Winston Chiu, a consultant-turned-chef-turned-entrepreneur, founded Rethink Food in 2018 as a pipeline dedicated to fighting food insecurity. He takes us from the personal, including rekindling his love for food, to the professional, including new social impact initiative Feed Forward, which continues to serve New York's minority neighborhoods today.
Samantha: Could I just start with you introducing yourself, your line of work?
Winston: Sure, so I started my professional career as a finance and math major. I actually worked in corporate America doing consultancy for a couple years before jumping into the restaurant business. So a decade as a chef and a food entrepreneur in New York City, then I worked fine dining. I've had my fair share of catering, business, restaurants, and it ultimately led me to the work I'm doing today, which is using food as a vehicle and building communities, which is something I'm really passionate about.
So I started an organization called Rethink Food, and my ambition there was to really solve some of the food waste issues, food excess issues we've had in New York City. There are so many people in poverty dealing with food insecurity, I just felt like we had so much that we could just give away. And if we could do a better job at it, maybe we wouldn't have as many people in need of these types of services. So, that was the inspiration, and then came Covid two years later. Everybody else's model has been changed forever, at least in the most immediate time. So we pivoted our work to enlisting restaurants and soup kitchens. People needed meals, food insecurity was only on the rise, and at the same time restaurants... they were there to feed people, but without the luxury of people having takeout. Thus we felt like there was something we could do in terms of being a matchmaker.
Samantha: Wow, first, that is just so cool. I think the first thing you said that struck me was how the issue of food insecurity doesn't have to do with a shortage of food in America. Instead it's about how we can't get that excess food from restaurants distributed to the communities that need it, so I think the fact that you identified that specific issue and worked to solve it... that's just really cool
Winston: Yeah, it's definitely an allocation problem, getting food from Point A to Point B. Restaurants are overproducing, people are overbuying... so most definitely that is true, and one of the solutions we thought out at Rethink was, "How do we offer services to help reallocate food to communities that need it." And, you know, "How do we figure out creative ways or inventive ways to give access?"
Samantha: You also mentioned that you started in finance, and maybe it's my own stereotype that that's almost the opposite of nonprofit work—I'm imagining corporate nature, elitism, maybe Wall Street. Did you ever feel this notion while you were in the industry, and how did it you make that transition from finance into the nonprofit sector?
Winston: I actually came out of college in the public sector, as an actuary for a state insurance department, and I realized that working in government at such a very young age that a lot of the work was more politics than actual governing. So that grew tiring pretty quickly, and I moved toward working in the public sector for a Fortune 50 firm. And that gave some satisfaction for quite some time, until I realized that I was only helping corporations get richer, and a lot of the work wasn't really on the ground level.
So it took some soul-searching to revisit something I loved to do, which was cook, and I'd always thought about it as a professional career but never as something that I sold out. And at the age of 25, I was like, "Alright, if this is the time, this is the time to do it." I quit my job, I went to culinary school, and I started working in fine dining restaurants. And I just realized (laughs) the structure there was probably the same as corporate America, which was feeling like there wasn't necessarily a place for me as an Asian-American to reach the ranks. Which, you know, reflectively, back at corporate, I looked up, I was like, "There's no CEOs, there's no managing directors, and if there is, there's probably only less than one percent." And I was a numbers guys, so I was like, I probably have a larger chance to win the lottery than doing my hard work climbing the ranks. So ultimately I knew I was going to work for myself, and food was just something I was passionate about, and I was fortunate enough to be good at to work my way through the industry to create something.
So to answer your question, yeah, that was also very eye-opening, from just the life that I'd once lived to the life I'm living now, but also the implications of the work. I think that the institutional knowledge of working in finance America and a corporation allowed me to take those skillsets back to the community and actually use it as a tool to teach others. Often, when we're working in nonprofits or working with communities, they don't have the appropriate resources or funding, so one thing I'm able to do is leverage my institutional knowledge to be able to sit in those room son behalf of the communities to negotiate, help bring in resources successfully, but also teach those people to do it themselves.
Samantha: Which is so, so cool, absolutely. When you were talking about this almost gatekeeping against Asian-Americans in the CEO positions, why do you think this is? Do you find it more institutionalized or because of preconceived prejudices? What was your experience with anti-Asian bias, if any?
Winston: I don't think there was any malicious intent, at least not to my knowledge. I was never discriminated against, but I think there's a need in terms of representation. Often, whether spoken or unspoken, as Asian-Americans, we definitely need to support our own, but we also need to understand that we're not outliers. The stereotypical Asian works hard, isn't very sociable. They kind of keep to themselves, and I think things have changed. So I’d agree that there exists a preconceived notion against Asian-Americans.
