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Future Shapers Food and Drink Lee Tran Lam
Photograph: Will Reichelt

Time Out's Food and Drink Future Shaper: Lee Tran Lam

The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney

Written by
Elizabeth McDonald

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.

Through her many platforms like The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry podcast, her book New Voices on Food, and community-driven initiatives like Diversity in Food Media, Sydney based journalist, editor and copywriter, Lee Tran Lam is challenging preconceived notions of what the food landscape is really all about while tackling head on the damaging stereotypes many of us accept of when we consider what diversity looks like.

Ever humble, Lam’s accomplishments in showcasing and highlighting the stories behind culturally, ethnically and linguistically diverse audiences and professionals alike have made her one of the most relevant changemakers in Australia's media landscape today. From creating networking platforms, open calls for submissions to her book, and interviewing world-renowned chefs, not just about their food but their entire cultural outlook, Lam strives to create a food scene that’s as inclusive as possible and to show that there’s more to food media than people might think. 

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What does diversity look like to you and how do you think this has changed in recent years? Where is it headed? 

I think if true diversity existed, we wouldn’t have to talk about it – it would be everywhere! One easy way to talk about diversity is to talk about what diversity isn’t. For example, on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, there is only one restaurant from mainland China that’s included: Ultraviolet in Shanghai, a 10-seat restaurant that is run by a French chef, Paul Pairet. It’s known for a European-style tasting menu that starts at $800. It seems wild to me that in a country with over a billion people, with a cuisine that has thousands of years of history, supposedly the only great restaurant is an ultra-exclusive, degustation restaurant run by a French chef? 

For me, diversity is hearing about the rich wealth of eateries you can find in Sydney, not just the flashiest restaurant with the flashiest menu. 

It’s been fantastic to see inspiring examples of diverse media coverage emerging in the last year or so, but there’s still a lot of progress to be made. It’s not just about making room for Indigenous and cultural and linguistically diverse communities, it’s also about reflecting people who are LGBTQIA+, people with disability or those that are from any other under-represented background. 

How can we encourage and support a more inclusive culture when it comes to improving diversity in food media? 

I think it’s always worth considering a wider perspective, and supporting and making room for those wider perspectives. For example, I think of a New York Times story that reported how American dietitians are trained to offer a really narrow definition of what ‘healthy’ food is. It opens with the perspective of Jessica Wilson, who was the only Black student at her dietetics program at the University of California. There was just one day devoted to what was called “ethnic diets.” I wonder if there was more diverse reporting about these foods, whether there would be such reductive stereotyping of these “ethnic" cuisines as “unhealthy”? 

I also think about how much we gain from hearing from a wider range of voices. I recently read about Iranian Kurdish refugee Farhad Bandesh and his quest to make wine in Australia after being locked in immigration detention for 71/2 years (for no crime, but simply for wanting a second chance at life, as a refugee). Kurdish culture has an 8,000-year history of producing alcohol, which makes it one of the oldest wine-making cultures in the world. But the names of his wines, like the Game Over Cabernet Sauvignon (named after an Amnesty International campaign to release refugees from Australian detention) also force you to reckon with Australia’s cruel policy of detaining refugees. 

I think it’s worth supporting those voices that are telling these inclusive stories – amplify them, tell your friends, share these stories. Seek out the cookbooks, podcasts, websites, publications that are telling these diverse stories. 

Do you feel burdened by a responsibility to educate people about food culture? 

I think there are times when you feel the need to speak up – like if someone says something about MSG being dodgy and uses it as a way to stereotype Asian restaurants as being unhealthy, I point out that MSG occurs naturally in mushrooms, cheese and tomatoes, yet no one would avoid an Italian restaurant because of MSG, or expect it to be “MSG-free” (and they shouldn’t because it’s been proven that there’s nothing wrong with MSG). 

Also, when people complain about how much food costs, I think it’s worth pointing out certain double standards. There was a great quote from chef Dan Hong from a story that Colin Ho and Nicholas Jordan wrote for the ABC a few years ago, where they questioned why people didn’t value Asian food (when it came to restaurants and recognition – and also when it came to the bill). When David Chang opened his Momofuku Nishi restaurant in New York in 2016, he deliberately charged “pasta prices” for noodle dishes, to point out this kind of double standard. 

Where does your love of food come from and what inspires you to advocate for IBPOC perspectives so passionately? Is it strictly personal or did you identify a niche in the market? 

Covering food (whether through my writing or through my podcast, The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry) makes me appreciate how food is so much more than something that keeps hunger away: it’s about geography, culture, the environment, history, immigration, the traditional custodians of the land, health and well-being, it’s about who gets to make the food, who gets to enjoy it and who gets celebrated for it. It’s about traditions and technique, as well as wild experiments and innovation.

What inspired Diversity In Food Media (the Instagram account and the collective) was a conversation I had with another freelance journalist, Andrew Levins, in the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd. Everyone was talking about the need for diverse representation and platforms, about the need for inclusive perspectives. 

What are you most proud of in your career as a food and culture commentator? 

New Voices on Food is something I’m very proud of. I had the idea for a book showcasing diverse voices on food in late July 2020. In August, we opened submissions to Australians from under-represented backgrounds. In September, I shortlisted the final pieces and edited the manuscript. It got printed and came out in November – so it took a whirlwind four months to make it a possibility! I’m really happy that the book has created a platform for the contributors to share their stories.

Meet the Future Shapers

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