Feature photo courtesy of @zoeyxinyigong

Gong, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, began her journey as a healer after doctors discovered her breast tumors and rashes


I met Zoey Gong for happy hour at Floret on Bowery. I walked in and scoured the dimly lit room for Zoey, whom I eventually found sipping red wine as she works away on her laptop.

Gong, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, began her journey as a healer when she healed her own breast tumors and rashes. Since then, she’s been an advocate for the transformative power of traditional Chinese medicine, making it her mission to modernize and share its practice with those who might be unfamiliar. Her work is rooted in Chinese philosophy, a key pillar of which treats food as both sustenance and medicine. 

We had actually met a week prior at her mushroom feast event, a 12-course meal based upon the principles of traditional Chinese medicine that incorporated 25 different mushrooms from Yunnan province and Chinese medicinal herbs. I’d only reached out days before for an interview, but she’d immediately invited me to the feast despite the short notice.

We chatted casually as I put my coat away, and we resumed the instant camaraderie we’d found weeks prior. We get on effortlessly: not just because we switch easily between English and Chinese, or because she’s chill, but also because we have a shared understanding and appreciation of the same things: food as medicine, and the healing power of traditional Chinese medicine. 

We start by discussing the mushroom feast she’d hosted. Held at Sage Collective, a tea room restaurant that opened its doors on Broome Street not too long ago, the dinner featured everything from shiitake mushroom shumai to yellow foot and chanterelle mushroom Chinese-style risotto. Curated by Zoey herself, these menus are based on her own life experiences, seasonal fresh produce, and dried herbs. A personal favorite of mine was the enoki warm salad made with garlic sautéed white enoki mushroom, baby arugula and microgreens, and a black garlic vinaigrette made with camelia oil. What’s most impressive about these dishes is not just that they are plated beautifully or that they taste divine, but rather that they reflect Zoey’s belief in the philosophy of food’s healing powers.

Zoey first became interested as food for healing after doctors detected a tumor in her right breast and skin rashes all over her body.

Zoey first became interested as food for healing after she saw a huge improvement in her health once she stopped drinking milk and began to eat less meat, both of which she eliminated from her diet after doctors detected a tumor in her right breast and skin rashes all over her body. Though she went to a Chinese doctor to have the tumor removed, the repetitive tumor grew back in her second year of high school in the US. After the second tumor, her doctor recommended that she eat less meat, as he suggested that it might be related to the tumor. Her tumor was removed again, and, around this time, Zoey also discovered she was lactose intolerant (though she loved milk when she was younger). Once she stopped drinking dairy, she got rid of her severe acne and skin rashes. “That was the moment I started to believe in the power of food,” she recounts. “It was fascinating.” 

“I could talk about food for hours,” she laughs.

She decided to pursue nutrition at NYU, where she began to see food in a multifaceted way. “I could talk about food for hours,” she laughs. “When I came to New York City, the doors were opened to me.” From food policy to sustainability, Zoey learned to see food beyond taste and health, through the additional lens of law, culture, and policy. “I went on a very strict diet with veganism, and I lost 10 to 15 pounds and lost my period.” Realizing that she had to shift her diet, she became interested in traditional Chinese medicine.

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As the weather is getting cold in NYC, it’s important to bring a scarf with you to keep your neck warm. It is one of the most well known #TCM lifestyle tips. I’m sure those of us who have a Chinese family have been “warned” my the elderly in the family. Lots of important nerves, meridians, and blood vessels pass through the neck and it is literally the connection between the brain and rest of the body. Keeping the neck warm can help you feel more focused (better blood circulation to brain), reduce neck tightness/pain/stiffness, and help with dry throat according to my experience. . I love a small silk scarf. So easy to carry and elegant. What’s your too scarf choice? . #scarf #neckpain #neckpainrelief

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I should mention now that Zoey’s a pretty fast talker. She goes from point to point, life event to life event, and all the while I’m half typing, 25% drinking my beer, and 25% laughing along. She apologizes in advance for the many digressions she says she knows she’s going to make, but none of it really deviated from anything all that much. Then again, I probably wouldn’t have minded any digressions because I like the way Zoey speaks. We sipped our drinks casually between our conversations, and she began telling me about her college life. 

By her third year in school, she had gotten bored of Western nutrition: “Everything felt really restrictive and not free at all.” Starting with Chinese art, Zoey began looking into cookbooks that included wellness tips beyond that of just food, a common tidbit in Chinese cookbooks. She finally discovered yao shan (藥膳), which translates to Chinese food therapy, but is really centered around the way food affects the body with a base concept in traditional Chinese medicine. A common approach to health amongst traditional Chinese culture, Gong weaves yao shan into her cooking. “It was all my culture and all so tasty and health oriented: I finally found my calling!”

