It’s tough to pin down when the notion of “food appropriation” entered the public consciousness. Indian Country Today wrote about the topic in 2013, but mainstream outlets weren’t talking about it until years later. Regardless, it’s safe to say that the very definition of the phrase has been creating confusion since day one. And it’s only getting worse.
As more and more people grow sensitive to issues of privilege, we’ve seen stories about food appropriation — otherwise known as cultural appropriation based in the culinary world — pop off weekly. These conversations generally take place on social media, are often emotionally charged, and touch on incredibly complicated issues of race and power in America. That’s clearly a recipe for messiness.
More often than not, the appropriation ire of the internet is directed towards white chefs. Let’s face it, no one dragged Roy Choi for appropriating L.A.’s Mexican taco truck culture with Kogi or Ann Kim’s Mexican-inspired restaurant up in Minneapolis. Yet big names like Andrew Zimmern and Gordon Ramsay get pummeled gleefully, alongside unknowns like Liz Connelly and Kali Wilgus (of Portland’s Kooks Burritos infamy).
It’s easy to understand why this conversation keeps surfacing. It’s deeply tied to our current social and political moment. Moreover, the old guard is getting, well, old. Meanwhile, minority and colonized voices are savoring their chance to be heard in the mainstream food conversation (in some cases for the first time ever). Many of these chefs (Navajo chef Brian Yazzie comes to mind) are tired of their food and culture being profited on by others with little-to-nothing trickling back to their oft-impoverished communities. They’re speaking freely about it and people are taking note.
The concerns of Yazzie and other marginalized chefs are valid. It’s very fair to ask “who’s making money off of my culture’s food?” But it’s not a mandate for white chefs to stop cooking all multi-cultural, fusion, or foreign (to them) dishes. Yes, you can appropriate another culture respectfully — by appreciating it and helping to bolster it. Yes, you can also misappropriate it and completely muck it up. Both are possible. The latter seems to happen all too often.
As Vince Mancini noted in Uproxx’s discussion of the Kooks Burrito dust-up in Portland a couple of years back, the starting point to avoid all of this appropriation talk is simply, “don’t be an asshole.” Be considerate, be thoughtful, and, if you’re a white chef experimenting with foodways that are foreign to you, try to see things from the perspective of “the other.” But the conversation goes deeper than that. Not being an asshole includes chefs knowing what they’re doing beyond, “the flavors inspired me.” The next step is for chefs to ask “why am I serving this dish?” and “why now?”
It’s about taking the time to be aware of the circumstances surrounding any given cuisine, asking who has been historically allowed to profit from it, and, yes, ferreting out the history of what you’re cooking. Sustainability ought to be addressed too (looking at you, national poke chains) but that’s a story for another day.
Two stories from the past few months illustrate the messy nature of the food appropriation conversation:
1. In February, Thomas Keller opened a much-anticipated Mexican concept, La Calenda, in the Bay Area. The restaurant was contentious from the outset, due to claims of appropriation and profiteering by Keller and his team. Some people were bothered by the fact that head chef Kaelin Ulrich Trilling isn’t Mexican. Trilling was, in fact, born in Oaxaca (the son of white parents who immigrated there) and seems genuinely committed to understanding and expressing Mexican cuisine. Still, it’s not quite the same as hiring a chef who would have access to recipes handed down for generations.
When critic Soleil Ho reviewed the restaurant for the San Francisco Chronicle she admitted that some of her fans were expecting scorched earth. Ho is well respected in the food community and has been at the forefront of the food appropriation conversation on Twitter. She’s also greatly helped upend the white-male-dominated world of food and food journalism. But her review dubbed La Calenda “appropriation done right.” The critic had a laugh about the mangled tortilla chips and the pan-Mexican-by-way-of-Instagram-influencer decor but she enjoyed other aspects (the crockery and much of the food itself).
The fact that La Calenda passed Ho’s litmus test as a restaurant that makes a genuine effort to highlight marginalized voices is saying something — though she, like anyone, is prone to blind spots. As an Indigenous person, I still wonder what La Calenda’s menu might have looked like had Keller hired an Indigenous Oaxacan chef like, say, Neftalí Durán, who was lauded as the Native American Chef of the Year by the Smithsonian.
