From Rick Bayless to Bad Burritos: Cultural Appropriation of Cuisine (by Jamie Clarke)


If you’re strolling down Clark St. in the River North neighborhood of Chicago, you can’t miss Frontera Grill. Frontera Grill, founded in 1987 by Chef Rick Bayless, became very successful as a restaurant that serves “traditional Mexican” cuisine. The success of Frontera Grill allowed Bayless to grow an empire of “Mexican” restaurants, churro shops, and even a popular tortas stand in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. However, there is a problem. Bayless is making a successful business empire out of a culture that is far from his own. Bayless is a white guy from Oklahoma who decided to travel to Mexico in his teenage years and early adult life. Does this really make him qualified, or even give him the right, to serve Mexican food at over 20 eateries?

Many would say no. In the Sporkful podcast, “White Chef, Mexican Food,” Rick Bayless comes on the air to say that he believes he has earned the right to make Mexican food because he has traveled to every state in Mexico, learned Spanish, and loves the food. However, when asked whether he believes he has extra privileges as a white restaurant-industry entrepreneur, Bayless admits that he honestly hadn’t thought about it. Essentially, the point made is that Bayless elects to make and profit from Mexican cuisine without realizing his white privilege; being white puts him at an advantage over native Mexicans who want to come to the U.S. and make a truly authentic version of their food for Americans.

In further, Bayless claims that simply by going to Mexico and tasting the cuisine, he is highly qualified to portray Mexican food for a profit in the U.S. In saying this, he condescendingly displays his ego for the podcast audience. An OC Weekly article explains, “where we get to the true problem with Bayless: he’s is a thin-skinned diva who really, truly believes he’s the modern-day incarnation of Quetzalcoatl, the Mesoamerican deity that Spanish chroniclers claimed was the light-skinned, bearded savior of the Aztecs. And when people don’t automatically genuflect at his messianic genius, Bayless not only gets mad: he gets chavala in a way that’s unbecoming of his star status and speaks to the man’s true worth.” Essentially, the article professes that Bayless has a huge ego, which makes him think that he is doing Mexico a good service by sharing their food with Americans. However, he is in fact doing them a disservice because he is ripping off their cuisine without showing respect for the history or culture behind it.

Another time in which Bayless asserts his ego is described in “Food, Health, and Culture in Latino Los Angeles,” by Professor Sarah Portnoy. When Bayless inaugurated his L.A. restaurant, Red O., Portnoy says, “Bayless stated that he was opening a restaurant in Los Angeles because he was intrigued about ‘how the true flavors of Mexico, from central and southern Mexico, would play in Southern California.’” Professor Portnoy explains that, “this was a ludicrous statement about a region that had been part of Mexico and one that had received immigrants from these regions of Mexico for nearly a century, and it incited outrage among other chefs and food critics.” Bayless’ statement outraged many because Mexican cuisine had already been engrained into the Southern California landscape for decades. Thus, he displayed cultural naivety and disrespect for the thousands and thousands of L.A. Mexicans making the food of their homeland for Los Angelenos at eateries all around the city.

Red O Restaurant, Los Angeles, CA

Bayless’ actions are keen examples of cultural appropriation, the act of ripping off another group’s culture and trying to make it one’s own. In the Sporkful podcast, Bayless attempts to defend his choices as part of his effort to “culturally translate” Mexican cuisine for an American audience. However, Professor Ray, a professor from NYU, explains later in the podcast that, “all translation is a loss,” since translating a cuisine takes out the cultural roots, history, and meaning behind the food. What Bayless fails to consider in his efforts to serve Americans his cooked-by-a-white-man “Mexican” food is that he is not representing a culture or a history that he fully understands when cooking, so the food will not be the same as true Mexican food made by Mexican cooks. Moreover, Bayless culturally appropriates Mexican cuisine by selecting out stereotypical dishes that he enjoys, like enchiladas and mole. By displaying these generic platters to the U.S. as “Mexican” cuisine, he neglects to pay respect to other lesser-known dishes that have played a large role in Mexican history and culture. Thus, Bayless culturally appropriates Mexican cuisine and shows extreme cultural naivety.



Cultural appropriation of food not only occurs by distinguished Anglo chefs trying to explore “exotic” territories with their cuisine, but also in everyday settings. At USC there are numerous examples of cultural appropriation of cuisine, ranging from the fast-food “Mexican” dishes served at campus center to the “authentic Asian cuisine” served at Fertita café in the business school.

The first place a person usually goes when visiting USC is the campus center. When one walks into the campus center food court, they see the “Italian” dishes of California Pizza Kitchen to their right, “Chinese” food at Panda Express straight ahead, and a “Mexican” joint called Verde to their left. All of these places culturally appropriate food, but I will focus on Verde. Verde is a popular spot on campus to get a quick, filling “Mexican” burrito or taco platter. As costumers approach the line, an employee, who most of the time is not of Mexican descent, greets them. The employee asks if they would like a wheat or white flour tortilla, both of which are incredibly different from the maze tortillas of Mexico. Next, the costumer chooses from a variety of barely seasoned meats, plain beans and rice, and salsa toppings that have far less flavor than the salsas found in Mexico. The entire dish is made from start to finish in about 30 seconds.

