Does it truly matter who runs the kitchen of a restaurant? I believe that as long as the chef is representing the food in the best possible way he can and doing the cuisine justice it does not matter. If the restaurant is termed as “authentic” I, as a patron, am expecting authentic flavors and classic recipes. That is what I expect the chef to provide; their own ethnicity and heritage is essentially irrelevant. If the restaurant prides itself in being “fusion,” then I expect to receive interesting combinations of flavor profiles and unique mixtures of ingredients. I do not necessarily expect the chef to be ethnically from or have a background heritage from those areas, nor should this be a requirement for them to be a chef. In all honestly, some of the best Indian restaurants I have eaten at, throughout the Midwest and California, have mostly Latino chefs, who are equally well-versed in Indian cuisine in the kitchen. As we have discussed throughout the semester, cooking is an art-form and I believe this creative outlet should be open to any and all who wish to participate. So long as an individual is not labeling themselves as a brand ambassadors or inventor of a specific cooking style, flavor profile, or dish that belongs to someone or somewhere else.
I believe that the true problem lies within the way in which a chef or restaurant may label their cuisine and/or dishes, either intentionally or unintentionally, subsequently altering the expectations of the consumer due to this incorrect or misleading label. At Oberlin College, “The traditional Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich that Stevenson Dining Hall promised turned out to be a cheap imitation of the East Asian dish. Instead of a crispy baguette with grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork and coleslaw. ‘It was ridiculous,’ Nguyen said. ‘How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?’” (Friedersdorf). I agree, if the school dining hall truly did label their Banh Mi as “traditional,” then their misleading label was inappropriate; however, I do not believe that it would be culturally appropriative without any malicious intent behind the action or unwillingness to remedy their mistakes after becoming aware of its adverse interpretation. As in the case of dining hall chefs at Oberlin, “They seemed very willing to learn and fix what was offending people” (Friedersdorf).
The “appropriative” behavior of chefs at Oberlin seems to be more of a reflection of mislabeling rather than true malicious appropriation. In fact, I would delve deeper into understanding why the chefs chose those specific ingredients when making their “Traditional Banh Mi.” Did the chefs use the ingredients available to their disposal in the best way they possibly could to construct this Vietnamese dish? I believe we must also consider the fact that Oberlin is located in Northern Ohio, most likely does not source ingredients specifically from ethnic grocery stores, and must serve hundreds of hungry college students multiple times a day. Can students truly have such high expectations from such a hub of mass production? Would students at places like Oberlin prefer to be served mac n cheese, hamburgers, and hot dogs every single day because these are the only dishes that represent “American” food? I do believe that Oberlin students were resourceful and took instances such as this mislabeling of food to bring up their larger concern of dining hall food quality, which is an issue at most college dining halls (besides UCLA of course).
I truly believe that a chef’s interpretation of food is his own take on the cuisine, whether it leans more towards being “traditional” or “authentic”, no two chefs are going to create the exact same dish with the exact same flavors. Our visit to Wes Avila’s Guerilla Tacos was a perfect demonstration of this phenomenon. Avila is ethnically Mexican, and one would assume his cooking would demonstrate this Mexican “authenticity”; however, he is one of the first pioneers to end up demonstrating the representation of true Angelino cuisine. His cooking embodies the cuisines he grew up with in LA including Korean, Middle Eastern, Japanese, etc. Guerilla Tacos is Avila’s interpretation, translation, and fusion of these cuisines and is in fact not labelled as cultural appropriation as this is clearly communicated to his customers, “He had gone to culinary schools in California and France, had cooked alongside some of the most recognized chefs in the world…but he had still not found his own style…Tacos. The perfect medium…he could make them with locally sourced ingredients and experiment with unique recipes…it was the way he would bring gourmet to the street” (Avila).
I believe that the story of Wes Aliva is a good juxtaposition to the interesting case of Rick Bayless who has received tons of scrutiny for culturally appropriating Mexican food. However, “He’s done so much work to study Mexican food and culture. He speaks Spanish fluently. He spent five years living in Mexico, visiting every state in the country. And he returns to Mexico every year with his restaurant staff for research and training” (Saini). I believe that Bayless has the full right to be “the face of high-end Mexican food.” Though he is not ethnically nor culturally Mexican, he is an expert in the cuisine due to his deep exposure and immersion into “authentic” Mexico. In an NPR interview Bayless even stated that his cooking, “Doesn’t come from a shallow understanding; it comes from a deep understanding. I’ve done everything I can to make it my own.” This is not an act of “columbusing” in any way whatsoever because Bayless does not recklessly and thoughtlessly appropriate something that has been around for years or decades (Portnoy). He is not calling his moles, tamales, empanadas, etc. his own genius cuisine – he is truly and fully giving credit to its Mexican heritage.
I am the daughter of immigrants from India, I cook daal, sabzi, and roti, but as an American I mostly cook pizza, pasta, tacos, fajitas, pad thai, green curry, kebabs, hummus, and various other dishes originating from all around the world. This is a representation of the food I enjoy, the food I have grown up with, and food that just tastes good! I truly believe that ingredients, recipes, and cooking styles belong to different cultures, but, this does not mean they have exclusive ownership over this in any way. Through globalization, the world has inter-mingled and mixed in more ways than we could have ever imagined, and I do not believe that we should inhibit this because of “cultural appropriation.” When it comes down to it, appropriation aligns with an individual’s intent of his or her actions which is extremely difficult to assess; thus, tribute, respect, and inspiration must be given where it is due, which is essential when trying to analyze if something has truly been “culturally appropriated.”