Culinary Appropriation: Rick Bayless vs. Kogi Food Trucks

By Natalie Redington (featured image is Yellowtail Aguachile from Rick Bayless’ Restaurant, Topolobampo)

On my way to a quiet study space to write this blog, I was speaking casually to my best friend about the idea of culinary appropriation, which can often be a touchy subject. My friend (who preferred to remain anonymous for this blog) is from Hong Kong, and I was curious to hear her thoughts. She stated,

“It really frustrates me when the reason [Asian food] is brought to light or made cool is from someone who doesn’t know my culture and is using it to gain popularity. Dumplings aren’t cool because white people discovered it. It’s been there for centuries. If I brought it to school [for lunch], people would’ve laughed. It’s like that for so many people where they get made fun of [for the food they eat], but some celebrity chef makes it popular and then people around me are talking like they know what [Asian food] is because they’ve had it once. It’s fucked up that people not of my culture pick and choose the parts of it they want to appreciate, and they appreciate it until they don’t. My culture is not a fad.”

As someone also of Asian heritage, I can relate to these sentiments, and I’ll touch upon them more in depth towards the end of my blog. However, Asian food culture is not the only food group that is being appropriated or popularized by the white majority. As evidenced both by popular controversies and the readings of this week, white chefs – particularly Rick Bayless – cooking food from Latino cultures have received a lot of backlash. This idea of “culinary appropriation” comes with its pros and cons – think Bayless’ elevation of Mexican food beyond burritos and combo plates vs. his monetary gain off tradition/ideas from another culture. In the end the cons outweigh the pros, as what’s most problematic is the unwarranted borrowing, or moreover, stealing, of culture through culinary practice.

Yes, America is a melting pot, and the idea that there is a “mixing” of cultures that occurs is undeniable. But the line often gets blurred. Bayless speaks about how mole is a combination of ingredients from all over the world – with different “elements from Southeast Asia, Europe blended together seamlessly with ingredients from the new world” (Sporkful). The people of Mexico took that and created a signature dish that is unique and specific to their culture. In turn, Rick Bayless takes that specific set of food and recreates/copies it and profits from that. For example, on his dinner menu at his restaurant Topolobampo (a favorite of Obama’s), you can find dishes that are very specific to Mexican culture, such as carne asada, aguachile, tacos, and elote. While he may put his own spin on it by adding Yellowtail or “foie gras crema,” he takes a cuisine away from its roots because he implements higher-priced items such as those just listed. Then the food becomes tailored to a different audience – one that is often white, and of a higher socioeconomic background, and that is how the food becomes more popular. The street vendors down in the Piñata district or out in Boyle Heights might not be able to afford such ingredients, and the food they make is just as tasty; however, they’re discriminated against, and their food still continues to be considered low-class because they don’t tailor to a certain group of high-paying or influential customers. Professor Portnoy, in her book, Food, Health and Culture in Latino Los Angeles, expands on the racial discrimination against street vendors, quoting first from Lorena Muñoz: “‘the space in which these immigrant vendors practice their trade is ‘racialized,’ meaning ethnic or racial identities are ascribed to a minority group by the dominant one’…[For example,] in Los Angeles, Latino street vendors are typically regarded as undocumented regardless of their actual citizenship status…these stereotypical representations place vendors into a larger discourse of national and state immigration policies and attitudes that are informed by race. As the early history shows, vendors have been racialized since they first sold tamales on the streets of downtown Los Angeles over a century ago” (105). This is in great contrast to Rick Bayless, who does not have to worry about many of these issues.

Rick Bayless, owner of Topolobampo & other high-end Mexican restaurants — The Daily Beast

