Eddie Huang, the New York chef and writer, has spent a lot of time recently discussing issues of food, culture, race and authenticity. A couple of weeks back it was a fascinating discourse with Gilt Taste features editor Francis Lam about Asian culture and food and whether it's “fair for chefs to cook other cultures' foods.” Today, Huang took on chef Marcus Samuelsson, dissecting both Samuelsson's new memoir Yes, Chef, and his incredibly successful Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster.
Huang's main point seems to be that Red Rooster isn't true to Harlem in any sense. By presenting “upscale” soul food at a premium, Huang argues that the restaurant is both misguided and condescending. “By catering to diners outside Harlem and talking down to the ones who live there — promising things like “elevated” soul food — he treats the place like a museum exhibit,” Huang writes. “He speaks in stereotypes, desperately trying to capture snapshots of villagers dancing, praying and bespoke-suiting to display in this playhouse of a restaurant.”
It's practically taboo in America for anyone outside of the African-American community to take on issues of race and authenticity within that community. That Huang is Taiwanese American and Samuelsson is black — Ethiopian by birth and raised in Sweden — makes it particularly sticky territory for Huang to wade into. Samuelsson is in a rare position. As a highly respected and famous black chef, he was able to open a high-profile restaurant in a historically black neighborhood that in many ways pays homage to that neighborhood, its history and its culture.
All of this made me think of Govind Armstrong and Post & Beam. And while I haven't eaten at Red Rooster and therefore am unable to comment much on whether Huang is right about its failures, there are criticisms he makes that put Armstrong's efforts at Post & Beam in an interesting light.
Armstrong, too, was in that rare position: a respected and famous black chef who was able to open an upscale soul and comfort food restaurant in a historically black part of L.A. But where Samuelsson seems to be looking to bring fine dining to soul food and, Huang argues, cater to diners outside of Harlem, Armstrong undoubtedly is looking to cater to Baldwin Hills. The no-reservations policy at Post & Beam, the decently friendly prices, the teaching garden, even the somewhat odd addition to the menu of pizza, all point to restaurateurs who came into the neighborhood looking to be a part of it, rather than trailblazers who might attract diners from elsewhere. I'm sure Post & Beam hopes to be a destination restaurant, but first and foremost it is catering to its neighborhood.
As for Eddie Huang, it seems as though he's going to continue to make people uncomfortable, saying the things that you just don't say. Well-known food writer Josh Ozersky commented on Eater N.Y.'s post about Huang's story, “I love Eddie, but he's way out of his depth here. Whatever he thinks of Marcus and his authenticity (a loaded question anyway), the bottom line is that Marcus is a black man and Eddie isn't, no matter how many times he calls things 'dope.' All due respect, but you just don't go there.” These are sticky, hard, interesting conversations to have, but it seems like Huang is determined to have them, “don't go there” be damned.
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