Chef Francesca Hong Is Proving that Food Is Political

In Wisconsin and many other states, tipped workers, who are mostly women, start at $2.33 per hour and are more likely to face sexual harassment. But at Morris Ramen in Madison, co-founder Francesca Hong pays her tipped employees $15 per hour and fosters an environment in which workers can report any abuse they’ve experienced—there or at other restaurants.

In addition to being a chef and community organizer, Hong was elected to the Wisconsin legislature last November and became the voice of one of the pandemic’s most impacted industries. Now, she’s fighting to raise the wages of all tipped workers in the state.

“I want to repeal [the tip credit] and replace it with the current abysmal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour,” Hong says. “It’s just scratching the surface. We want people to know that this is the floor and not the ceiling.”

Francesca Hong's official state portrait. (Photo by Greg Anderson)

Francesca Hong’s official state portrait. (Photo by Greg Anderson)

As a progressive, Hong has made it clear that she is seeking equity for all Wisconsin residents, including the many communities of color that have been historically underrepresented. She and her colleagues recently introduced an Economic Justice Bill of Rights, which includes the rights to a living income, collective bargaining, affordable healthcare, accessible public education and childcare, and clean water. After witnessing how little support the hospitality industry received from the government during the pandemic, Hong has begun advocating for rights to basic infrastructure for everyone—not only restaurant workers.

“The defunding of public services has led to so much harm, and Republicans are solely responsible for that,” says Hong. “And I think for a long time, Democrats have struggled with making clear what they’re fighting for. We want to be able to message effectively to people that we are fighting for them. And this is our guide, our network, our pathway, and our commitment to how we’re going to do that.”

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However, achieving these goals in the Assembly won’t be easy. Hong won her election handily with 88 percent of votes in the 76th District, but as a woman of color in the minority party, she doesn’t always see eye to eye with the overwhelmingly male state legislature, which is two-thirds Republican and 88 percent white. For context, last February, Wisconsin Republicans rejected a resolution honoring Black History Month because they didn’t approve of all the people named in the resolution—and decided to honor conservative firebrand Rush Limbaugh instead.

Activity in the State Assembly also ground to a halt during the pandemic, leading political pundits to call the Wisconsin Legislature one of the laziest in the country.

People of color in Wisconsin have faced overwhelming challenges to becoming a viable political force, but Hong is trying to increase their strength by working with diverse coalitions. Hong, who is Korean American, is the first and only Asian-American representative in Wisconsin history and was elected alongside Samba Baldeh, the state’s first Muslim representative, in 2020. The state has the nation’s third-largest Hmong population; and while Hmong voters were courted by both candidates in the last presidential election, no one of Hmong descent has ever been elected to office in Wisconsin’s state legislature. (In comparison, the legislature next door in Minnesota has had at least three Hmong representatives.)

To make headway in her agenda, Hong has built coalitions with grassroots organizations, including the Asian American Pacific Islander Coalition of Wisconsin, the Hmong Institute, the University of Wisconsin BIPOC Coalition, and Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce. In early May, the Assembly passed a resolution to mark May as Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Heritage Month—a decision based on a bill Hong first introduced in April. She also sponsored a bill that designates May 14th as Hmong-Lao Veteran’s Day, and Democratic Governor Tony Evers signed it into law on the same day. Hong and fellow legislators have also introduced a bill to require that Hmong and other APIDA culture and history be taught in the schools so that students can learn about the state’s largest Asian ethnic group and their compatriots.

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Francesca Hong stands with Hmong-Lao veterans advocating for passage of the May 14 Hmong-Lao Veterans Day Bill.

Francesca Hong stands with Hmong-Lao veterans advocating for passage of the May 14 Hmong-Lao Veterans Day Bill.

Hong and her fellow Democrats are fighting an ongoing effort to gerrymander the state’s districts, which many believe are drawn to ensure that the Republican party retains power. “For them, democracy is not the people choosing their electeds but the electeds choosing who votes for them,” says Hong. Again, she’s working with coalitions and expects to see the issue end up on court. “We also have an organization called Law Forward that is fighting to keep gerrymandering out of Wisconsin. We may see new maps for 2022,” she says.

Hong, however, has made it a regular practice to challenge the status quo. In a Bon Appétit op-ed, published before the general election, she drew a comparison between the hospitality industry and politics: “Our industry as a whole is in desperate need of restructuring, but guess what? So is our government.”

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