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Credit: Clare Cassidy
The Way We Eat

Meet Melody Stein, the Chef Turned Fashion Designer Working to Help Fellow Deaf Entrepreneurs

updated Mar 19, 2021
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Name: Melody Stein
Location: San Francisco, California
Number of people that eat together in your home: 4 (Melody; her husband, Russell; daughter, Taysia; and son, Rylan)
Avoidances: Taysia is allergic to grapefruit, and both kids are allergic to nuts.

Food runs in Melody Stein’s veins. Born into a family of successful restaurateurs, she has fond memories of dining at her parents’ Shanghainese and Vietnamese restaurants in Hong Kong, where she lived until she was 6 years old. That’s when her family moved to the United States and opened a popular Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. 

Melody herself got serious about cooking when she was a senior at Fremont’s California School for the Deaf. Living in an apartment, she and her roommates took turns preparing meals for one another. Although Melody wanted to gain more experience in the restaurant industry, she found that many employers were unwilling to hire her because she was deaf. That prejudice made her even more determined to work in food and create the kind of opportunities for others that she wished people had created for her. Along with her husband, Russ, who is also deaf, she did just that — traveling to Italy to train in the art of Neapolitan-style pizza-making and eventually co-founding the country’s first deaf-owned pizzeria run by an all-deaf staff.

While Melody and Russ are no longer in the restaurant business, they still wear many hats — as travelers, as parents, as deaf business consultants, and, for Melody, as a women’s sustainable clothing designer. 

We caught up with Melody earlier this month to chat about the most common (and damaging) misconceptions of deaf workers, doing beer runs for her grandma in Hong Kong, and the merits of TikTok cooking.

Credit: Clare Cassidy

What are some of your earliest food memories of growing up in restaurants?
I have many fond memories of dining at my family’s restaurants, both in San Francisco and Hong Kong. They taught me to try everything. The SF restaurant has closed, but both Wu Kong Shanghai Restaurant and Golden Bull Vietnamese Restaurant in Hong Kong have been in business for more than 35 years now. Shanghainese is my favorite cuisine: xiao long bao, crystal shrimp, hairy crab, pan-fried noodles with pork. At Golden Bull, I like their king prawn and tender stir-fried filet of beef, and Russ loves their garlic bread. It’s so good.

How many siblings do you have, and did your parents teach everyone how to cook? 
I have five half-siblings and one full-blood brother who is also deaf. We learned how to cook from our grandma. She doesn’t know sign language or English, so we communicate in a “homemade” sign language. My brother and I taught her how to spell B-E-E-R in ASL (American Sign Language). Often when she would cook the meals, she would spell B-E-E-R to us, then one of us would walk down to the convenience store near our apartment. There was no age limit on buying beer in Hong Kong back then, so I’d bring the can home and open it for my grandma, and she would smile and feel refreshed. It’s scorching hot in Hong Kong in the summertime. 

Where did you meet your husband? 
I met Russ at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Our first date lasted 12 hours — starting at an Italian restaurant at Union Station and ending at a Greek diner serving 24-hour breakfast. Russ loves Italian food, especially pizza. He can and does eat pizza almost single day. 

You traveled to Italy to learn how to make Neapolitan-style pizza, right? What was that like? 
I traveled to Rome, Naples, Sorrento, and Positano. I brought my mom along to help with interpreting in the cooking classes, which I had arranged prior to traveling. They had interpreters but they were fluent in Italian Sign Language, which is totally different. I opted for a private course so I could have full attention from the instructor, who showed me step-by-step directions in dough making and baking pizza in a wood-burning oven.

Have you experimented with interesting pizza toppings over the years?
I wanted to come up with a unique mushroom pizza and thought of Japanese mushrooms: king oyster, enokitake, and buna shimeji. I tested those along with baby spinach and béchamel sauce — great-tasting pizza for vegetarians. My husband adores Korean short ribs and learned a secret recipe in Hawaii when we were on vacation years ago. [Now he tops pizza with] boneless short rib strips, caramelized onions, baby bok choy, scallions, and pickled julienned carrots. 

I understand that you earned a degree in hospitality from San Francisco State University after being turned down for admission to the California Culinary Academy, which perceived your being deaf as a “liability.” How did that early rejection shape the person you’ve become?
That’s right. I applied to California Culinary Academy in 1993. They called my mom and asked if her daughter is deaf. My mom responded ‘Yes’ and they said ‘We cannot accept your daughter.’ My mom was upset and asked why. They said, what if they brought out a big pot of hot soup and yelled at me to move away but instead I got hurt because I didn’t hear them? Then they hung up.

My mom told me the bad news and I was like, ‘What, that’s it?!?’ They didn’t even try to come up with creative solutions to accommodate deaf students. I was really disappointed. But I remember telling myself: One day, I will own a restaurant and learn how to cook. It’s been stuck in my mind for many years. 

Credit: Clare Cassidy

Have you ever encountered discrimination in a restaurant kitchen?
When I was 16, I wanted to get experience working in a restaurant. I applied for a position at an ice cream parlor, but they didn’t even take my application form after realizing I was deaf. Through the program at CSD [California School for the Deaf], I got a job washing the potatoes at a fast food restaurant. I wanted to do more, but my supervisor wouldn’t let me try other stations. If I was hearing, I knew I’d have more jobs working at the restaurant.

