Zoey Gong is not your typical health practitioner. The first time I saw her, she was hosting a party at her newly opened nightclub, The Red Pavilion, in Bushwick. Wearing a halter dress that revealed tattoos of red flowers and a snarling tiger, she demurely pushed a cart around the cavernous, red-lit space, pouring small cups of earthy liquid for guests. She seemed to float, glowing with healthfulness and an ethereal beauty. All I could think was, I want what she’s having. As a Traditional Chinese Medicine food therapist, author of The Five Elements Cookbook: A Guide to Traditional Chinese Medicine with Recipes for Everyday Healing, and nightlife entrepreneur, her work bridges wellness and revelry, through an approach that merges ancient technique with a modern spirit. By hosting dinners in her home studio and leading ingredient tours through Chinatown, she teaches the ways of TCM, bringing an often misunderstood practice into the light. With the Lunar New Year coming up, we sat down with Gong to discuss the significance of the holiday, her work at the intersection of food and medicine, and how to balance partying and feeling good.
Given the duality of your work, how do you balance wellness and nightlife?
I am not a traditional house practitioner who lives a completely peaceful zen life and only drinks tea. I’m young. I love art and music. I go to parties. That makes me really happy! And happiness is such a huge part of wellness that we don’t talk about enough. When you are healthier, you can party better and when you party better, you’re happier.
Are there certain TCM methods you pull from to make yourself feel better the next day or prepare your body for the night?
If I know I’m drinking, I will take a liver formula containing kudzu root and chrysanthemum before I go out. I take that formula that day and the next day I will also drink different kinds of herbal teas that benefit the liver. I see acupuncturists every week during that time as well. Warm baths.
While I understand that within traditional Chinese medicine there’s no “one size fits all” approach, what are you currently incorporating into your routine?
There is a baseline that’s applicable for everybody: five different kinds of whole grains every week and 25 different kinds of fruits and vegetables a week. I don’t drink a lot of ice cold beverages. I always make sure that my body is warm, never too much exposure to air conditioning. I always bring a scarf. Keeping our body parts warm is essential to prevent us from getting sick and feeling tired because cold creates stagnation, which can cause pain and other issues. I’m basically using different techniques to make sure my qi — the energy flow inside our bodies — is always flowing smoothly. I drink herbal teas every day — chrysanthemum, goji berries, rose, and loose leaf Chinese tea — which have a lot of antioxidants in them that can support our health.
Are there any other ways people can try out Chinese medicine and set that “baseline”?
Consider books like Between Heaven and Earth or my cookbook, which was written for people with no understanding of Chinese medicine food therapy. Rather than chase superfoods from different parts of the world, eat something around you. Or something your ancestors ate. Let’s say you’re from West Africa, maybe try West African grains like fonio rather than pasta and rice. A lot of Asians can’t drink alcohol — red cheeks are the best proof of how genetics can signal what you can and can’t eat. But food can cause long-term, mild signals in your body (indigestion, feeling tired). Vary your cooking methods as well. Try using at least five different kinds of cooking methods a week. Some of us only microwave. Some of us only use the oven. Some only do raw. That could cause imbalance and limit what you’re eating.
The Lunar New Year is coming up. What’s the significance of this holiday?
It’s the beginning of the new year, according to the lunar calendar. The official phrase when you greet people translates to “Wish you have more money.” This year is the year of the wood dragon — a force which could bring big changes. Traditionally we have a big dinner at a round table with relatives, have fireworks, and wear red new clothes. Everything is about good luck. You eat things that have auspicious meaning: sticky rice, fish, cabbage. We love round and chubby looking foods, for a smooth year. It’s a time to indulge. People often gift food items: specialty food like sea cucumber, expensive herbs like ginseng, or nut milk.
Given there are so many common issues people share, are there certain foods people should constantly be having in their arsenals?
Definitely consider adding bone broth. When it’s cold, the bone broth should congeal ideally — it needs to have enough collagen inside and all the minerals from the bones in the broth. Two to three cups a day. If you don’t have Chinese herbs, just use a bunch of spices. They are warming for the body in winter: ginger, star anise, cinnamon, black pepper. Also work to understand your root issues. Because when you talk about Chinese medicine, we’re talking about understanding root causes — what could be contributing to all or most of your symptoms.
If you had a moment to clarify anything about Chinese Medicine, what would you say?
People think Chinese medicine is outdated, that it doesn’t work or it’s only for Asian people. But it’s very evidence-based nowadays. We do a lot of studies in Asia. Secondly, Chinese medicine goes beyond a Chinese lifestyle. I feel the name “Traditional Chinese Medicine” can be misleading. It seems so exclusive and old. But it can be applied to everybody and it’s very modern. It’s also simultaneously a very mature modality. Our people have been studying it for thousands of years, and it has been combined with Western science for hundreds.