Bayless states, “I know that there have been a number of people out there that criticized me only – only – because of my race. Because I’m white, I can’t do anything with Mexican food. But we have to stop and say, ‘Oh wait, is that plain racism then?’” (Sporkful 22:55). No, it’s not racism. While it’s admirable that Bayless has spent a long time living in Mexico, conducting research and getting to know the background information of traditional Mexican food, the problem lies in the fact that he’s not of Latino/Mexican descent. Because of this, he actually DOESN’T experience racism like most Mexicans/Mexican-Americans/Latinos do, even as often as on a daily basis from the general public, especially towards their food which has, for a long while, been considered to be low-class. As my friend stated in regards to her Asian culture, Bayless simply gets to choose what he deems to be the best part of Mexican culture – the food – and experience and recreate that, while becoming famous and wealthy off the traditions, recipes and preparation techniques that he stole from another culture. He also does this, most importantly, without also experiencing the other facets (meaning, the bad parts like racism and discrimination as well) of what it’s like to be a minority. The fact that he states, “I just don’t even understand where they’re coming from” in regards to his Mexican naysayers, exemplifies exactly this concept – he is so far removed from what it’s like to be a minority that he can’t even fathom the idea of why he could even potentially be in the wrong (23:55 Sporkful). I was pretty taken aback by the insensitivity of this comment. Rick Bayless knows Mexican cuisine very well, and instead of being an ambassador for the culture and teaching others about the history of Mexican food, continues to cater to only a certain group of people.

On the other hand, writing about a certain food culture is NOT appropriation. Both Peterson and Professor Portnoy do not steal from Latino culture but instead aid it immensely by popularizing it, without going so far as to steal from the culture (meaning, trying to recreate it/put their own spin on it and then profit from it). Their popularization through writing in turn helps support businesses and makes a larger population aware of the different types of food available; they expose the general public to a delicious type of food that may have been unknown before in a helpful way. In the case of food writing, it is not so much appropriation as it is a sharing or overlapping of cultures. Some critics may argue that Peterson, a food writer “columbused,” when he wrote about Timoteo, a street vendor selling corn. Peterson defines this term as “the act of reckless and thoughtless appropriation (typically by rich white people) of a thing that has been around for years or decades (a thing that usually belongs to non-white people)…[it] conjures up centuries of white upper-class appropriation of Latino culture” (106). While he received some backlash on exposing Timoteo for reasons related to potential “police harassment and fines,” gentrification and other issues (which means this type of publicity is not meant for every single street vendor out there, and permission must be granted), I agreed with his defense where he stated that the vendor “gave permission to Peterson to write the story… [and responded, saying] ‘Yeah, great. I get to go home earlier. We sold out.’ Clearly, the vendor benefited from his outing with the media” (107, 106). While some may view this as gentrification of a type of food that existed for a long time before white people discovered it, this, in my opinion, is different than appropriating food culture. Peterson, through publishing this article, supported Timoteo’s business, and encouraged others to try foods that may be out of their comfort zone or far from what they would normally eat. This opposes Rick Bayless’ method, where he profits immensely from taking a food, recreating it and “adapting it” or tailoring it to white standards and then making it popular.

This semester as part of the SPAN 385 class, I experienced “fusion” food a few times – whether that was at Guerrilla Tacos or X’tiosu Kitchen, and I’ve eaten at Kogi food truck before. Professor Portnoy’s article in conjunction with Pilcher, titled, Roy Choi, Ricardo Zárate, and Pacific Fusion Cuisine in Los Angeles, gave a brief history of the origins of the Kogi food truck and its owner, Roy Choi; this story is what fascinated me most from the reading. Portnoy and Pilcher describe how, “Kogi fusion grew from Choi’s childhood in the culinary and social borderlands of Los Angeles…particularly Boyle Heights was a gathering place for diverse migrants, including Mexicans, Italians and Jews, as well as Koreans, Japanese, Chinese and Filipinos” (10). He grew up experiencing the collective group identity of all these cultures coming together, in unity against those who discriminated against the Boyle Heights community. In my opinion, the creation of the Kogi food truck was an authentic and warranted borrowing of cultures, because “Choi’s taste buds were informed by these years of walking the streets of Los Angeles, where Mexican food blends seamlessly with American fare through cross-cultural marketing and intermarriage…Kogi’s fusion cuisine was not just a mixture of cultures, it also reflected the cross-class encounters of the Los Angeles streets, as Choi combined a tattooed, hip hop street cred with the professionalism of a CIA training” (10, 12). Choi implemented into his food truck all of what he knew from his childhood, and because he grew up as a part of this marginalized community, he isn’t picking and choosing only the parts of a culture he wants to profit from – as a minority and having grown up in this community in Boyle Heights, he’s already experienced it all. Most importantly, Choi’s food “brought people from different walks of life together” (12). Kogi’s food trucks not only mix cultures through its creations like “short rib tacos, kimchi quesadillas, and Kogi sliders,” but it also creates a positive environment for bonding over food.

