Translation or Appropriation? Rick Bayless and Mexican Cuisine (Rachel Rowzee)

It is arguable that now, more than ever in recent history we see race tensions front and center in American life. Issues of race in food culture are not new, and are especially present in Los Angeles. A particularly famous case of cultural appropriation was Rick Bayless’ opening of Red O in Los Angeles. I agree with Arellano that Bayless’ privileged attitude makes him a bad candidate for a representative of Mexican food. His comments about bringing authentic food to Los Angeles were preposterous. Further, many people in the food community who are Mexican have acknowledged his expertise in the food and appreciation for his efforts. However, in Rick Bayless’ case, his conception of successful food restaurants and supreme confidence in his capabilities as a Mexican food chef have morphed the real issues of expertise into one of race. Bayless should have approached the opening of Red O in Los Angeles as an opportunity that allowed him to experience the various roots of Mexican cooking in geographically compact zones as a unique learning opportunity. Instead, his past success in Chicago as a Mexican food chef may have closed him off to what the Los Angeles Mexican food scene had to offer. In response to bad reviews of the food from Mexican chefs and critics, Bayless argued that their attacks were raced-based, a tactic only made possible by his privileged white status. Completely dismissing reviews on these “racist” grounds shows Bayless’ insecurity in his own position in the Mexican foodscape. By elevating Mexican food to a high-dining experience on Melrose, Bayless has effectively made Mexican food for a white clientele, but he has also exposed them to foods that were once only viewed as burritos, combo platters and $1 tacos. Overcoming that cultural boundary I think is one that should be applauded, but the manner in which it is undertaken is fundamental to the spirit of the establishment. More concretely, I believe that if Bayless would have utilized the thriving Mexican community in Los Angeles, taking into consideration the needs and interests of the community, Red O would have looked and felt less like appropriation and more like a celebration of Mexican food culture. Bayless and other white chefs receive more opportunity and support in their cooking ventures.  As a white man, Bayless has more opportunities to receive loans to open up a restaurant, an extremely expensive and risky business undertaking. Further, he is not met with the same barrier to entry and obstacles that Latinos and especially immigrants would face. These barriers include informational barriers, resource barriers, financial and even language barriers. Who prepares food in the kitchen is a slippery issue. It doesn’t seem as problematic if a Mexican-American prepares a burger, spaghetti or smoothies, however a white person preparing tacos or soul food feels like appropriation. It does not bother me if the ethnicity of the person cooking my food does not match the cuisine, but it does contribute to the feeling of authenticity.

While I do think Bayless has the right to cook Mexican food, but he must understand that some will view his expertise in Mexican cuisine as appropriation. I prefer to see that the appreciation, fusion and adoption of Mexican cuisine as a form of translation. Much like painting, I think Bayless’s work (if done in a less pretentious way) has learned from its origins techniques, flavors and concepts.  The standard of authenticity and the cultural lines of cuisine are unique features of food culture. In the history of art, learning traditional skills, techniques and concepts has always been required, but individual discovery and invention has also been essential. Sharing of these techniques and ideas has been a cross-cultural phenomenon that has spanned time and space rather than creating divisions between groups of people. In this sense, Bayless has translated his lessons into his own interpretation.  Food fusions like Guerilla’s tacos are more akin to the process of artistry than traditional foodways.

Objections to Rick Bayless, despite his supposed expertise he naively underestimates the complex food identity and culture in Los Angeles. Bayless’ restaurant Red O, and his reaction to criticism of the food and ambiance have made him a recognizable symbol of cultural food appropriation in the Latino community. As Esparza’s review “Tinga tu Madre and Guarcaviche”, cleverly written and at times brutally honest makes excellent points.  Esparza does not deny Bayless’ expertise of Mexican food, “[Rick] has done a lot to educate Americans about authentic Mexican cuisine.” Bill Esparza’s view is stronger that Mexican food truly belongs to the Mexican people, “I really see chef Rick Bayless as an enthusiastic American ambassador of Mexican cuisine, and a food anthropologist…These [John Sedlar, and Rocio Camacho etc] talented Mexican chefs, cooks, and specialists are the true spokespeople for Mexican cuisine here in town.” (Esparza) This take does seem to make stronger distinctions between who should and should not play a role in representing the food. While Esparza is thankful for Bayless and Kennedy’s work to bringing awareness and Mexican food, he envisions a central role for Mexicans in shaping how their food culture will continue to grow.

Is Mexican fine dining the gentefication of Mexican food?  Perhaps a provocative question, but an interesting one nonetheless. Where changes in Mexican foodscapes have and continue to grow, is it preferable to have a Mexican create haute Mexican cuisine? The thought being, that if the gentrification is going to occur, it is preferable to come from someone understands and appreciates and comes from the culture. Perceiving it in this light seems to help underscore the moment where Rick Bayless become problematic. He is a food gentrifier, who (to his credit) has studied and appreciates Mexican food. But because Bayless does not come from the Mexican culture it feels more intrusive, than if a fellow Mexican did so.