Lessons from a Food Festival’s Tenth Birthday
Danielle Chang shares what she’s learned after a decade of Lucky Rice festivals around the country.
When Danielle Chang founded Lucky Rice, Asian food was just starting to become widely popular in the United States. “I always wanted to start a brand or marketing platform for Asian culture and thought the best way to reach people was through food, because it’s so universal,” she says.
Ten years in, the festivals continue to draw crowds in cities as different as Houston, Miami, New York, and Los Angeles, where locals turn out in droves to experience street food, mashups, and original creations from chefs like David Chang, Anita Lo, and Kristen Kish.
“A lot of things have contributed to the popularity of Asian food in the US. It’s a whole new generation of eaters, and food is much more of a cultural currency today than it was ten years ago––it’s what everybody talks about, and it’s the most popular form of entertainment,” Chang says. She largely attributes Lucky Rice’s success to the current generation of Asian-American restaurateurs. “Many Asian restaurateurs came to the United States as immigrants and ended up working in restaurants by default. They didn’t really know how to talk about the experience or participate in this global culinary world. Now, there are people like Wilson Tang (of Nom Wah) who know how to market a traditional or heritage products to a new generation of foodies.”
Over the past decade of organizing events around the country, Chang has learned a lot about how to keep turnout high, lineups relevant, and, most importantly, fuel dialogue and education about Asian cuisines. One key lesson? Pay close attention to your audiences.
“When we first launched in NYC under the Brooklyn Bridge, we were showcasing new startups like Momofuku/Milk Bar, which are very much part of our culinary vernacular today. The goal was to bring a traditional Night Market to DUMBO and to infuse it with a New York attitude,” she says. “When we were able to bring it LA, San Francisco, Vegas, Miami, Chicago, and Houston, we were really surprised at how different every pocket of America is in terms of culinary appetite.”
In California, for example, which has the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam and a large number of Filipino immigrants, Chang says Asian restaurants tend to serve food that is more traditional flavor-wise, but that locals are also more likely to be familiar with the nuances of regional cuisines or lesser-known southeast Asian cuisines like Laotian or Cambodian food. Meanwhile, when the festival traveled to Miami, she and her team were surprised to find that it became one of their most popular markets, despite the tiny Asian population there.
“When you think about it, the most popular restaurants in Miami include the likes of Zuma, Hakkasan, and Mr. Chow, which are all Asian-inspired. The interest for the Asian palate is definitely very heavy in Miami, especially with nightlife and the bar scene, so we started serving a lot of Asian-inspired cocktails at our festival there.”
Lucky Rice’s position as an educator has shifted in the past decade, especially since the launch of Lucky Chow, Chang’s PBS series. Chang says that she and her team have observed that people are no longer confusing Thai and Taiwanese food, but instead are talking about the differences of Isan versus Bangkok Thai cuisines. “We’re doing less education about the foods that comprise the Asian diaspora and more of a curatorial job of putting together chefs in each of our markets and making sure the feast is well-rounded,” she says.
Aside from becoming more informed, consumers and festival-goers are also becoming hungrier for different kinds of talent than in previous years.
“Ten years ago, people were still coming to food festivals to take photos with celebrity chefs. We do have a lot of celebrity chefs on our culinary council, from Daniel Boulud to José Andres, but today people are much more about the discovery,” she says. To cater to that shift and own Lucky Rice’s evolving status as a trend forecaster in the culinary space, the next feast in downtown Los Angeles is called The Night Market of the Future. The festival aims to predict what foods people are going to be eating tomorrow and commenting on culinary collisions and global mashups in terms of ingredients and what chefs are playing with in terms of profile. “We’re involving a lot of younger chefs, next-gen chefs, and even people who are doing pop-ups who don’t have a permanent home...the audience knows that Lucky Rice is going to curate a great lineup of Asian-inspired dishes and next best new chefs.”