Roy Choi, owner of the popular Los Angeles-based Kogi food trucks — The Daily Beast

In relation to my own Asian heritage, I’ve spoken a lot about my noodle parties – and I apologize for the repetition, this is just the only real comparison I can make. With Thai food generally comes a certain amount of culinary appropriation as well, but I’d like to focus specifically on the noodle soup my mom makes (a family recipe). For the longest time, I didn’t know the English name of the dish, until my mom sent me a post by Chrissy Teigen (who is half-Thai) on Instagram of her daughter eating what she called “Thai boat noodles.” I had never realized there was an English name for it, because my mom referred to it as “kuay tiew,” (pronounced quih-TYOW, ก๋วยเตี๋ยวเรือ). I then googled it awhile back and found a white woman recreating this dish (I searched again on YouTube and couldn’t find it…). I didn’t find myself as angry as my best friend from Hong Kong is/was, but it was more of a question of “How would you even know?” How would you know how to make this? How would you know the history behind these noodles? How would you know what little things to add to the soup (like a dash of fish sauce and vinegar, a sprinkle of brown sugar and a spoonful Sambal Oelek) that make all the difference? I’m not so much angry that this person is “appropriating” my food culture as I am worried that they’re advertising it in a way that doesn’t showcase its full potential! Let me make it for you instead and it will taste much better!!

If you want a little background/context about these noodles I keep going on about, here’s Chrissy Teigen customizing a bowl in Bangkok (I’m aware that, yes, this could be an example of a famous person making this type of food “cool,” but in my opinion, she is showcasing her heritage).

In conclusion, culinary (and furthermore, cultural) appropriation is a subject that doesn’t have a simple answer. If we didn’t mix and take from other cultures, there would be no sense of evolution or progress as cultures come together, especially in the “melting pot” that has almost come to define America. However, it’s still important to realize that some cultures pride themselves on their food, music, traditions, language, and other facets as uniting factors in face of other issues like racism, discrimination, or lack of acceptance from others because they’re different. And it becomes frustrating when the white majority thinks they can simply take one of those factors, like food, without experiencing the other repercussions of being a minority, especially at a time like this in America, with unprecedented divisiveness and political turmoil/unrest. Sometimes culinary mixes work, like in the example of the Kogi food truck, but others, like Rick Bayless’ restaurants do not. Culinary exchange must be first, carefully done, and also taken into account/interpreted on a case-by-case basis.

La Autenticidad — La Calle Olvera v. Mariscos Jalisco y el Mercado de Boyle Heights

Natalie Redington

La excursión que hicimos a Calle Olvera fue muy interesante, y un poco necesario, considerando que nunca había ido en mi vida, aunque soy nativo de Los Ángeles, y también vivo tan cerca del sitio, como estudiante de USC. Con las lecturas que leí como tarea antes de la clase, fui sorprendida a descubrir que la Calle Olvera que conocemos hoy, aunque tiene mucha historia como el raíz de Los Ángeles, fue recreado por una mujer, Christine Sterling, en los años 1920s/30s. Este hecho cambió un poco la manera en que la Calle Olvera me parecía. Antes de la renovación de Christine Sterling, fue una región pobre y un poco abandonada, con inmigrantes de clase trabajadora. La ciudad fue en una “dilapidated condition.”

Pero ahora la Calle Olvera tiene vitalidad – con puestos de barajitas como calaveras pintadas, ropa estereotípica mexicana, y restaurantes. No había muchas personas alrededor porque fuimos en un martes por la tarde, pero en los restaurantes pude ver muchas personas comiendo y terminando sus almuerzos. La Calle Olvera, en mi opinión, se representa por esta idea de “staged authenticity.”

La idea de que toda la Calle Olvera fue creado por Christine Sterling me previene de aceptar totalmente su “autenticidad.” Aunque se dejaba a la población mexicana un lugar a expresarse y totalmente dedicada a ellos (donde se ocurren eventos como Día de los Muertos, etc.), me parece que es demasiado similar a esta idea de “staged authenticity.” Profesora Portnoy en su libro, “Food, Health and Culture in Latino Los Angeles” explica esta idea en una descripción del restaurante El Cholo, diciendo que “The El Cholo restaurants are designed with an haute hacienda look…[with] stucco and adobe that remind diners of the Spanish Fantasy Past, which the image of Mexico presented s one that is highly stylized and theatrical…[another example of this is] the waitresses wearing stereotypical flowered Mexican dresses” (19). Profesora Portnoy viene a la idea que todas estas decoraciones y visuales dan un “idealized version of rural Mexico,” que es lo que se puede ver también en la Calle Olvera. (19).