2. Our second case study centers on the easiest fish to shoot in the appropriation barrel: noisy, boorish, often deliberately cruel Gordon Ramsay. This past week, Gordo took a lot of heat for his new pan-East Asian concept Lucky Cat (along with his new NatGeo show, which was originally pitched in a way that begged for critique). The calls of appropriation started when the review for Lucky Cat’s preview event from Eater London writer, Angela Hui, caught fire — though Hui’s Instagram story from the event was what really set things ablaze.
Hui went so far as to call Lucky Cat’s head chef’s partner a “token Asian wife” on her social media feed, which seems baffling, personal, and cruel. Ramsay clapped back. The chef pointed out that Hui not liking his food was “fine” by him but discrimination like what she’d posted was not appropriate in any way. He’s right. Hui’s review also, almost inexplicably, equates the restaurant’s use of “vibrant” as code for “authentic,” which is a huge leap on her part.
All of that being said, does the world (or London for that matter) need a pan-East Asian restaurant from Gordon Ramsay? Tough to say. Everyone has a right to express themselves, but it’s important that the sense of appreciation is intact. In my opinion, Ramsay would be well served by asking himself why Hui — who wrote that she was the only Asian person at the preview of this Asian concept — didn’t feel that.
Though Keller seems to have gotten a pass where Ramsay did not, the two cases underscore a bigger idea: There’s no real litmus for what food appropriation even is. That’s because there are no hard-and-fast rules for what makes food “authentic.” And remember that ethnicity doesn’t equal execution, further muddling things. Technically, a black chef from Chicago is just as capable of making authentic Pad Thai in Chicago as a Thai chef is making authentic hot beef sandwiches in Bangkok. And, yes, a white chef can make Mexican cuisine, just as a Mexican chef can execute the highest levels of French cookery. That’s just the reality when you get behind the grill — game recognizes game.
In the end, the ideas of authenticity, ownership, and pure culinary skill twine together and are tough to untangle. In short: it’s complicated. As the late Anthony Bourdain spelled out on Parts Unknown, “Look, the story of food is the story of appropriation, and war, and mixed marriages, and, you know, it constantly changes.”
If we want this conversation to progress beyond Twitter outrage, we need to take another step back and ask why chefs in migrant nations in the west are so very eager to cook other people’s food for profit? What’s actually happening here?
There are a couple of things at play. White, black, and Asian migrants to places like the United States, Mexico, Peru, Canada, and even the U.K. have often left behind more monolithic-seeming cultures. Freed from the chains of tradition back in the old country, migrants tend to gravitate towards what inspires them. That’s why we see black chefs doing Americanized-sushi or Asian chefs doing pan-Mexican food or (insert person and food culture here) in every corner of the Americas. It’s just a reality of the world we live in. Inspiration can’t be reigned in. And we have to honor what those chefs really love to cook, right? #FollowYourBliss.
Where the rubber hits the road is when you dig into “why?” and “how?” Is the chef in question pursuing a certain cuisine because they love, respect, and have devoted at least a portion of their lives to the study of a particular food and culture? Or is it a cash grab to stack bills while riding a trendy wave (again: poke chains)?
At the end of the day, the secret to not appropriating seems simple: respect. In a recent interview with Uproxx, Chef’s Table creator David Gelb succinctly explained why any chef needs to start from that baseline. “You can do your own twist [on any food],” Gelb said. “But I think it’s a matter of curbing your arrogance, treating that food with respect, and treating the origins of that food with the proper respect.”
The movie Chef offers a pretty solid example of how this can be done. Jon Favreau’s character in that film found his culinary voice through his son and ex-wife’s heritage, which was part of his everyday life for decades. He didn’t go on a week-long trip to Miami and start calling his food “authentic” Cuban food. He earned it throughout his life and by learning from his friends and family. Somewhere along the way, the story of the food he was cooking became his story.
Taking that into the real world, we need to understand where chefs are coming from before we throw them under the social media bus. On the flip side, they need to do the work before racing to monetize the food of marginalized people. Fair is fair.
In the end, maybe the whole matter isn’t so complex after all — one chef cooking another culture’s food is inherent in modern cuisine. It 100-percent can and should be celebrated. But without a baseline of respect and reciprocity for everything that came before, it’s never going to feel right for the people whose heritage the food in question is meant to reflect. That’s not mock outrage or PC culture run amok, it’s just logical.