Table 81 started in August 2018 in Zoey’s tiny Chinatown apartment, of which she showed me pictures of later (she’d put it up on Airbnb, as she was supposed to be in Hong Kong right now). A sixth story walkup, one needed to climb 81 steps to arrive at her apartment for dinner--hence the name. She specifically bought a huge lazy susan round table for these dinners, which took up 80% of the space in her apartment. Done family style with 8 cold dishes and 8 hot dishes, Table 81 began to gain more and more traction with each dinner. What started out in her tiny studio apartment has now grown into collaborations with museums, cafes, and 12 course meals of up to 35 diners. 

Traditional but modernized-- that’s what Zoey hopes to achieve with her approach to Chinese medicine.

Based in New York, Zoey must adjust traditional Chinese medicine to Western ingredients in order to source local ingredients. Still, she tries to be as natural as possible, using seasonal vegetables and, always, always, a lot of herbs. Traditional but modernized-- that’s what Zoey hopes to achieve with her approach to Chinese medicine. “What works for one person might not work for another” is something she iterates multiple times throughout our conversation because it is the essence of traditional Chinese medicine and healing. Everyone has a different body type, and we all react to things differently. “Only taking one piece of information and making it a trend doesn’t work,” she adds. Zoey’s goal is simply to provide experience and exposure to Chinese medicine in order to make it more convenient and less foreign, which she does by explaining each important ingredient and their health benefits for each course, and passing the very ingredients she uses in her dishes at the end of dinner for her guests to touch and smell. Zoey realized that the early pushback or resistance to traditional Chinese medicine was that it looked so foreign and was completely unfamiliar to the Western audience, so she tries to make it as digestible as possible. She is approachable, open to questions, and welcoming to those curious, making traditional Chinese medicine a little less intimidating to those who are unfamiliar with it.

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Chrysanthemum is really one of the most versatile TCM food ingredients. This is one of the 17 Chinese government published medicinal recipes: kudzu root chrysanthemum thick soup 葛粉菊花羹, great for those who have: High blood pressure, diabetes, thirst, dry mouth, insomnia, dizziness due to yin deficiency. . I love using the flowers from @the_qi_ . Please check them out, they are doing a lovely ritual set. Use my code “zoey10” to get 10% off! . More on this recipe and chrysanthemum in my upcoming blog soon. I know I’ve been talking about having a blog. But this time I’m really having a blog lol. It will focus on TCM medicinal cuisine. Stay tuned please. Will be up this week. . Pc: @cassiezyz . #qitime #dailyritual #theqidailyritual #chrysanthemum #medicinalcuisine #tcm

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Halfway through our conversation, Zoey decided to order some fried bok choy. When it arrives, we both look at it with shock, then at each other: they were entire leaflets of deep fried bok choy. It was huge. After we recovered from mutual shock, she continued, “eating plants, I feel like I’m more clear, more focused. My mind is very positive, like Chinese medicine philosophy. It helps the mind, cause it is a philosophy in the food.” The belief that effects of food are directly related to the human body seems to echo the common phrase “you are what you eat,” but it truly is a value in Chinese medicine and healing. Not only should you try to eat as natural as possible, but you should also adjust your habits according to your body’s responses to what you’ve consumed. Healing is not a fad, but a lifelong, daily pursuit. Personal accountability and attention: these are at the core of Zoey’s approach to traditional Chinese herbs, rather than the temporary intrigue of an exotic, Orientalist trend. “You need the balance, you know?” she says in between bites. 

When the waiter came around to ask how the bok choy was, Zoey looked straight at him and said, “I am WOW-ed. Really.” I chuckled as she continued to tell me about her wish to be a minimalist; she shared that she is trying to get rid of more things. “But I want to keep my beautiful vintage things. Like, minimalist with taste.” Now, she is putting her focus into her website and cookbook, which she hopes to release at the end of 2020. The website, which she hopes will also continue to cultivate a community, will include recipes, knowledge about Chinese medicine, a quiz for your body type, and a store that highlights artisans and entrepreneurs in the field. “I want to change the impression of good Chinese food, to show that there are other faces of Chinese cuisine. But I want it to be creative too, I don’t want it to be restrictive!”  

“Food is medicine, but food is also joy and culture.”

As we left, we walked in the same direction: her to yoga, and me to dinner. We gushed about boys, our experiences in New York, and our plans for the future as we walked along Bowery. I felt as easily at home with her as I did when I was at her dinner, even though I hadn’t known a single soul when I got there. That is the way the community Zoey has built up is: simply embracing of everyone and anyone who arrives into it. Zoey said something throughout our conversation that I think aptly sums up the basis of her ideas: “Food is medicine, but food is also joy and culture. Gut and mind are together --if 

you eat well, if you pay close attention when you eat, you’re happier.”