Yes, chefs cook foods from other cultures. Is that OK?
Picture Boston’s food scene without Coppa’s pizza or Toro’s tapas, without Tiger Mama’s pad Thai or smoked salmon at Bagelsaurus. Grim, isn’t it? But if chefs were only allowed to cook their native cuisines, these places wouldn’t exist. Ken Oringer does not hail from Italy or Spain. Tiffani Faison is not, in fact, from Southeast Asia. Bagel-maker extraordinaire Mary Ting Hyatt? North Cambridge is a long way from the Lower East Side.
That’s OK if the food tastes good though, right? Maybe.
At Oberlin College, students recently protested what they called their cafeteria’s cultural appropriation of certain dishes, notably a coleslaw-laced pulled-pork sandwich billed as on-trend “banh mi,” a Vietnamese sandwich that features neither ingredient. This representation of Vietnam was thoughtless opportunism, they argued. Food is our window into other worlds: Misrepresent a sandwich, and you risk maligning a culture, too.
So who’s allowed to cook what? Who defines authenticity? What does it mean when ancient dishes are exploited as trendy, cooked badly, and fashioned by hipsters instead of grandmas? Geopolitical sensitivities flare.
Even The New Yorker isn’t immune. Calvin Trillin’s recent poem “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” was apparently meant to be a jokey paean to the days of homogenous Chinese food:
Simple days of chow mein but no stress
When we never were faced with the threat
Of more provinces we hadn’t met.
But readers were enraged. If Trillin meant to sound self-effacing, he came across like a vaguely racist old coot waggling his egg rolls at the Danny Bowiens and David Changs who won’t get off his lawn with their Sichuan peppercorns. Food writing is no place for tasteless satire.
“This is a new culinary cry,” says Merry White, an anthropology professor at Boston University who focuses on food culture. “It has created what I call the Red Guards. These Red Guards, like their Chinese Cultural Revolution antecedents, are watchful observers. They patrol food carts and the dining halls, looking at microaggressions on the steam table and asking for trigger warnings in the cafeteria.”
C’mon, though: Isn’t a sandwich just a sandwich? Slide your tray down the line if the banh mi looks bleak. Give Trillin a break; he was funny once.
But food is a proxy for inequality during stressful times, says New York University food studies chair Krishnendu Ray, author of “The Ethnic Restaurateur.” In times of racial tension, economic uncertainty, and inequality, chow mein has become a surrogate for these insecurities. Most of the upset has centered around cultures that are often little understood but whose food has been co-opted and, according to some, bastardized, such as Mexican, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Heritage is often mistranslated.
This is troubling because many people, especially younger people who haven’t traveled much, learn about other countries by eating.
“Food tours or food bazaars are popular ways to get people to understand other cultures. In this way, food has become the symbol of being diverse and open to new culture, but it’s also become a stand-in for an entire culture,” says Rachel Kuo, a New York writer who penned a viral blog post titled “The Feminist Guide to Being a Foodie Without Being Culturally Appropriative.” (Hint: Maybe stop clicking on those “225 Most Authentic Tacos to Try This Weekend!” articles.)
Culinary scapegoats have emerged, and Chicago chef Rick Bayless has come under particular fire. His Mexican restaurant empire, home to big-time restaurants like Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, is booming. By all accounts, his food is terrific. He travels to Mexico regularly. But look: This man has earned a fortune, and he’s from Oklahoma. Is that fair?
“There are a number of people out there who have criticized me only — only — because of my race,” Bayless told Dan Pashman of WNYC podcast The Sporkful.
“The issue of race gets very shrill. Basically, what I think folks are criticizing [about] the celebrity white chefs . . . is that . . . they are making affluent careers out of cooking poor people’s food who are not getting anything out of that cultural capital,” says Ray.
“I think the issue is, how would you feel if you’re a Thai person making som tam salad, and some white chef comes along and says, ‘Hey, I’m going to introduce the world to it and get famous for it?’ Some people may feel it wasn’t yours to do that with,” muses Alison Hearn, opening chef at pan-Asian restaurant Myers + Chang and self-confessed New Jersey native. She experienced occasional backlash on food-nerd message boards for being a non-Asian chef at an Asian restaurant.
Is that fair, though? Cross-pollination is an American tradition. Where would rock ’n’ roll be without the blues? But in this climate, the desire to be authentic has spurred forced narratives for sensitive chefs, narratives that innovators in other disciplines might not endure.
Be honest: How many restaurants have you visited where the chef has tripped over himself to explain the origins of your meal? I’m not talking about where your arugula came from. I’m talking about why the white dude with a beard and flannel felt compelled to cook pho.
“He was very moved by his college trip to Vietnam,” a reverential server might tell you. Or maybe his ex-girlfriend’s cousin’s neighbor was Greek.
“I’m a bit annoyed by the ‘at my grandmother’s knee’ stories. I get the significance of lineage, but nobody asks a lawyer if she was at her father’s knee practicing law,” says Tiffani Faison, whose Tiger Mama serves riffs on Southeast Asian food.
