As the world shrinks as a result of globalization, cultural boundaries are becoming more and more blurred. This is becoming increasingly evident in the culinary field, especially in larger cities such as Los Angeles, where ethnic communities trade practices, traditions, and ingredients. However, when it comes to chefs profiting from cuisines that are not their own, the term «cultural appropriation» becomes relevant.
Rick Bayless is undeniably one of the greatest perpetrators of cultural appropriation in the culinary world. In Gustavo Arellano’s article «The Problem Isn’t Rick Bayless Cooking Mexican Food — It’s That He’s a Thin-Skinned Diva» brings to light the superiority complex that makes his Mexican cooking problematic. The comment made by Bayless about «teaching Southern California about Mexican food» completely washes over the efforts of Mexican and Mexican-American chefs that have been able to pay homage to the Mexican culture while also respecting culinary traditions. Furthermore, when prompted with criticism, Bayless becomes incredibly defensive instead of acknowledging that there might be certain credibility to this cultural appropriation argument, which is only becoming more prevalent as consumers learn more about this controversy. As a white man of incredible privilege, Rick Bayless has used his position to draw attention to himself instead of the Mexican culinary traditions and ingredients that allowed him to succeed in the first place. And although the chef claims his authentic cooking was crafted after years of living and traveling throughout Mexico, it only emphasizes the opportunities that he had as an American, which are not available to aspiring chefs of different backgrounds.
Bayless has had several transgressions against the Mexican culture through his response to critics. However, his description of «translating» certain traditional Mexican ingredients for his Midwestern clients is borderline offensive. He is personally contributing to the white washing of the Mexican culinary culture in highlighting terms that would be more appealing to non-Mexican consumers. In order to market Mexican cuisine to a different audience, it seems as though Rick Bayless puts profits above respect for culture in his restaurants.
Elotegate brings up an interesting argument surrounding gentrification. After an article about a Los Angeles elotero went viral, Timoteo (the elotero) sold out immediately. This is the idea behind «columbusing,» a term describing the popularization of certain cultural icons that have been around for decades in upper class circles. The result of this viral article was the selling out of elote by Timoteo along with backlash from several food bloggers. I think it is important for important cultural aspects to be respected and recognized for excellence, however, it is also important that the vendor know the possible consequences of being featured in a publication. If Timoteo had been an undocumented immigrant and was not told that his location would be disclosed, the article could have created severe safety issues. Fortunately, this was not the case, but it is important to remain cognizant of the repercussions that highlighting a certain cuisine can have. As long as the tradition of the food is well respected, allowing access to Timoteo for future clients is not harmful to the Mexican cuisine. However, Elotegate further highlights the blurred line between cultural appropriation and respect for a certain cuisine.
I have not visited any restaurants that claim to be fusion that have successfully sold me on their idea of fusion cuisine. A few weeks ago, I visited 23rd Street Cafe which claims to mix Mexican and Indian cuisines. Unfortunately, I did not see my typical Mexican burrito with beans and rice with chicken tikka masala instead of pollo asado as a fusion dish. From what I understand, successful fusion ventures such as Kogi have been able to use ingredients from one cuisine and give them the same respect as ingredients from another. The greater concept that comes across is the innovation of combining two delicious culinary ideas, rather than replacing integral parts of a dish with other random ingredients. Because of this, the idea of translating is absent in the work of the Kogi truck.
The idea of Taco Bell as being a Mexican restaurant is shocking to me, as I’m sure it is to many others. Taco Bell represents American food in all of it’s fried, greasy glory with an extremely faint Mexican influence. For this reason, I would not be able to classify Taco Bell as cultural appropriation, since what it stands for now is more American than Mexican in appearance, quality, and taste.
There will never be an definitive answer to cultural appropriation. There will always be a fine line that chefs and consumers will tread in order to explore different realms of food culture while attempting to pay respect to traditions and origins.