What puts Los Angeles on the culinary map is the serious amount of creativity coursing through the veins of our chefs, and how our city celebrates so many different types of cuisines. While it’s not unusual to see white chefs from around the country cooking food from other cultures (such as Rick Bayless of Red O and Andy Ricker of Pok Pok), we’ve recently noticed a number of L.A.-based chefs cooking food from other cultures while making their own ethnicity a sort of punchline: see White Boy Tacos and White Guy Pad Thai. We spoke to these chefs, culinary experts and scholars about this phenomenon, opening up a discussion on what “authentic” really means and how to sensitively approach cooking another culture’s food.
Walk along downtown's Broadway at night and you’ll mostly likely find Ben McMillan faithfully manning his White Boy Tacos stand. Instead of your regular carne asada, McMillan piles onto his tortillas more Southern-inspired fillings, such as barbecue pulled pork, lime-ginger shrimp and whiskey-marinated steak. As a bonus, customers get to do good while they eat here: Buy three tacos and a fourth will be given away for free.
McMillan, a Cleveland transplant who grew up on Taco Bell, says he knew he couldn’t compete with the plethora of amazing Mexican spots in L.A., so he tried to pay homage in the only way he knew how. “[I thought,] ‘Here’s what I know how to do and it seems to fit fairly well on a taco,’ so that’s kind of how I came to doing a different style of taco, because I know I love tacos and there’s room obviously to do more with tacos,” he says. “If you take a look at what we’ve done with pizzas and hamburgers, we’ve taken the tradition and fusionized it, and I thought, that’s what you can do with tacos. I’m not the first one to do it. We all know you put Korean barbecue in a taco and you’re famous in a couple of years.”
He came up with his street cart’s name when he was developing his menu; his former girlfriend, who is Latina, joked that he was making white-boy tacos. “A white-boy taco — I didn’t create and she didn’t create that term — it’s already been around,” McMillan says. “I mean, [using that term] we think of those different tacos, the ones with the crunchy shells, so I knew I could kind of use that because my tacos were obviously different, and obviously being a white guy I could use that term.”
McMillan says he gets both positive and negative responses to the name, and both sides usually like or hate it for the same reason: its edginess. He says that he hasn’t really gotten much of a bad reaction from the Latino community; sometimes he’ll get some online bashing from some “keyboard warriors.”
“You’ve got to remember, I did it for love and respect and out of admiration for that kind of Latino vending culture that I never knew existed until I moved to L.A. and I fell in love with it,” McMillan says.
Similarly, the impetus for Bryan Sharp to launch White Guy Pad Thai (a food truck often at Smorgasburg L.A.) was that he fell in love with Thai street-food culture while he was on a six-week trip visiting Thailand. In Bangkok, he would ask street vendors to teach him to cook their traditional dishes, and when he came back to L.A., he pursued cooking it for the masses.
“I fell in love with the entire experience of Thai street food while in Thailand. L.A. has great Thai food options, but none that capture the street food [experience] — mostly, I've discovered as I've expanded, due to health code restrictions. You can't just set your wok up on a corner and cook in this city,” Sharp says. “That knowledge didn't stop me. When I got back from Thailand, I was determined to share it with people here, not as a business plan or anything, but because I loved it. So when I got back I built a bicycle cart stand like you see on the streets of Thailand and started setting up in front of Bar Stella in Silver Lake on Friday nights.”
As for the “White Guy Pad Thai” name, there’s a story behind it. “When I first started, there was no name really — it’s just what people started referring to me as — the greatest irony being that I'm Persian,” Sharp says. “But I guess ‘Persian Guy Pad Thai’ doesn't have the same ring to it — and the name kind of stuck from there.”
He says that generally he doesn’t run into issues with his name, but that’s because most of his clientele know his backstory. “Occasionally I get some pushback and I've had a few people go as far as call it racist, to which I just ask, ‘What is racist about it?’” Sharp says. “I believe those people are typically missing the absurdist joke that there’s a ‘white guy’ authentically replicating an experience that you don't typically find on this continent.”
Even though White Guy Pad Thai has been in business for years, the name itself may not stick around for much longer. Sharp recently partnered with Sticky Rice in Grand Central Market, and says, “As the days of me and the bike cart become less associated with the current operation, we are mulling over a name change, because the old one doesn't make a lot of sense with the direction we're headed and the old questions [about the name] get boring and act as only a hindrance.”
