Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Calling all Foodies! “Family Style” celebrates diverse Asian cuisines
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Family Style Season 1, Episode 2

Calling all Foodies! “Family Style” celebrates diverse Asian cuisines

If nothing else, the pandemic of 2020 has caused many of us to hunker down and go out much less than before – if at all. With restaurants, bars and clubs shut down, many shops closed other than essential businesses for groceries, gas and whatnot, and no concerts, movies or other events to attend, our entertainment options became limited.

And yet, they’ve expanded – exploded even – in one direction: Online. Not only are we meeting and socializing, organizing and learning via now-ubiquitous platforms like Zoom that we didn’t even know about a year ago, but we’re now glued to various screens in our hands and homes, for streaming information and entertainment.

I’m not ashamed to admit we’ve binged our way through ridiculous hours of movies and series, especially ones about or involving Asians or Asian American Pacific Islanders.

We’ve watched “Always Be My Maybe” three more times, “Crazy Rich Asians” a couple more times, re-lived “Fresh Off the Boat” (were the boys really that young???), “Kim’s Convenience,” “Never Have I Ever,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and the 2020 sequel, “To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You,” martial arts series including “Into the Badlands,” “Wu Assassins” (the diner scene in episode 7, “Legacy,” will always and forever be my favorite for kicking ass on a bunch of racists) and now, and most significantly, “Warrior.” That’s the one that should have starred Bruce Lee and instead was ripped off, whitified and turned into “Kung Fu” with David Carradine in the 1970s. Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon took her father’s notes from his series idea and worked with Justin Lin to create a martial arts series set in San Francisco the late 1800s (before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). It’s fast, violent and covers a lot of ground about racism and nationalism.

I’ve also been addicted to YouTube, watching videos from and about Japan (also an enchanting Chinese YouTuber, Liziqi) and about gardening, and a lot of videos about food, both cooking and eating at restaurants. A lot about Japanese food (I’m working on a book) but also other Asian cuisines.

One YouTube series that I’ve been enchanted by, bingeing on its short (under 15 minutes) episodes and wide variety of amazing Asian food, is “Family Style,” a project of Stage 13, a production company that creates content for and featuring Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPIs).

“Family Style” is a cuisine-by-cuisine tour of mainly Los Angeles Asian restaurants with several notable (including international) exceptions, with a revolving group of AAPI friends calling themselves the “Foodie Fam” – most are familiar from films and series in showbiz – dining at recommended eateries and sharing their thoughts about the food. The discussions run the gamut from family memories of growing up eating the many dishes, to cultural context for each cuisine and the authenticity of the each restaurant’s menus.

The show premiered in 2019, and finished its second season under the pandemic restrictions this summer.  

Episodes spotlight subjects such as “Family” (duh) with the father-son duo of Jeff and Hudson “Fresh Off the Boat” Yang talking about Taiwanese cuisine,  nose-to-tail cooking (with actor/dancer Harry Shum Jr.), noodles, night markets, food-related myths and urban legends, Asian sweets and one of my favorite topics, appropriation vs. appreciation with guest experts Phil “Angry Asian Man” Yu and Jeff “writer of all things AAPI” Yang at an Asian fusion restaurant, Bar Cade.

Throughout, viewers get a taste of familiar food, like sushi, but also get introduced to Burmese comfort food. And that’s just in the first season!

In the second season, we get to drool over topics like “Legends” featuring Shannon Lee talking about her father Bruce Lee, the banchan side dishes of Korean cuisine, and one of the most interesting and thoughtful episodes, “Fusion,” in which the food is a cultural mashup and the Foodie Fam hosts are all multiracial, and talk about growing up in “fusion” families. Another great episode focuses on all-you-can-eat restaurants (which may now be a bit of history with the Coronavirus pandemic shutting down buffets) with foodie, comic and actor Jimmy O. Yang guiding us through a treasure hunt for our taste buds in a Chinese buffet.

During most of the second season, the episodes are introduced by a quick announcement that the show was taped before the pandemic shutdown, and by the seventh episode the Foodie Fam are Zoombies, cooking at home with actor/cookbook author Jimmy Wong helping Lana McKissack with a recipe, then chef Dale Talde judging (at least visually) the best Spam concoction cooked up by the group.  The final episode is also a Zoom production. By now, the “Brady Bunch” grid of faces is so familiar to most of us, that viewing a food show through the interface makes perfect sense and our palates don’t skip a beat.

Throughout both seasons, there’s a healthy sprinkling of tasty celebrity side-interviews and guest appearances (Justin Lin, Daniel Dae Kim, Daniel Wu, Grant Imahara — the “Mythbusters” star who tragically died this summer — YouTubers Fung Brothers, Shannon Lee and others) and the interviews are spiced up with super-cool animated segments directed by Jason McLagan.

I was fortunate to get to chat with Marie Jamora, one of the creators, executive producers and directors (she directed all but the Zoom episodes of the second season) of “Family Style,” about the series, and how the production was affected by Covid-19.

