It’s an interesting question. Who has the right to profit from food that does not represent their culture? Who has the right to cook food that they did not know growing up and call it their own? Chef Rick Bayless and Professor Krishnendu Ray, chair of NYU’s Food Studies Department and author of The Ethnic Restaurateur talk about this on Dan Pashman’s Podcast, The Sporkful. Professor Ray says that in order to be a chef of another culture’s food you have to educate yourself about the food and the culture, becoming a student of the culture. While I agree with this statement, I believe there is more to profiting from another culture’s recipes and food culture than just learning about their culture.
Between different cultures and cuisines and the way they are viewed throughout the world there are many complexities. One of the main complexities is the hierarchy of cultures and the racial implications. Chef Rick Bayless is a white man from Oklahoma who serves upscale Mexican food in his world-renowned restaurants. Bayless has received both commendations and criticism for his restaurants. Bayless expressed in Dan’s podcast that he has a passion and love for the culture of Mexico and Mexican food. He talks about falling in love with Mexico when he was 14, taking annual trips to Mexico with his family and learning important, valuable life lessons from the people in Mexico. While all of this makes him a student of the culture of Mexico, I am not completely sure his restaurants are still not appropriating Mexican culture to make a profit. Professor Ray explains at the beginning of the podcast that a white person can make food from another culture and succeed while non-whites do not have this same opportunity. When Bayless is asked in the podcast if his whiteness has helped him in any way to succeed, he responded that he had never thought about it before and then he sighted all of his hard work and how difficult it is for restaurants to succeed. While I don’t doubt that Bayless is hardworking or that he is a respectful student of Mexican culture, I think it is impossible not to appropriate another culture if one is not willing to recognize their own whiteness and the way it has in some ways helped them succeed. In a society where there is a such an evident racial hierarchy and constant color-blind racism, Chef Bayless is adding to these major societal issues by not recognizing his own whiteness and the ways it has helped him succeed.
Chef Bayless believes that he is “translating” the food and culture of Mexico to an audience in America in a way that they can understand. Opposingly, Professor Ray says that all translation is a loss of some sort. I believe that both are in some way true. All translation is a loss but if we were never willing to translate anything, cultures would never intermingle, people would never communicate and the world would be a much more disconnected and disunited place. In Los Angeles, we get to see the way that fusing two different kinds of cuisine can be mind-blowingly good. In this fusion, yes we are losing some of the original taste and culture of each of the originals but we are als gaining and incredible new dish that may be appealing to a wider range of people.
Guerila Tacos, Wes Avila’s brick and mortar taco shop in the Art’s District is an example of fusion food. Tacos originated in Mexico but Avila is serving them in ways that are completely different from the way tacos are served and made in Mexico. This being said, Wes Avila does not call his food Mexican food and he is not trying to be “authentic” to Mexican food and culture. Wes Avila described to us on our class visit to his shop that his food is “authentic” to his Los Angeles experience. His fusion tacos encapsulate his Los Angeles upbringing, culinary school experience and passion for food. In this case, fusion food is not taking away from its Mexican roots because it is not trying to be Mexican food. It is trying to be its own individual type of taco and it has been a huge success.