When a chef does cook food from other cultures, knowing how to tread carefully on such a sensitive subject isn’t always clear-cut. GoldenBoys Chinese, a Chinese-inspired pop-up run by Hunter Pritchett and Adam Midkiff (whose culinary pedigree runs the gamut from Son of a Gun to Red Medicine), moves around from space to space slinging dishes such as "typhoon shelter" lo mein with clams and uni butter, and crispy orange chicken sandwich. In September, they got called out by New York Times columnist Lucas Peterson, who tweeted that he had issues with GoldenBoys’ bio, in which they described their food as “a unique take on a more fun, healthful and transparent approach to Chinese Food [sic] in Los Angeles.”
“What I really objected to was ‘more fun, healthful and transparent’ in their bio, particularly ‘healthful’ and ‘transparent,’” Peterson says. “It plays to stereotypes that Chinese kitchens are opaque, less clean, making unhealthy food laden with chemicals and MSG, cooking with mysterious ingredients that are not hygienic or ‘normal’ like a typical American kitchen."
Peterson adds, “When I eat Chinese food — or any other kind of food — I don't particularly care about the ethnicity of the chef. When you're cooking the food of another country, though, especially in a city where there are so many Chinese people and excellent Chinese restaurants that haven't been adequately and equally recognized by our food media, you have to approach it sensitively and with more respect.”
Not everyone feels the same way as Peterson. For instance, attorney David Chan, who is famously known for eating at more than 7,000 Chinese restaurants and keeping track of them in a spreadsheet for over 20 years, says of the GoldenBoys description, “It’s fairly innocuous from my point of view.”
Chan says it’s true most Chinese food isn’t very healthy. He says his “diet goes out the window” when he visits restaurants abroad in China or Hong Kong. “Being Chinese, being aware of stereotypes and anti-Chinese discrimination, I don’t like to make blanket statements, but when it comes to [Chinese] food, most [of these chefs] are about taste and they really don’t care what’s in the food,” Chan says.
He references the old jokes that say, in the “A-B-C gradings of Chinese restaurants, C is better than B, and B is better than A,” and “C really stands for Chinese.” Chan agrees with this, but highlights that it’s partly because Chinese people find certain U.S. Department of Health regulations unnecessary and, as a result, get dinged in points during the grading process. As an example, he refers to the long fight over the non-refrigeration of Peking duck, the kind that you see hanging on hooks in the windows of Chinese barbecue joints.
GoldenBoys’ Pritchett says that they’ve had “great dialogue” with Peterson since that tweet. They’ve also taken down that description from their bio. “We are highly conscious of what we look like, who we are and what we do,” Pritchett said in an email. “From the beginning of GoldenBoys, we’ve made it a point to be respectful of the incredibly hard-working people in Chinese cuisine. We are in no way trying to ‘elevate,’ water down or ‘Columbus’ Chinese food, and have learned to stick to just cooking the food we love, and not feel pressured to create taglines or hasty branding.”
Pritchett continued, “We don’t claim to cook Chinese food but simply take an L.A.-inspired approach to Chinese flavors. We are constantly eating and analyzing Chinese food, and using our experience as chefs with heavy R&D backgrounds to create the flavors we want and filter it through the farmers markets and mentality of Los Angeles.”
That leads to the topic of authenticity. What is considered “authentic” and does any of that matter?
Chan is on the fence about this one. He says there’s a presumption in the public eye that only the Chinese can prepare good Chinese food. “On one hand, that seems to be a statement [leaning] toward inequality, but then I also wonder, is there something cultural about the ability to prepare Chinese food?”
Lisa Heldke, a professor in philosophy and gender, women and sexuality studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, has written essays and a book on cultural food colonialism. She says nowadays she’s less inclined to make blanket statements on the topic than she used to be. Heldke compares cooking food from another culture to her teaching a class on novels from a culture or tradition that’s part of a world that’s unfamiliar to her. She says you'd better do your homework if you’re going to teach it.
“I still maintain that I think food is an incredibly, incredibly central feature of cultural identities and incredibly important and can be damaged and harmed when it is treated cavalierly or casually or without attention to the fact that dishes, cuisines — well, particularly dishes — have all kinds of roles in particular societies, cultures, such that this one we use for really special events has particular symbolic meaning or religious meaning,” Heldke says. “Having said that, I know a lot of insiders to the culture would say, 'Yeah, I just eat it,' so I don’t want to be all precious about something either.”