What are the greatest misconceptions about being deaf in a kitchen?
Deaf people can be amazing workers. We are dedicated to our jobs, if only [businesses would] provide reasonable accommodations. For example: When you host a staff meeting, bring in a sign language interpreter so your deaf staff can understand and be on the same page. Supervisors can also prepare notes and provide explanations to the deaf staff before they start their daily work. And I’d encourage everyone on a team to learn American Sign Language. Knowing ASL in the kitchen comes in handy. If the server signals “Customer needs food now,” you can sign “Okay” or “Soon” instead of yelling “Okay!” and “Soon!” We all are the same, even though we cannot hear. We see things. We smell things. We are pretty good at adapting. 

You and Russ employed an all-deaf team at your former restaurant in San Francisco. Why was it important to you to create those opportunities? 
Because we know what it’s like to struggle with finding jobs. We are them and they are us. It is about social responsibility. If we didn’t do that, who would have hired them? We took in people who have never had a job before and we trained them. It was one of my best decisions.

That’s a good segue to Yantern, your current venture. Tell me more about it?
When we were still operating, deaf people kept asking us how to run a successful restaurant. We would have loved to help them, but we had to focus on our restaurant first. After we sold most of our business, Russ loved the idea of consulting with aspiring deaf entrepreneurs — so we launched Yantern in 2019. We host educational webinars and Y-Summit, a virtual business conference so our deaf community can keep up with industry trends.

I am also launching a sustainable clothing brand with my daughter in late spring or early summer. Taysia just graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in marketing and she is very interested in fashion. Our brand, MxT2510, refers to Melody x Taysia and the numbers 2510, which are connected to hand shapes in American Sign Language. The numbers represent two women founders.

Credit: Clare Cassidy

That’s so cool you’re doing that together. What will the line look like?
Thank you! We are excited and scared at the same time. We are focusing on creating elevated basics for women ages 25 to 40. Our clothing, which is inspired by our travels, is made in Los Angeles. We are using sustainable fabrics such as organic cotton and, in the future, recycled fabrics. 

You must be so busy! What do you like to do on your days off? 
Spend time with family. We hardly saw the kids when we were working. I cooked all the time at the restaurant, so we usually went out to eat or ordered food at home. But we always enjoyed traveling together. When our kids were in school, we made a tradition of going away during their spring break. 

What’s a typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner on a weekday now?
Our eating habits improved after we sold our business. Before that, they were awful. I’d eat something little for breakfast, then run errands for the restaurant. I’d get home at midnight and eat a late dinner. I never had coffee until I turned 40, but I learned to drink espresso because I needed caffeine to keep myself going. Now I love cappuccino.

For breakfast nowadays, I’ll have my cup of Earl Grey tea with some cereal or soft scrambled eggs with scallions and applewood bacon. For lunch, I’ll have Chinese dumplings or noodle soup with leftover vegetables and meats. For dinner, I find myself cooking Chinese dishes like braised pork with hard-boiled eggs — one of our family’s favorites. I am also getting better at making Chinese herb soup, either with pork bone or chicken. My kids ask me to make Italian pasta dishes with slow-braised short ribs or really any meat in a creamy white sauce. Russ is very good at making chicken saltimbocca.

How often did you eat out before the pandemic versus now? 
Russ and I were traveling overseas before the pandemic — starting with a month in Italy, where Taysia studied abroad for a semester. We immersed ourselves in authentic Italian food. Then we spent the holidays in Hong Kong, one of the world’s best food destinations. When COVID-19 happened, we had to return home. San Francisco was one of the first cities to announce a stay-at-home order in March 2020, and we stayed at home all the time. We started to order food from restaurants after realizing how tough it was going to be on the industry. We love the salt and pepper crab at R&G Lounge and missed having dim sum, so we’d get that delivered from Koi Palace in Daly City. 

Credit: Clare Cassidy

What is your favorite dessert? 
I love sweets — especially homemade chocolate chip cookies and brownies. I recently made Hawaiian-style butter mochi. 

That sounds delicious. What’s your drink of choice?
I’m into red wine. I try to discover Asian-owned wineries such as Yao Ming’s Yao Family Wines and Kieu Hoang, both in Napa. 

Who does the bulk of the cooking in your family now?
I do most of the cooking at home. Rylan has expressed an interest in culinary, and I have seen him trying some complicated dishes. He made us a Cajun seafood boil, which came out great for me but was maybe a bit too spicy for Russ and Taysia. He’s also practicing making hollandaise sauce for eggs Benedict, his favorite.

Taysia has also picked up an interest in cooking from TikTok, which showcases some unique recipes. She saw one for birria tacos and asked me to accompany her to the grocery to get the ingredients. We all loved it and have already asked her to make it again. You gotta try TikTok — to my surprise, many of the videos were actually educational and entertaining.

And what’s the best thing Russ cooks, other than chicken saltimbocca?
He cooks the steaks and pizzas the best! After all, he is the pizza aficionado.

Thanks so much for talking with us, Melody! Follow her on Instagram and sign up for news about her new clothing company here.

These photos were taken in San Francisco’s Chinatown, one of the many Chinatowns around the country that are hurting right now due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the violence and racism against the AAPI community. If you’d like to support these businesses and learn more, please check out Save Chinatown.

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families. We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.