Last spring, New Yorkers felt their city’s hustle and bustle simmer down to a hum. Beloved businesses shut down. Subways were empty. The street commuters vanished overnight. For some city dwellers, like Moonlynn Tsai, a local restaurateur most recently at Kopitiam, and actor Yin Chang (The Bling Ring, Gossip Girl), the next step was obvious: they had to find a way to help their neighbors in need.
Soon what began as a plan to deliver about 20,000 meals to Asian elders around the City turned into a full nonprofit. On a mission to fight food insecurity and isolation facing many of Chinatown’s elderly residents, Heart of Dinner has helped deliver over 70,000 hot meals and fresh groceries to date. Together with a team of volunteers, Tsai and Chang have also helped generate over $200,000 in support for businesses in Nolita, the Lower East Side and Chinatown, many of which suffered during the spread of anti-Asian hate sentiments.
We chatted with the duo about how Heart of Dinner has taught them about the power of community and the importance of a good meal. They also share some of their favorite NYC spots for coffee, food and entertainment.
Tell us about how Heart of Dinner came to be.
Yin Chang: In March of last year, when coronavirus cases were hitting New York, we began hearing news of xenophobia and racism tensions escalating. At the same time, I remember as schools were shutting down, we started noticing issues like food insecurity within our neighborhood. We started making phone calls to social service organizations around Chinatown and found out there was actually a huge food insecurity problem, especially for the Asian elderly over 65.
So we began making meals to deliver. Soon people we knew, from Brooklyn to San Diego, started reaching out to ask how they could help. They asked if they could send us ingredients or give us money for supplies. Friends at restaurants began asking if they could help too, even if their restaurants had closed. It was amazing to see such a vibrant and giving community come together during a dark time. From there, things really took off.
Can each of you share how Heart of Dinner’s mission speaks to you on a personal level, and how your experiences have inspired your work now?
Moonlynn Tsai: I grew up a food industry kid, but working in restaurants wasn’t something I wanted to be a part of. As immigrants, my parents had to work a lot. I envied friends having dinners with their families while mine weren’t home. But as I got older, I realized I actually enjoy hospitality and working with food. After opening a farm-to-table restaurant in LA, I started recognizing that the big difference between me and my parents was that they were working in this industry to survive. I’m privileged to be able to do this out of passion. Working with Heart of Dinner has really pushed me to revisit and appreciate an industry I often tried to get away from. It also reminded me how supportive the industry’s community is.
YC: As an actor and founder of the podcast 88 Cups of Tea, something I’ve been reflecting on lately is how, growing up, I used to get teased for being so sensitive. But through Heart of Dinner, I’m learning how much something I was criticized for should really be embraced. We don’t always get to see the elderly who get our care packages so we thought, How could we tell them we love them? This inspired the idea to pack handwritten notes into our meal deliveries and decorate the bags. Knowing that our elders are receiving thoughtful, beautiful notes written by our amazing volunteers has been meaningful for us and for them.
MT: Many of the elders keep the notes they receive and cut out the artwork on the bags. It’s really sweet.
Through Heart of Dinner, you’ve both been able to make such an impact in terms of cultivating a community around those in need. Can you talk more about this?
YC: Our work with Heart of Dinner has really brought a greater sense of awareness of both the issues our community has been facing for a while, and of the people who’ve been dedicated to fixing these issues for a long time. New York’s Chinese-American Planning Council and the Hamilton-Madison House are two local organizations that have been doing amazing work with these communities for decades.
MT: Another lesson that working with Heart of Dinner has taught us is that it’s always okay to ask for help. Fundraising is still very new to both of us. Initially we spent a lot of our own savings to keep this running, but quickly realized that wasn’t sustainable. Since then, we’ve had incredible people from the City’s community, from artists to fellow restaurateurs, step up. Everyone was excited to be a part of something like this.
YC: Our hope is that the work of Heart of Dinner continues to be a platform that reminds more people to check in on their elders and simply look out for their neighbors.
Moonlynn Tsai and Yin Chang share their favorite places in NYC to go for . . .
A Coffee (or Tea) Break
Ppl: Lovely Japanese-owned café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Everything is so delicious, and the inside is filled with plants and beautiful greenery. Great matcha lattes too.
Coffee Project: Their original East Village location is our favorite place to go for a break, but we’ll make any excuse to visit any of their shops, all run by an awesome Malaysian couple. They also have New York State’s only Specialty Coffee Association premier training campus, in Long Island City.
Té Company Tea: A charming Taiwanese-owned tea company with wonderful oolong teas. Really feels like a piece of Taiwan.
Metrograph: Super cool spot on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side. It was a warehouse converted into an old-school movie theater. There’s also an upstairs bar and restaurant. [Editor’s note: The theater and restaurant are currently closed but you can watch on-demand and live screenings on their website].
Angel’s Share: Very secret speakeasy on the second floor of a Japanese restaurant.
Essex Market: A great neighborhood spot with lots of ways to support local vendors.
Really Good Food
Vanessa’s Dumpling House: All of Chinatown is great, but we really love Vanessa’s and will bring people here all the time. So lucky to live right by them.
Maxi’s Noodle: A go-to for real Hong-Kong style eats. We often go to Queens just for Maxi’s Noodle and bring back packs of their frozen dumplings for our friends in the City.
Scarr’s Pizza: Oh my god. Just so good.