecting all the things I ran away from.”

LOVE FOR THE LAND AND FAMILY

Born and raised on her grandmother’s farm in Kahuku, Hawaii, Chin’s first foray into cooking began at a young age. Her grandmother, or Tūtū in Hawaiian, was one of the first non-Japanese females working in a sushi restaurant on the island.

She taught Chin how to farm, forage and communicate with the community through food. To this day, she is still Chin’s number one mentor.

“My grandmother wanted to make sure I grew up with a strong sense of land, belonging, and family,” Chin explained. “She always wanted to cultivate Aloha ʻĀina, which in Hawaiian means the love for the land.”

Regardless of which cuisine she is celebrating, Chin carries Aloha ‘Āina — and the memories of her grandmother — close to her heart, by learning about the land she lives on and incorporating locally-sourced ingredients into her creations.

Her diverse cultural background has shaped her approach to cooking and living, as well as her fervour for travelling. 

Chin’s dad’s side of the family is Singaporean-Chinese, while her mom’s is Samoan-Hawaiian. Describing her childhood as “lots of worlds colliding at the same time,” she has perfected the ability to step back from complex family dynamics and navigate the situation with ease.

“It allowed me to understand that all the differences and cultures within us need to find a way to balance,” Chin said. “How I was raised really shaped who I want to be.”

After completing her psychology degree in Boston, she decided to travel, despite the career plans her family had for her. In order to sustain her nomadic lifestyle, she took up jobs in the restaurant industry.

Her first stop was Japan, where she sharpened her knife skills and fundamental techniques. From there, she set off for Europe to work at a fine dining restaurant. With a front-row seat to the action, she watched in awe as the chefs executed one immaculate dish after another. Just like that, her culinary passion ignited.

“It made me realize how much care went behind the food and the story,” she said. “The precision and finesse captivated me into wanting to have this as a career.”

A MINORITY WOMAN IN THE KITCHEN

Looking back at her career, Chin has faced her share of prejudice in the kitchen. The food service industry remains a male-dominant field. Females make up less than a quarter of the chefs and head cooks in the workforce.

She recalls walking into work on her first day, and a male cook immediately assuming she was the pastry chef.

“I’ve carried every single label that is a disadvantage to me — I’m gay, outspoken, mixed minority and a woman,” Chin said.

“I can’t track which part the prejudice was for.”

Like many women, Chin was taught to be grateful for every opportunity presented to them, especially positions that are traditionally occupied by men.

“We are grateful for where we have come, because we know how hard it is,” she said. “To own this, we need to be treated like this and work for it.”

However, a major shift is taking place in the food industry. Issues of workplace abuse, labour violation, and racial discrimination have been thrust into the limelight through high-profile allegations, such as Willow’s Inn and Bon Appetit. Restaurant employees and food writers are calling out prestigious chefs and executives for contributing to a toxic work culture.

However, Chin remains hopeful that the industry is on its road to recovery, as more employees and consumers speak up to hold the chefs and restaurants accountable. She acknowledged the apology of her former boss David Chang, who recently issued a statement for his behaviours.

The floodgates have now opened, and as more women and minority chefs rise up the ranks, change will become more evident. 

“The new generation will fight for themselves,” Chin said. “When I was an apprentice, we didn’t have that mentality.”

CHALLENGING THE STEREOTYPE OF ASIAN FOOD

Throughout her career, Chin has served up an impressive repertoire of exquisite European and New American dishes. She continues to challenge herself by coming up with fresh and innovative takes on classic favourites.

Most recently, she seized the opportunity to design a menu at Momofuku Kojin, named Toronto’s best new restaurant in 2019, which paid homage to her Hawaiian traditions and her childhood memories of grilling in a backyard earth oven with her Tūtū. 

For years, Chin distanced herself from Asian cuisine. She chose not to draw from the skills her grandmother had passed onto her.

“When I was in Europe, there was such a strong sense of elitism in French cuisine, in haute cuisine, and it made me want to chase that so much,” Chin said. “I just kind of put my heritage aside because there wasn’t that same demand.”

Asian food often carries associations of “fast” and “cheap”, in sharp contrast to the elevated status of European fine dining. According to Chin, this perception has a historical origin. 

Chinese restaurants were first built in America to cater to Chinese railway workers who were nostalgic for a taste of home. The food had to be cheap and fast, because they were only paid a third of what white workers were paid, and had shorter breaks.

“If that is the first story of the existence of Chinese restaurants in America, how do we go from there?” Chin said, reflecting on this discovery. “The history has been there, but it’s being unnoticed.”

RECLAIMING OUR IDENTITY AND HISTORY

Chin’s next step is launching her own brand and pop-up, celebrating all the cultures she grew up with.

Whether it is exploring the flavours of Singaporean and Hawaiian cuisines or diving into a novel by Amy Tan, Chin has rekindled her relationship with her past and is digging deep for inspiration.

“Cooking from the heart has never meant so much to me more than now,” she said. “I need to have a personal connection with cooking.”

In April, Chef Chin joined forces with Chef Ken Yau of k.Market to invigorate a Southern Chinese feast, in support of Asian elders in the community.   

As a millennial, Chin recognizes the responsibility of her generation to pass on the stories of our ancestors in order to bridge generational and cultural gaps.

As a child of the eighties, she lived through a time of rapid transition. She most notably experienced the arrival of the Internet, as well as progressive changes in LGBTQ+ rights. Knowing what life was like before and after instills a strong sense of empowerment.

“That’s what’s changing in our generation,” Chin said. “We are speaking up and claiming our stories that belong to the history of this land.”

Despite the history of struggle and contributions to North American society, many still treat those of Asian descent as perpetual foreigners in their own home countries.

To combat this, Chin believes that this storytelling needs to continue within and beyond our generation.

“I’m over six generations in North America and this is my home,” Chin said. “When I think about what my ancestors and parents have done, that’s not Asian history. To me, that’s Asian North American history.”

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