Marie Jamora

“What had to happen, obviously, is that all shows had to find a way to maneuver during the pandemic.  When we were shooting, and I think it’s the episode where Anthony (Ma, a Taiwanese American actor) takes Parvesh (Cheena) for breakfast, that was the last shoot that we had, because that was the day that everything shut down in LA, the NBA announcement and everything,” Jamora says.

“And when they decided to finish the show, they could only bring on a very, very minimal crew. So the pandemic episodes which are  seven and eight, happened during that time. And they couldn’t bring me back for those because they were really just the skeleton crew plus, one editor plus my husband who is the director of animation. That’s basically it was just like, and it’s kind of wonderful what they got to achieve with such a small team.”

But the limitations forced on the show didn’t hurt the quality of the show or the effectiveness of its message educating viewers about Asian food, Jamora adds.

“Yeah, we were supposed to have 12 (episodes, which is what the first season had) actually, and we were 60% done shooting. And when it happened, it was gonna be quite a wonderful season. And it is still, but it pivoted into something very unique.”

In fact, the use of Zoom allowed a reunion that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

“Actually, just to add a little bit to that,” Jamora explains, “one of my favorite episodes is a South Asian lunch between Parvesh and his friends of 20 years, Danny Pudi, Sonal Shah, and Janina Gavankar. They all met in the Chicago comedy scene in theater. And they all became successful in their own right.”

The show had wanted to book Pudi last year, she says. “We were trying to get Danny on the show for season one, and obviously he’s very busy and all over the world. But because of it being on Zoom, we actually got to get everybody on this call. What was quite wonderful is since there’s not any cameras or lights and crew, we actually got to just witness a group of friends, reconnecting and really just talking and being a fly on the wall. So it was for me, one of my favorite conversations we’ve ever had on the show.”

Jamora, who grew up in the Philippines before coming to the US, says she loves focusing on the cultural impact of Asian food in America.

“As a director, I always was attracted to that because, you know, I did not have that experience of bringing smelly food (to school) and being laughed at, but I completely could see why that would happen. And of course, we have to embrace it so it’s really about how we grew up, like growing up Asian wherever, because it actually encompasses, like, even Sharon’s (Lee’s) story of what it was like Hong Kong in the ‘70s. And her mother trying to cook Thai, Italian food in in Hong Kong, what is that like? Right? And so it became broader.

“What we wanted was to really go in and ask celebrities who grew up in a different world, because now people are more open and welcoming to Asian food, but at that time, it wasn’t. And so we really made it a part of like every celebrity, we would ask or invite onto the show. We would ask them about their childhood, find out if they had a colorful story that we could animate. Because I think it’s a great way to immortalize that variance and kind of look back at it. It’s really quite a great conversation, especially with someone like Justin (Lin). He’s a role model for me, as an Asian American director and him paving the way you know, for all of us, and learning about the sacrifices his parents made, with their fish and chips shop. I found that was very poignant. And we could really get a beautifully heartfelt story, like an animated story out of it.”

Jamora and her cohorts began cooking up “Family Style” after the former musician in an indie band and music video director caught the attention of the film world with her indie short film about a Filipina hip-hop DJ set in the early ‘80s, “Flip the Record.”

“I got a phone call from Anderson Lee, who was one of the producers of season one. And he had he had seen my feature film at the Hawaii International Film Festival. And he was seeing on my Facebook feed that I was doing a lot of run-and-gun doc(umentary) style videos for the Slamdance Film Festival. And he was like, ‘hey Marie, um, would you be interested in doing a Food Show?’ because he also saw that I would always post food shots. And we had a friendship where we would like, comment on each other’s food photos. So he recognized that I was a foodie. And then me and my husband, we came up with a pilot video. We knew we wanted to make a magazine style show that mixed animation with live action.”

The format of the series stewed for a couple of years until the team got the green light to produce episodes. “We kind of came up with the Sesame Street idea. We wanted the show to kind of jump around because that, that that gave you that blog feel. That pilot is madly different than what you see today. But there was the spunk and the spirit was all there. As we were waiting, we kept on polishing what the show was going to be about, what was the overarching segment and what are the segments within each episode and the themes of each episode. It was it was my idea to get an ensemble because I didn’t want one person to represent all of the Asian American culture. I wanted there to be this fun, like ‘Friends’ feeling, but with a young Asian American ensemble. So we did a lot of casting, we brought people in and we just had chemistry tests with them eating food and talking about food on camera. And from that we found our Foodie Fam.”

Jamora says she’d love to feature Denver restaurants in the future, if the budget allows traveling across the country.

“I mean, I know that there’s a great food scene in Denver because I did watch that Top Chef season where he was in Denver and it looked amazing. I think Season Two was always going to be based around Southern California and we were honoring what was in our backyard and the mom and pop shops around us. But ‘Family Style’ is really about showcasing Asian food everywhere. So I mean would love for season three to be able to go out again and travel to both Asia and within the United States.

“I’m all for like, yes, Denver, let’s go! We’re always talking about we’d like to do food scenes in different places like in Vancouver. But the ones that people haven’t talked about yet. Because there’s nothing that brings me more joy than to all eat at one of the places that we’re featuring together and gain weight while we’re making the show. That’s literally what makes us happy.”

Me too. Let’s eat!