It’s Time To Examine The Idea Of ‘Cultural Appropriation’ In Food

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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.