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.