Read This Now: Francis Lam and Eddie Huang on The Identity Politics of Culinary Misappropriation
In case you missed the latest bird whose feathers are being ruffled, writer and Gilt Taste features editor Francis Lam recently penned a The New York Times piece entitled, "Cuisines Mastered as Acquired Tastes," in which he pondered how American chefs like Andy Ricker become successful in cooking cuisines outside their familial roots. Or, in Lam's words, "New York already has nearly 300 restaurants run by Thais, so it is notable (and more than a little curious) that the man [Ricker] expected to lead the city to the papaya-salad promised land is a white chef from the Pacific Northwest."
In exploring the why, Lam glosses over the various historical -isms (racism, sexism, classism, etc.) that give American chefs a significant advantage over minorities. Instead, he devotes the bulk of the article to the "more complicated reasons" -- as if American privilege were not complicated enough -- for their success, including, "Distance may allow a chef to explore traditions without the baggage of having to follow Mom's recipes to the letter, even if the goal is to stay true to the original dishes."
Cue Eddie Huang, chef and owner of New York's BaoHaus, who disagrees, to say the least. Their conversation spills over to the webpages of Gilt Taste, the transcript of which is printed as one long piece called, "Is it Fair for Chefs to Cook Other Cultures' Foods?"
"You threw the gwai lo mad softballs in the article," Huang says, continuing:
...To have these CIA grads come through, repackage the food, and sell it back to me at a premium is just ludicrous. You made fun of us until we were embarrassed about our food and changed our menus to appease your HORRIBLE taste in shrimp with lobster sauce, now your kid grows up and wants to tell ME what Chinese food is because Bear Stearns sent him to Shanghai for six months? ... You'll have to excuse my paranoia when an American chef tries to express sincerity about understanding our culture and cuisine.
A response, to be sure, that any of us whose lunchbox included cafeteria-clearing kimchi and fish sauce can attest, though the size of the resulting chips on our shoulders vary in size. Huang's other points -- that a culture of exploitation has dangerously normalized the practice of co-optation, so "we have to be cognizant and respectful of the people and cultures we take from" and "we need accurate messaging because it's offensive to the diaspora" -- is mixed with Lam expanding on his article and considering how immigrants figure into modern American cuisine. They end by contemplating what "American" food even is nowadays.
And while both sides raise good points, you can't help but wonder if the two were circling around a question of identity that never was quite articulated. After all, asking whether it's "fair" to cook another culture's food doesn't get anyone very far, as it seems unfair to limit someone's cookery based on something as arbitrary as place of birth and upbringing. The question of authenticity, while important, too is a red herring of sorts, distracting from another anxiety that perhaps stems from the purgatory of trying to move forward while still playing defense (Huang, for instance, explains he opened BaoHaus in response to a public who believed that Momofuku invented the pork bun: "If you don't defend the things that matter to you, no one will.").
Beyond that, more questions abound in the unresolved gap between Huang's general rally against culinary misappropriation and Lam's diplomatic defense of specific chefs: Who decides when a chef can cross cultural boundaries, for example, and when she can not? And if it is decided by The Powers That Be that Ricker may transcend those boundaries, where does this conversation go from there, and where do those who share Huang's concerns channel their frustrations? Can a cuisine be honestly rooted in multiple cultures, including America, or must it be confined to just one box on the race form? And if the medium is the message, how are diners to decipher the dots and the dashes on their plate?
Finally, because this is a topic that can't be contained even on the pages of the "online magazine and market for food and wine lovers" that is Gilt Taste, both Huang and Lam have maintained a dialogue of sorts on their respective Twitter pages (@Francis_Lam and @MrEddieHuang). Which means, you now have even more things to read.
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