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.
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 AT USC
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.