Creo que la necesidad de añadir toda esta banalidad (fluff) en realidad desmerece de la experiencia; las decoraciones y todos los souvenirs dan la sensación de que no es auténtica y que tratan a vender una experiencia excesiva que no refleja la realidad. No siempre llevan en México los vestidos ornamentados que se venden en la Calle Olvera. Y como dijo la amiga de Ferrero en su artículo, no siempre comen en México la comida que ofrece en la carta. Ella dijo “The food that you generally find at Mexican restaurants in many areas of Los Angeles, as a matter of fact, is not the food that we usually eat at home. That one is too rich and fat and we usually only eat it during our festivities. If we ate all that kind of food everyday we would be absolutely fat by now!” (202). Para mí, me pregunté por qué muchos restaurantes sienten la necesidad de vender este tipo de comida y por qué quisieron promocionarlos de esta manera, y Ferrero tenía mi respuesta: “customers are considered tourist diners…Mexican food becomes a device to transform Anglos’ experiences of going to Mexican restaurants into a ‘foreign’ experience…[they] go through the same sense of estrangement that in general any tourists experience when they are in a foreign land” (202). Los restaurantes como El Cholo, o otros en La Calle Olvera atienden a los clientes que quieren una experiencia que los llevan afuera del normal/de la rutina aburrido de su comida (o además, sus vidas) cotidiana; pero quieren una experiencia todavía “confortable” y no demasiado extranjero, y es lo que se encuentran en estos sitios de “staged authenticity” como El Cholo.

Con la comida de La Calle Olvera, no fui muy impresionada. Primera, comí los taquitos sin la salsa de aguacate (porque soy alérgico a los aguacates) y saboreaban como taquitos normales – y si me atrevo a decirlo – como taquitos congelados/aptos para microondas. Pero probé un taquito con un poco de la salsa y pude comprender el bombo publicitario. Pero estoy de acuerdo con la opinión de Profesora Portnoy que dice que, “I always find that [Cielito Lindo’s taquitos] taste as if they have been cooked ahead of time and quickly reheated” (20).

Mientras que La Calle Olvera se excede en las decoraciones y presentación pero falta en la comida, por el contrario en Boyle Heights, se toma esta idea hasta el opuesto extremo, donde no decoraban ni enfocaban en la presentación del espacio, pero la comida compensa para eso.

Primero, en Mariscos Jalisco, todavía se venden tacos en su lonchera, aunque ahora tienen un espacio al dentro. La falta de decoración fue evidente a Mariscos Jaliscos (que se puede ver en mi foto de la lonchera y la acera alrededor) pero no fue un problema porque la comida fue excepcional. En el cuarto grande al dentro, había sillas de plástica y mesas simples. No había mucha decoración por las muras, con la excepción de muchos premios/elogios de la comida que fueron colgados. Pero no importa la decoración cuando tiene comida tan sabrosa. Comí un taco de camarones y fue el mejor taco que he tenido en mi vida entera (y como nativo de Los Ángeles, he comido muchos tacos). La salsa, la aguacate, los pequeños trozos de lechuga, las camarones y el crujido de la tortilla frita combinaron para hacer un taco increíble. Las personas que frecuentaban Mariscos Jalisco eran del barrio o eran como nosotros, que han entendido del lugar por su fama y han hecho la caminata para probarlo.

También en El Mercado de Boyle Heights,se podía sentir esta falta de exceso, o falsificación. Sí, había decoraciones por todo, pero todavía faltaba este tipo de presentación falsa que existe en restaurantes como El Cholo. Por ejemplo, al dentro del Mercado, se venden las salsas de mole en baldes, que es muy poco apetecible para los clientes. No fui inclinado a comprarlo. También se vendían chapulines, que demuestra la autenticidad del lugar — ¡jamás ofrecería chapulines en un restaurante como El Cholo! No tenía el valor de probarlo — este realmente va afuera de mi elemento, ¡aunque normalmente soy aventurera cuando se trata de probando nuevas comidas!