The scrutiny has made chefs more thoughtful, though. Faison didn’t open Tiger Mama without careful contemplation.
“I love this food deeply, and I didn’t know if I could dig in hard enough to do it right. My [wife, Kelly,] looked at me and said: ‘Danny Bowien is an adopted kid from Oklahoma,’ ” Faison recalls. Bowien runs the hugely successful Mission Chinese Food franchises in New York and California.
That said, Faison was cautious when opening, making choices she mightn’t have pondered had she come from, say, Thailand.
“We thought about doing a numbered menu with pictures. What are these dishes? We were very taken with our cleverness. But we realized it could go poorly, could be insulting, could imply language barriers. So we said, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” Faison says.
Her food isn’t completely authentic; it’s her interpretation of what she ate during her travels. And that’s OK, chefs say.
“I don’t think your own nationality predetermines what you can or cannot cook authentically,” says Brooklyn-born chef Michael Schlow, who should know. He has pivoted across the globe with his restaurants, ranging from Via Matta (Italian) to Doretta (Greek) to Tico (his own admittedly creative interpretation of Latin American flavors). In fact, he says, an overly careful climate could stifle culinary evolution.
“To me, when you use the word ‘authenticity,’ you are attempting to pay homage to something specific, something from a particular place or time. Question is, can you be authentic and creative at the same time, or is authenticity the enemy of creativity?” he wonders. “There are many great chefs cooking beautiful, authentic foods from places they’re not originally from. . . . Rick Bayless is certainly one of the best Mexican chefs in America; to my knowledge he’s originally from Oklahoma, not from Mexico, but that hasn’t stopped him from being one of the greatest Mexican chefs.”
Actually, Bayless is the culinary version of the Beastie Boys. He took a style and made it his own. And what else is a chef to do these days? Chances are, everything has been cooked before, anyway.
“It’s hard to have an original idea these days. We just try to do things well and be interesting,” says Alon Munzer, who used to run Southern spot Hungry Mother (he is not Southern) and will soon open Jewish deli Mamaleh’s (with a staff that isn’t entirely Jewish).
“Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. We test up to 10 recipes per dish. And only a small percentage of people might agree with our version. It’s hard to please everyone when doing such a specific kind of cuisine,” he says. “Authenticity is more what you feel in your heart. Everyone has the right to do whatever they want.”
Alex Barrientos, a Veracruz native who runs La Victoria Taqueria in Arlington and Beverly, agrees.
“In Mexico City, [at] one of the best restaurants I’ve tried, the chef was from Spain. He was cooking an awesome mole, the way that you eat in Oaxaca!” he says.
“I don’t have any more right to cook [Chinese] food than anyone else. This isn’t a birthright,” says Banyan Bar + Refuge chef Phil Tang, whose Taiwanese parents run restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area. “Among chefs, it comes down to: Does it taste good?” Tang says.
That’s the end point for most customers, too. So what’s a culturally respectful diner to do? Is it morally right to enjoy an inauthentic, or perhaps expensive, taco? The point is not to fetishize these cuisines, anthropologists say.
For instance, that banh mi you love — the real kind, with the herbs and the crusty baguette? A direct result of French colonization of Vietnam, Kuo points out.
“Seeking authenticity fetishizes the sustenance of another culture. The idea of the ‘authentic’ food experience is separated from reality,” she wrote.
And so it might be rather unseemly for a carful of suburbanites to wheel into East Boston hunting for the most authentic tacos as if chasing wild game. This is a culture’s history, a person’s livelihood. Should those tacos be enjoyed? Yes. Should they appear on Instagram as the #bestcarnitasever, like a ride at Disney World? No.
When we reduce a complex culture to its basics — Italian means pasta, Chinese means fried rice, anything old but new to us is a trend — we reduce a complex culture to generalizations. We deprive the word “authentic” of meaning until it becomes nothing more than a marketing tool on the one hand or a way to create proprietary boundaries on the other.
“I’m not a fan of seeing people drawing borders around food. A few years ago I lived in Israel, but when I was there, I was taking Hebrew lessons to learn the language. This was a tense time, and it was an easy way to start chatting, over hummus. It led to dinner invitations,” says Hearn. “It belongs to the region, hummus does. And all kinds of other food, too. If you can talk about food with someone and find common ground there, it can lead to a lot of other conversations. People have this idea of authenticity that isn’t healthy, because I don’t think any cuisine is frozen in time.”
Food evolves. Just look at Italy.
“The best chefs in Italy have a Japanese chef in the kitchen,” says White, the food anthropologist. In fact, one out of three pizza makers in Italy isn’t even Italian, according to new research from the Accademia Pizzaioli. Many are Egyptian. Consider this the next time you long for an “authentic” slice.
Or this: When Jonas Salk was asked if he was going to patent a cure for polio, he was shocked. “Can you patent the sun?” he asked.
Maybe the same is true of tacos or pizza. When eaten thoughtfully, they belong to us all.