Something that I've seen in my work, at least in New York City, is working with older versus younger generations, there is a gap that needs to be bridged. And I think that comes from, you know, our older generation growing up in a world of obscurity. Whereas as a younger generation, we have more abundance, and we have our own perspectives, which are definitely varying. So the more that we have these conversations within our own communities, hopefully that allows us to find our own identities so we don't feel like we're outliers.
Samantha: Of course, I mean both my parents are software developers, and that's all of my friends' parents. I think it's because, being immigrants, they were taught those technical key skills, but I guess as we see more generations being born in America, it's the dream that we'd take up jobs in politics, entertainment, journalism, that we aren't so confined to what's considered the model minority.
Winston: Yeah, for me to be a chef was like the total opposite. My parents didn't really try to stop me. They came to America at a really young age, so they were like in-between, and I was fortunate enough to have that freedom. But yes, for most of my friends with immigrant parents, they pushed them to be sort of what that model minority was—getting a good paying job, something that would benefit, something they didn't have to worry about. Because I think, as a parent, you only want what's best for your child and to shield them from those experiences you might have had and provide a better life. But also, at the same time, it's very contrived.
A lot of these people I hear about say, "What made you do it? What made you have the courage to do something that's so different, that's not typical of Chinese culture?" And I think for most, we don't get to enjoy the arts as much, we're less represented. But I think the beautiful time right now, the generations we're seeing.
Samantha: Tell me more about your parents, who you said were the ones who immigrated here, right?
Winston: My dad's from China, he came here when he was nine. My mom was born in Hong Kong, moved to England when she was four, and then eventually came to the U.S. where she married my dad. So both my parents, they follow Chinese tradition, but I'd also say they have a lot of influence from Western culture. That also allowed me to have a little more of a perspective on what Western culture was. Even myself, I was born and raised in Brooklyn.
Samantha: Yeah, I think starting this nonprofit about food, which is really just pursuing your dreams, that's definitely a Western notion, which I couldn't imagine the average child of immigrants embracing the opportunity to do. What values have you taken from Chinese culture that still help you today?
Winston: One, I think growing up I definitely did struggle with guilt. Trying to pursue my dreams, chase my dreams—I was actually interested art, because I actually wanted to be a cartoonist. But I was always engulfed in cooking, but I still ended up going to college, because I was like, "I definitely want to make my parents proud," and there was nowhere else to go. But for me, eventually I realized I needed to lead my own life and take the risk and be happy, right? So at the early age of 25, I was like, "Alright, I'm going to chase my dream, I'm going to do this." And if it didn't work, at least the college and school stuff, I could always go back to it. I already had a ceiling. But I felt like I needed to take charge and explore something different, just to fulfill my dreams. So if I had something that I was passionate about, it was unlimited, and I felt that I could find success through that, but also be happy.
In terms of the course of the last year, working with the Chinese community and Chinatown actually restored a lot of values I grew up with. Which is understanding, in our culture, you know, we take care of our elders. I realized while making decisions with my nonprofit work in Chinatown that a lot of the businesses we start these days are not inclusive of seniors. It's not inclusive of those communities, and when we talk about doing work in Chinatown, I often ask myself, "Who do we serve?" And it is often serving those 20,000 to 30,000 seniors who don't necessarily fit the model minority stereotype. There's this disillusion that Chinese people do very well, when there's a large population of Chinese people that are aging and don't have access to resources. I realized that a lot of our businesses going forth, that's something we definitely need to be reminded. That in our culture, this is what we do, and that's why it's important for us to be able to build our businesses, but also make sure that our businesses stand to serve our community.
Samantha: I was also reading on the Rethink Food site earlier and what I found really cool was that besides the Chinatown projects you mentioned, you do a lot of work for Black and women-owned businesses. I think perceptions toward race, especially including African-Americans, remains controversial in Chinese culture, so I was wondering what your stances on this were.
Winston: I think growing up in New York and being raised in Brooklyn definitely puts me in a unique position to have different perspectives on things. I talked about growing up as an American in New York with parents of both Asian descent. I didn't feel like I belonged. In the sense of I couldn't identify myself as to which side I stood on.. And it's an absurd thing to say, right? But to further elaborate, there's this saying in the Chinese community that, if you were born here, the joke is, "What do you know?" In a sense, it's like our own culture doesn't even embrace us somethings. By something so simple, so non-malicious, often jokingly, but it is true. We don't feel like we've embraced our own culture enough as a younger generation, we don't feel like we have these conversations that happen. Especially if their parents are newly immigrated, they have this goal to secure financial stability and family wealth so you can build up. So a lot of it isn't passed down, or we just don't make the time allocated to have these conversations, which bridges the gap between the old and the new.
And then, here, living in America, you're also facing a lot of race issues. You know, "Oh, you're Chinese," or the stereotypical things that you go through, being an Asian-American. So I always felt like I lived in between, but I also understood a lot of what New York culture is. So for me, taking care of other communities was right thing to do, because it was also who I grew up with you. I didn't see it as a differentiator; in fact, a lot of the work that I was doing at the early onset of the pandemic was helping people in the Bronx, helping people in Brooklyn, of all ethnicities and cultures.