Sentía más auténtica porque las personas en el Mercado solo hablaban español y se alinea con la idea original de autenticidad que se trata de comida o cultura más cerca del versión o lugar original. Pude probar (y he comprado) mango deshidratado con chile, que fue delicioso. También probé elote y churros que me gustaban.

Creo en esta idea de la autenticidad, que se defina, según Profesora Portnoy y otras opiniones, como construido por la sociedad y tiene significancia diferente a personas diferentes. Pero creo que hay una diferencia entre a) vendiendo una representación falsa de una cultura para ganar dinero/para que las turistas puedan sentir un sentido falsificado del “exotismo” sin alejándose tan lejos de sus propios elemento y b) de tomar una idea o una receta renombrada de la familia y cambiándola o adaptándola a los ingredientes locales o mejorándola basado en la innovación personal. Y entre estos dos puntos diferentes es lo que radica entre la idea de “staged authenticity” (lugares como El Cholo o la Calle Olvera) y la autenticidad adaptada que caracteriza lugares asombrosos como Mariscos Jalisco y El Mercado.

El derecho de cocinar comida de un país y la comida mexicana-americana (por Natalie)

Creo que un chef de una cultura diferente puede cocinar y preparar la comida de una cultura no suya. Hoy día muchas personas tienen ancestros de muchos países diferentes. Por ejemplo, yo tengo sangre sueca, irlandesa, alemana, escocesa, y otras. Pero identifica con la cultura americana. No creo que mi raza define lo que puedo cocinar o preparar. De hecho, no sé nada acerca de la comida sueca, irlandesa, etc. Por eso, creo que su raíz no debe determinar si se puede cocinar o entender una cocina. Pero si se cocina comida étnica con adaptaciones, probablemente se necesita dar un nuevo nombre apropiado.

the sporkfulEl podcast de “The Sporkful” cuestiona si Rick Bayless puede cocinar comida mexicana o si es racista prevenirlo? Un criticismo es que él no puede cocinar comida mexicana porque tiene piel blanco. Pero Bayless piensa que esto es racista. Él piensa que tiene un comprensión de esta cocina muy profundo. Por un lado, Bayless aprendió hablar en español y vivió en México para aprender sobre la cocina. Él usa las maneras de cocinar que aprendió en México en su restaurante Frontera. Creo que él puede cocinar comida mexicana porque él estudió mucho y entiende mucho sobre esta cocina. Creo que nadie tiene un entendimiento perfecto, pero él probablemente sabe mas de unos mexicanos. Ser mexicano no es la única manera de aprender y entender las maneras de cocinar comida mexicana.

Rick-Bayless-001

Pero tengo un problema con su traducción de la comida. Al principio los anglos no les gustaba su restaurante porque era demasiado exótico y diferente. Por eso él solo escribe los ingredientes “not scary” en el menú para mejorar su popularidad. Por parte esto puede ser malo porque no es auténtico. Pero al otro lado, su comida puede ser comida mexicana-americana. Solo tengo un problema con esto si él presenta su comida como comida auténtica mexicana, si no es auténtica. Pero no tengo ningún problema con sus modificaciones si él quiere crear su propio tipo de comida mexicana-americana, o lo que quiere llamarla.

Él quiere “traducir” la comida mexicana a los EEUU. Según el podcast, el problema con la traducción es que hay mucho perdido en el proceso de traducir. Como se comenté anteriormente, si es una traducción de comida mexicana a comida mexicana-americana que tiene influencia angloamericano, no tengo ningún problema. Creo que la palabra “traducir” es difícil porque insinuar que las dos son los mismos (solo en lenguas y países diferentes).

También, creo que aún en México hay diferentes maneras de preparar las mismas comidas. Muchas variedades dependen de los ingredientes disponibles en una área. Un cocinero anglo puede preparar comida “mexicana” con ingredientes que son usados aquí pero no en México. Creo que esto no es malo pero también no es necesariamente comida auténtica mexicana. Puede ser una adaptación de comida mexicana a comida mexicana-americana. Creo que si simplemente etiquetamos comida mexicana-americana apropiadamente, muchos de los críticos no van a tener un problema con un cocinero anglo que cocina comida mexicana (americana).