Is it fair to question the authenticity and motives of chefs cooking other cultures’ foods?

Food writer Francis Lam and chef Eddie Huang debate authenticity, appropriation and the immigrant experience in this great read, entitled “Is it Fair for Chefs to Cook Other Cultures’ Foods?”. It stems from this article by Francis Lam published in the NYT.

“We are a society that praises the student with no regard or respect for the master” – Eddie Huang takes some issue with young chefs who tackle and have success with a cuisine from a different culture. Perhaps they are elevating it, perhaps innovating it, perhaps fusing it with another cuisine; whatever their particular form of appropriation is, it becomes obscured by critics and consumers who view their food a new standard for authenticity. Francis Lam agrees – but is less quick to blame the chefs, preferring to take a critical look at why this happens: the privilege of the white man in America, the palates of consumers, and the advantages of being an outsider. In his NYT article, he quotes Rick Bayless, America’s so-called master of Mexican cooking. “My greatest gift is that I don’t have a Mexican grandmother…so I can look at all Mexican grandmothers as equal”.To food studies professor Krishnendu Ray, presenting an ethnic cuisine to American consumers is “fundamentally an act of translation”, whether this applies to ‘curating’ (taking the most universally palate-pleasing dishes from a cuisine), menu-writing, marketing, or even decor and ambiance. In a study about immigrant chefs, he found that most had not been chefs or even cooked back in their home countries. Opening a restaurant was a means of survival, a business decision, and not necessarily an act of passion, which is often part of the backstory of the Culinary Institute of America-educated chef who visits Thailand, eats an incredible meal, and vows to master the cuisine. So who is presenting a more authentic cuisine? And in the melting pot of America, where New York pizza reigns supreme and Yaka mein is a New Orleans drunk-night-out staple, does it really matter?

 

Banh Mi is a product of french imperialism in Vietnam, and can now be found at many a Vietnamese-owned takeout counter. I scoff at paying $20 for a bowl of pho at some new Asian-fusion upstart when I know I can get something that tastes as good or better for $6 at a hole-in-the-wall across town (minus the grass-fed beef and locally-grown pea shoots mind you)…but I don’t necessarily fault the chef for making a go of presenting the dish in a way that may appeal to more people; when we understand and enjoy the food of another culture we are more likely to empathize with its people. Chances are if the $6 pho place is great, they will be recognized for it, though that recognition may not come in the form of culinary magazine features and awards but in customer loyalty and recommendations. But then again we as a society recognize innovation above all. Thus, fusion cuisines and modernizing or upscaling a humble or ‘poor-man’s dish’ are recognized as something new, while serving up a 300-year old recipe is not.

Yaka Mein

Some of the grandmothers that we’ve interviewed for the Roots & Recipes project use onion soup mix in their food, or canned chickpeas and tomatoes. They acknowledge and appreciate the old way but favour the time-saving tricks that they’ve learned in the new country. They learned to cook from their mothers, who learned from their mothers and so on, and noone would question their authenticity. An upscale restaurant could create the same dish using the finest, freshest ingredients and original techniques, but it is still restaurant food. It’s not your grandmother’s cooking. Every restaurant will put their own spin on even the most traditional of dishes.

The Roots & Recipes project IS partially about preserving ‘authentic’ recipes, but it’s also about spot-lighting the home cook and celebrating food and family. It’s about food with stories, food with soul. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the chefs mentioned in the article. I understand and empathize with the crux of Huang’s argument and where it is coming from, and agree that chefs delving into other cultures have a responsibility to appropriately shape their message, but I also think he needs to give consumers more credit when it comes to acknowledging that eating at a trendy fusion restaurant (like Huang’s own Baohaus) is one thing, eating at an immigrant-run eatery is another, and eating your mother or grandmother’s food is an entirely different thing. The convo is definitely a fun and fresh read though, and offers much food for thought.

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