Brandeis Alumni, Family and Friends

With Mile High Asian Food Week, Joanne Liu ’03 Offers Up Taste of Tradition

Her second annual restaurant week celebrates Asian community, culture, and food.

Woman cuts food in a restaurant.
Joanne Liu ՚03 at work in the kitchen.

Photo Credit: Joanne Liu ՚03

For Joanne Liu ՚03, creating community among those who identify as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) is central to her professional life.

By day, as the co-founder and CEO of Asian Girls Ignite, she keeps busy building a network of AANHPI girls and women across the Metro Denver region. The organization’s goal is to celebrate their individual and collective identities through educational and social programming.

Not coincidentally, Liu’s current passion project stems from a similar, albeit more culinary place. As the founder of Mile High Asian Food Week (MHAFW), she’s organizing a celebration of Colorado’s growing AANHPI gastronomic scene. Her goal is deliciously simple: To promote AANHPI-owned businesses serving all types of food and beverages and to encourage customers to take a tasty and educational journey.

The week kicks off April 28.

“We want to focus on the beauty and the joy of the Asian community, which is often expressed in our food and drink,” says Liu. “It’s a big deal.”

For Liu, the idea of a food week also hits close to home, as she was raised in the bustling Chinese take-out joint her parents owned outside Boston. In fact, she says that experience shaped her love of Asian food and her deep respect for restaurant owners.

A family of six poses for a photo.
Joanne Liu ՚03 as a child with her family, whom she credits for inspiring her love of cooking.

Photo Credit: Joanne Liu ՚03

The week, though, is as much about community as it is a nod to her own story. Last year, Liu and her volunteer team enlisted 50 businesses to participate in the inaugural event. In year two, they hope to double that figure. Befitting her family’s history, her brother Ken, co-owner and head chef at MAKfam, is on board as a vendor, ready to share tradition-inspired recipes straight from their mother’s kitchen.

Another key component to MHAFW is that it features all kinds of food and drink purveyors, from brewing companies, to dessert shops, to pop-ups, and food trucks. By contrast, she says restaurant weeks are typically built around sit-down meals and prix fixe menus, which has the unintended effect of excluding certain popular AANHPI business models.

“You can’t have a boba [Taiwanese bubble tea] spot participate because their business is built around more takeaway, casual offerings," Liu says.

As to what motivates her, she says she wants to foster education and understanding. This is especially important, she says, in light of negative sentiments toward Chinese people that grew during the pandemic. Additionally, she notes there are not a lot of Asians in Colorado, which makes building solidarity among communities even more crucial.

“We’re often grouped under this huge umbrella. But our cultures are very different from one another.” – Joanne Liu ՚03

Liu discovered her inclination for community building while a student at Brandeis. As an undergraduate studying English, American Literature, and secondary education, she was active in the Brandeis Asian American Students Association. While serving as the group’s president her senior year, she grew what had previously been an Asian Awareness Week into a full month.

“We came together to put on workshops and events aimed at celebrating the positive things in our community —  and our respective cultures — which became a way for us to support each other,” she says.

Today, she holds fast to a question that first inspired her more than two decades ago: How do we create more spaces to support and celebrate one another? For people around Denver during Mile High Asian Food Week, the answer is simple: Over delicious food and drink.

She adds: “Food and beverage is a strength of our whole community.”