It wasn't until I actually came to Chinatown one day, and it was like day fifteen of the pandemic that I was like, "Alright, I'm really hungry, I haven't eaten, let's go to Chinatown and grab something," because Chinatown's always open. And to my surprise it was literally that same week that Chinatown closed down. There was I think one restaurant that was open, one grocery store, and I just panicked. I was like, a lot of the seniors here, people who live in Chinatown, they rely on the local supermarkets and restaurants to survive. And even if there was a Whole Foods, they wouldn't have anything that resonates with them or is inside their price point. So that was literally three days, I gathered up my resources, asked around for who was running things or who had power in Chinatown to help, and we bought 10,000 meals in 72 hours. I was actually unsure, I was like "my organization's going to kill me, because we're going to have all this leftover food."
Well, we ran out of food in thirty minutes. And you could see how panicked and scared people were, because, you know, we were there, and we've done over 10 million meals of food in Chinatown specifically, and there's still a great need. We're still doing about 10,000 meals that are delivered door to door each day, and when you look in Chinatown, it's not just Chinese people, right? There's constituents of Latinos and Blacks and it's a wide range of ethnicities—there's actually a pretty large Jewish community down there as well. But understanding that we're a community that's facing the same thing, I was hoping it would allow people some unity and understand that we're all facing the same time. And when I looked around, hopefully they saw that we were all part of the solution rather than being the issue. Xenophobia and all that stuff was on my mind, that I just knew, six months or eight months from now, who are they going to blame? And this is what we're starting to see in the last couple months, so it's up to us to be out there and be part of the solution and be vocal so that, you know, they can see that we're a lot more similar than we are different.
Samantha: That's so amazing, first of all, the ten thousand meals, did you say? But I think there's so much animosity between minorities that just doesn't have to exist. I know from an immigrant's perspective, it's often that, "We came here, we did it the right way, and we worked our way up. Why can't you do the same?" Whereas from another point of view, it's the point that "Asian-Americans didn't experience slavery or real racism." I think it's that conflict which you're bridging which is so, so great to hear.
Winston: And it's insane, because when you look at the minority group, the fact that we further segment the different races and groups allows us to be more divided, versus if we just looked at us all as a human race. The fact that we have to be that way creates this tension and the model minority myth, when they're like, "Why can't you be more like Asians?" But they're only shining a light on a very small percentage us, when there's still a very large population that battles insecurity and poverty.
Samantha: And then, of course you're in the nonprofit line of work, but I was wondering what role you wished the government played in aiding your goals, in fostering equity or equality or whatever the buzz word is?
Winston: I think that for me, when I first started Rethink Food, was that we didn't necessarily tie ourselves in with the government. We knew just knew that there was a lot of inefficiencies and navigating through that world, you know, wasn't necessarily the most efficient thing to do. But I think given our work over the course of the year, being able to work more closely with elected officials, I think that's unique timing which they were much more active, but we also had their ears. So we realized we can give a role where we can give proper feedback to the government, and I do believe that hopefully government can create policies and work with consulting firms or even for-profit and nonprofits alike to really bolster the support and create policies that are reflective of the people that they govern.
So, you know, with this new SNAP BBT issue, with the expansion in government resources in food aid and welfare, I'd hope that they'd be able to work with us, nonprofit organizations and communities alike, to expand the coverage. Could we use these benefits so that people could purchase hot meals, so that there is more equitable programming? I think the government needs a little bit of a lift. The idea of being in status quo (well, that's what they're meant for)\ doesn't mean they can't also live in a world where they also create policies for those that they govern.
Samantha: Right, and that's so well-said. Well I think I've used up enough of your time, but literally thank you so much. I mean, I love doing this, but I think your interview in particular, the work you do is amazing. It's been so cool to hear from you. So, thank you again.
Winston: Thank you, and you know, I left Rethink in September and I started this new company called Feed Forward. We do a lot of top-down consultancy, working very heavily in the food supply chain, but we are also very focused in creating impact programs. And the reason why that is important is that we want to make sure the feedback from the impact programs that're working within the communities have a bottom-to-top feedback loop, and that allows top-down decisions to be made more mindfully.
We also work with organizations in order to ask, "How can we offer and create programs that allow for-profit businesses to actually have a portion in which they can contribute to the communities on the ground level?" And for us that's very important, because I think there's a lot of corporations that want to do it, there's a lot of companies that want to do it, but they're not solely dedicated to it—and reasonably right, they have their businesses to run. But I think one thing we can do is allow them to have a buy-in and have an impact and contribute in a way that we feel allows them to be more tangible and reasonable versus asking for an arm and a leg. So it's thanks to these people who open up their businesses to contribute, because without those partnerships, it would be very hard for us to do what we do.