Verde, and other restaurants like it, such as Chipotle, majorly culturally appropriate Mexican cuisine because they take basic Mexican food elements and Americanize them. Verde takes the Mexican concept of serving meat, beans, rice, and vegetables in a tortilla and makes fast, low-quality food out of it. By calling its dishes “Mexican” food, Verde disrespects Mexicans and their culture because it extracts basic concepts from Mexican cuisine and reworks them to be much worse and less historically significant than the original cuisine. Just as Bayless cannot do justice to Mexican food because he does not fully understand the history or culture behind it, Verde cannot do justice to Mexican food because its cooks and owners do not understand the significance behind the food they sell.

10 respuestas a “From Rick Bayless to Bad Burritos: Cultural Appropriation of Cuisine (by Jamie Clarke)

  1. hannahthomas321

    Jaime- I really enjoyed your discussion of appropriation on USC’s campus. I had never though about how the campus center americanizes the food of so many different cultures, but your argument makes sense. Do you think these restaurants have a place in American culture? What would you suggest as an alternative to these appropriative restaurants?

  2. lindsaymarty

    Jamie, your blog was really interesting to read. It is so ironic that USC’s entire campus center is filled with culturally appropriative food, likely an attempt to cater to the diverse interests of USC’s diverse population. Do you think it’s better that USC attempts (and kind of fails) to offer a variety of ethnic foods, or would it be better if they just stuck to authentic American food to completely avoid the issue of cultural appropriation?

  3. Jared Alswang

    It was interesting to read about the “darker” side of Rick Bayless in your blog. It’s unfortunate that his large ego and “diva” persona leads to white privilege through cultural appropriation. Do you think a different white person that maybe has more respect for Mexican culture has the right to create a Mexican food empire such as he did? Or should race be a defining characteristic?

  4. Tayanna Todd

    Wow I completely forgot about all the dining establishments in TCC! Great examples to discuss & dissect and how they are very poor examples of all the dynamic & diverse food landscape that we’re situated right in the middle of in downtown LA! Imagine how different our food court if it consisted of only local vendors or it was a standing mini-marketplace of sorts each day instead of just the farmers market on Weds in McCarthy Quad. Think that TCC can also be considered as a place of “staged authenticity” with semi-authentic representations of cuisine from all over the world (Mexico, China, Italian, etc.)…sadly many people associate these cuisines almost exclusively with big fast-food chains. If Rick Bayless is “the” face of high-end Mexican food, Taco Bell/Chipotle/Verde are without a doubt the faces of low/mid/college level Mexican food. Thank goodness for this class so we can see what REAL Mexican food is supposed to look & taste like! 😉

  5. beccadunn13

    Jamie, I agree when you say that Bayless has used his white privilege to only benefit him and make his career more successful. I think the problem especially stems from the fact that he himself even said that he doesn’t take his white privilege into consideration. I like how you criticized him and used him as an example for cultural appropriation.

  6. Paul

    Jamie you must not have many people reading your article here. Maybe because it’s actually a bunk argument coming from a place of cultural insecurity. Those who support this thinly supported argument of cultural appropriation are most certainly welcome to dine elsewhere, probably do. Be aware that most people (of all colors) find your points exclusive, racially biased, and petty. Even when laid out as clearly as you’ve done here. Good luck with your new restaurant.

  7. john

    Yeah, what Paul said. Jamie you are a complete and unmitigated moron. The way things progress is sharing, appropriating, teaching or just plain stealing ideas, practices, inventions. etc. Bayless’ personality is irrelevant but you are slandering a good man and a nice guy.

    Make yourself honest: stop using and doing all the things you did not personally invent.

  8. cca73127

    You’re kidding aren’t you? Instead of breaking down prejudice let’s add some more by telling people who and how they can cook, this is actually racist ie restricting people because of their race. Are you going to complain to the Japanese Iron Chef program because French cooking techniques are being used? Can people who are not Mexican make mexican food at home? Shut down Chinese restaurants who don’t meet traditional cooking style? Are third generation immigrants allowed to open restaurants if they don’t speak their traditional language and have never been to their country of origin? Should all people who are not of Jewish descent and don’t have mining in their backgrounds stop wearing jeans? Are non-white, non-baseball players allowed to wear baseball caps? Should you stop Asians serving up gyros? Are Turkish people allowed to serve yeeros and Greek people kebabs?

    What is modern American food? It’s just a mix of the representation of the residents of the US so a bit of everything. Shoud Australia not serve hot dogs and hamburgers? Why aren’t you going Roy Choi over Korean Americans subverting Mexican food?

    Here’s what gives Rick Bayless the right to cook in response to the “However, there is a problem. Bayless is making a successful business empire out of a culture that is far from his own.” statement. He works hard, markets himself well, people buy his food because they like it and he lives in a free (this is now debatable) country.

    By your thinking you should not even be commenting on this subject. Your name is Irish/Scottish so you can’t comment on Mexican food, stick to the bagpipe origin argument.



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