“When we think about other people’s cultures, the first entry point we have – before music, before dance, before literature, before language – is food,” says Dan Wu, a private chef, MasterChef contestant, and Chinese immigrant who lives in Lexington. “What do you know about Thailand? You know pad thai. Mexican food and Chinese food have become American food. For me, the landscape of American cuisine would be so bleak and not remotely as diverse without immigrants.”
Wu calls himself the “Culinary Evangelist,” because he loves “proselytizing about cooking, food, and food culture.” He is raising money to open his own ramen restaurant in Lexington and hopes to hire up to a dozen people to run it. “My parents also come from small business and entrepreneurship,” says Wu. “So it’s kind of in my DNA.”
Immigrant entrepreneurs make an important economic impact across the country. There are nearly three million immigrant entrepreneurs in the United States, including more than 1,100 living in Wu’s congressional district alone. Wu’s father, a plant pathology researcher at the University of Kentucky, first brought the family here in 1986. But Wu’s mother, who worked in a starch factory in China, couldn’t find consistent work, so the couple went into business for themselves. They went on to open four sandwich shops throughout central Kentucky.
In terms of building small businesses, creating jobs, and fostering entrepreneurship, immigrants are huge in that respect.
Wu says this enterprising spirit was the catalyst for his own resourcefulness. In 2014, he began cooking for parties and private events and eventually landed a spot on season five of FOX’s MasterChef, where he competed against more than 20 amateur chefs from across the country. When he returned to Lexington, he was suddenly in demand – enough to cook full time and open his own business. “I’m certainly not risk averse,” he says. “I’m always looking for the next interesting thing to work on.”
His latest project is “I Am A Kentuckian,” a video celebrating the diversity of the state’s immigrants. “I wanted people to see that immigrants are your neighbors, friends, colleagues, coworkers, classmates, bosses, employees,” he says. He was inspired to make the film during a trip to the state capitol in Frankfort on “Refugee & Immigrant Day,” an event sponsored by a handful of local nonprofits to foster conversation between lawmakers and immigrants’ rights advocates. Proceeds from the video’s premiere went to Kentucky Refugee Ministries and the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, two of the many local organizations with which Wu volunteers.
Wu became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1989 and strongly identifies with the immigrant story. When he hears recent immigrants and refugees “talk about what they go through, and how long they’re vetted, and the fact that they’ve been in refugee camps for so long, you can’t help but feel like the system is broken,” he says.
Wu wants reform that will both streamline the immigration process and help new arrivals acclimate through social services, English classes, and professional guidance. “As soon as they can scrape together some money to build their own lawn care business or hair dressing salon, they jump on it,” he says. “So in terms of building small businesses, creating jobs, and fostering entrepreneurship, immigrants are huge in that respect.”