For more than 12 years—one for each year of the Chinese astrological cycle—Lance Lew was a star attraction at the Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction.
His elegant, 10-course Chinese Lunar New Year dinner, cooked and served by Lew (Speech Pathology and Audiology, ’79) with winemaker-paired reserve wines, ultimately raised more than $125,000 for local charities.
Blending wordplay with Chinese history and artful presentation, Lew would cook elaborate delicacies like braised pork over a “cloud” of white snow fungus or a seared scallop atop a grilled orange—each symbolizing something personally or culturally significant. Many of the courses were his grandmother’s or father’s recipes, slightly adjusted but still using the same technique.
“A Chinese New Year is like a Jewish Seder,” he said. “It has a story between each of the courses and it’s a way to share culture and heritage.”
With as many as 20 guests, the entire meal centered around the themes of wishing prosperity, happiness, luck, achievement, and longevity in the year to come, and had a special nod to whichever year of the 12-year astrological cycle was about to begin.
“There is nothing better than walking into a room and watching someone’s first glimpse of a beautifully decorated table or a beautiful plate—it’s its own art piece,” he said. “And by explaining it and talking about it and relating it to its historical or cultural significance, makes it that much more interesting.”
Though he grew up in a very food-focused household, Lew says his food journey really took off during his days at Chico State. Whether cooking for his fraternity house, providing cooking demonstrations at Zucchini & Vine, teaching classes at House of Rice, or hosting the Hooker Oak Garden Party, he found personal fulfillment in using his passion to feed others.
After graduating, Lew set off to find a job in public relations and went on to spend more than 30 years in the broadcast news business. He retired in November 2021 as the community marketing director for NBC Bay Area where for two decades he was responsible for all community outreach efforts, including the development of promotional campaigns and event marketing. For the last eight years, he also produced a show called Asian Pacific America, trying to give a voice to seldom-heard stories. It was the only show in the NBC family devoted to the Asian community.
During his career, Lew also spearheaded two award-winning Asian-themed documentaries while he worked at CBS5 in San Francisco and co-founded the Growing Up Asian in America essay and art contest, which has distributed more than $250,000 in awards to more than 700 students in the past 25-plus years.
Transcending discrimination and creating understanding have been important to him since childhood, when his extended family operated a grocery store and restaurant in a predominantly white community. The store’s walls created a safe atmosphere to share and retain all things good about being Chinese and especially celebrating Chinese New Year with all the celebratory food and customs.
As he has spoken out publicly about anti-Asian hate in recent years, Lew often notes that food can be a salve to overcome differences and it is one more reason he is so committed to cooking and teaching about Chinese cuisine.
“The greatest line is, ‘We have broken bread together,’” he said. “Although we don’t eat bread, the sentiment is still there.”
Last year, he began writing a new chapter of his food journey—drafting a book: Welcome Winter: Making Friends with Taste and Traditions. The 66-page book, which launches November 5 at lancelew.com, shares something deeper than delicious recipes and kitchen tips as he builds upon his lessons in hospitality and family stories to produce a narrative to fill the stomach and feed the soul.
“If I gave you a dollar for every time people said, ‘Can I have that recipe?’ or ‘How did you do that?’ or ‘What inspired you?’—I basically put it into one publication,” he said. “All the beautiful moments of my life center around food and decorating and celebrating. It’s just how I want to share things. When you share a recipe, you are sharing from the heart.”
Here’s one recipe close to his heart. In preparation for the Lunar New Year, Chinese families often gather to make dumplings, which are shaped like silver ingots and symbolic of wealth and riches. With the belief that the more you make, the more you’ll eat, you can enrich your investment in many ways.
Chiao-tzu: New Year Dumplings
PREP TIME: 2 HOURS | COOK TIME: 30–45 MIN. | 4 DOZEN
- 1 package round potsticker wrappers (or wonton wrappers, trimmed smaller) or 1 recipe for fresh wrappers (follows at end of recipe)
- 1 pound ground pork
- 4 cups napa cabbage, chopped
- 1 bunch green onions, chopped
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 shallot, minced
- 4 slices fresh ginger root, minced
- 8 dried shiitake mushrooms, hydrated and diced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 5 tablespoons fish sauce or soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons sesame oil
- 2 heaping tablespoons corn starch
- Blanch cabbage in boiling water for 30 seconds, then drain and squeeze excess water with a tea towel or cheesecloth. Set aside to cool.
- Once cool, mix with remaining ingredients and refrigerate until use. Mixture can be made the day before and refrigerated.
- When ready to fill, place wrapper in your palm and add about a teaspoon of filling.
- Dip a finger into some water and moisten the edge of the wrapper.
- Fold the wrapper so edges meet and pleat toward the center.
- Fold in the ends if they stick out.
- Place finished dumplings on a parchment-lined baking sheet and cover with a slightly damp towel until ready to fry.
- To cook, heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a medium skillet. Place dumplings flat side down and cook on high until golden brown. Then add ¼ cup of water and cover to steam for 4 minutes, or when dough is cooked and tender.
Serve immediately with your favorite dipping sauce.
To keep it authentic, allow time to make homemade dough for your dumplings.
- 2 cups flour
- ¾ just boiled water
- ¼ cup extra hot water
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1/8 tsp salt
- Place a bowl on top of a damp kitchen towel to prevent it from slipping while you work. Add flour and salt to the bowl and make a well in the center.
- Use a wooden spoon to stir flour while you add ¾ of recently boiled water (waiting at least 90 seconds after boiling). Add sesame oil to water, then pour it in a steady stream into flour mixture.
- Gently work flour until water had been completely absorbed. You will have lumpy bits, so knead the dough to bring lumps into one mass; if the dough does not come together easily, add water by the tablespoon and knead the dough for 8-10 minutes, gently folding it until it becomes elastic and the texture is uniform. Note: you will not use all of the ¼ cup of reserved water.
- The dough should feel smooth and elastic but very pliable and not sticky. Press the dough; it should slowly bounce back. Invert bowl over dough and rest for 15 minutes and up to two hours. The dough will relax and become soft, which makes wrappers easy to work with.
- Cut the dough in half and place one half under the bowl to prevent drying, while rolling out wrappers. Roll dough into a 1-inch log and cut into 2-inch lengths and roll each into a ball.
- On a small plastic mat or plastic film, flatten each ball of dough by pressing with the back of a cleaver or frying pan to make it easier to roll out into a round wrapper. Using a small rolling pin, roll into a 3-inch circle. Release wrapper from plastic film and fill with filling (see instructions above).