For White Guy Pad Thai’s Sharp, he thinks the perception is unfair that in order to cook another culture’s cuisine it has to stay traditional. (For example, in his dishes he uses fresh noodles rather than the traditional dry.) “In terms of people taking on cuisines from other cultures, I don't think that a chef is beholden to the culture any more than any other artist is who takes up a form,” he says. “If a painter is drawn to impressionism, you would not expect them to be speaking for or representing 19th-century Parisian lifestyle or the form itself, and even with that we encourage artists to build on the past rather than replicate it. But for some reason chefs are expected to approach traditional cuisines with kid gloves.”
There are chefs who are changing up the way they cook their ancestral culture’s food. The Thai owners of restaurant-bar Same Same in Silver Lake are putting their own new spin on the cuisine. Same Same is version 2.0 of what was the long-standing Thai restaurant Rambutan. Thai cousins Katy Noochla-or and Annie Daniel, owners of Rambutan, partnered with Last Word Hospitality (Holly Zack, Adam Weisblatt and Angus McShane) this year to give the restaurant a makeover to become Same Same, an eatery that still serves mostly traditional Thai fare but has a new wine-bar program and a chic makeover.
“We wanted to make it more fun,” Noochla-or says. “And bringing the wine bar, it surprisingly brought out more of the culture of the food because people were enjoying the wine [with it].”
Same Same just launched a monthly event dubbed “Pretty Thai for a White Guy.” At the event's Dec. 14 debut, they presented a Thai-inspired burger along with some wine pairings. Every month, they plan to feature a new dish that melds the comfort fare of American and Thai cuisines.
Last Word Hospitality’s Weisblatt, who says he bonded with the cousins over their restaurant experiences and travels to Thailand, makes a case for their reinvention of Thai dishes. “To be able to modernize it into a fun, nontraditional Thai dish doesn’t mean it’s less authentic or more authentic,” Weisblatt says. “It’s just a really fun way to feature something and see how it goes. We know we’re going to have successes and we’re going to have failures, but it's about enjoying food and getting people together and showing cultures can mix.”
Noochla-or believes that in order for a chef to cook another culture’s food, he or she needs to respect the culture first; then they can be creative with it. Weisblatt points out that one of the best restaurants in Japan is run by Japanese chefs cooking French food. (Earlier this year, Japanese-French L’effervescence ranked No. 16 on San Pellegrino Asia's 50 Best Restaurant Awards.) “I think anyone can do it, but you have to pay homage and show respect for the culture and show you’ve done your research, and it’s not like, ‘Oh, this is a Thai burger because I added one chili,’ and there's nothing about the cuisine it really stands for,” he says. “But when you can show and actually take the time to learn about and enjoy another culture other than your own, there’s no reason that you can’t showcase what you've learned.”
In a recent think piece about this topic in the East Bay Express, Luke Tsai writes, “At the end of the day, chefs should cook whatever kind of food they love to cook, and they should do it with all of the passion, skill and technique they can muster. But, as [Oakland Indian restaurant] Juhu Beach Club’s Preeti Mistry pointed out, white chefs in particular should also be willing to engage their critics and speak to why they've chosen to focus on a certain cuisine or why they've decided to prepare a dish a certain way.”
“Have respect for the history and heritage — especially when you're a privileged person cooking a cuisine of a historically oppressed people,” Mistry told the East Bay Express.
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Circling back to authenticity in Chinese food, Chan says he finds a problem with people looking down on the word “fusion” because to them that means inauthentic. “But then if you look at some of your better Chinese restaurants, both in the United States and abroad, part of what makes them good is the fact that they innovate,” Chan says. “And what’s to distinguish innovation from authentic Chinese food, from what’s referred to as ‘fusion food'?”
He adds, “I’m really suspicious of Chinese restaurants that have been open for longer than 20 years because Chinese food seems to evolve and get better and better and better.”
Chan says he doesn't have all the answers and feels that he’s opening up more questions now, but in short, it’s complicated.
White Guy Pad Thai's Sharp says, “Maybe in 50 years, when someone else replicates what we did, people will be comparing us against it, writing articles about whether or not it is authentic.”