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.

Los Angeles – la ciudad del tercero mundo

Por: Camille Stafford

La globalización es un proceso cuando influencias internacionales empiezan a interactuar. Se refleja en practicas culturales como vestidos, idiomas, y la comida.  Los Angeles se define por la inmigración y se considera como el capital del tercero mundo.  Como Los Angeles tiene tantos inmigrantes, la economía depende en su labor.  Un buen ejemplo de la globalización en Los Angeles es Grand Central Market.  Hay puestos de comida de todos partes del mundo.  Para clase visite a Sarita’s Pupuseria, Valeria’s, y Villa Moreliana.  También hay puestos de helado, barbacoa, pollo frito, y bocadillos de mantequilla de cacahuete y mermelada. 

Un letrero en Grand Central Market

En contraste, el ambiente en Boyle Heights fue totalmente hispano.  Todos hablaron español y vendieron productos asociados con la cultura latina.  Las personas en los dos mercados eran muy diferentes.  En Boyle Heights el Mercadito era llena de personas y cosas latinas, pero en Grand Central Market había puestos más global y los consumidores latinos fueron la minoría.  Los letreros en Boyle Heights están pintados en la pared contra los letreros electrónicos con colores fluorescentes del Mercado Grand Central.  El Mercado de Grand Central sirvió una audiencia multicultural como el demográfico diverso de DTLA.  El Mercadito de Boyle Heights es menos conocido al publico afuera de la comunidad latina. 

Letrero afuera del Mercadito

Según el articulo de Portnoy-Pilcher, la comida fusión es el movimiento de influencias culinarias entre circuitos de cocinas.  En países que comparten una frontera la difusión de la cultura ocurre a través de los nuevos inmigrantes.  Específicamente en Los Angeles, la comida fusión tiene éxito porque ocurre en una comunidad del mundo.  Los coreanos, mexicanos, y salvadoreños viven cerca de uno a otro durante un tiempo de crisis económica.  Consumidores querían una alternativa a la comida caro.  El estatus de Los Angeles como una ciudad global es integrado en un circuito de migración, el mercado para restaurantes transnacionales y vecindarios con diferentes modos de cocinar. 

El martes pasado, visite el taco truck de Kogi en el campus de USC con nuestra compañera de clase, Lucy. Es un ejemplo de la comida fusión en Los Angeles.  Dueño y cocinero, Roy Choi reconoció la oportunidad para mezclar dos culturas a través de la comida.  La comida mexicana es comida cómoda para Angelinos creyó una fusión increíble con sus sabores nativos de coreano.  Yo probé un taco de short rib y un taco de tofu con kimchi.  Los tacos eran una explosión de sabores – picante y amargo envuelto en una tortilla de maíz.

“The tortilla was our stage and our canvas. We filled it with our own voice and our own perspective.”

– Roy Choi

Solo está en frente del USC Village a las horas de 10 de la noche hasta las once.  En la primera vista se veía un poco sospechoso porque fue un truco completamente blanca sin nombre.  Los trabajadores hablaron español y hicieron la comida muy rápido. Mezcla lo exótico y orígenes diferentes con la inspiración de comida de la calle.  Usa los alimentos básicos de la comida mexicana como un vehículo para apoya a  la comida coreana.  Es similar a la cultura de Los Angeles que fue construido encima de una cultura mexicana.  Con los años, y la inmigración de otras personas a Los Angeles ha cambiado a un lugar global.  El ambiente de los taco trucks, una demanda de los consumidores, y un movimiento económico apoyaron a Choi y su sueño para una oportunidad segunda en la vida. 

#4 – La Distinción entre la Fusión y la Apropiación

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Pasaba el fin de semana pasada en Michigan para presentar en una conferencia de los estudios coreanos. Mientras estaba allá, pensaba mucho en el intercambio cultural. El papel que presenté era sobre las comunidades en línea de K-popers—los fans latinos de K-pop. Cuando pienso en las interacciones entre América Latina y Corea, pienso primero en la comida como un punto de encuentro. Disfruto mucho las creaciones culinarias de Roy Choi, quien describe su comida como una representación de Los Ángeles, y estoy de acuerdo. Pilcher y Portnoy usan los exitosos y (en un caso) fracasos de Roy Choi y Ricardo Zárate para ilustrar la fusión. Definen la cocina generalmente como una metáfora de la identidad, y cuando dos culturas se interactúan, esta interacción puede crear una fusión buena de sus ingredientes y métodos de cocinar.

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Fui al Chego con un amigo de Corea el abril pasado.

Como soy una fan de Roy Choi, he visitado muchos de sus establecimientos, y cuando alguien me pide una recomendación de un buen restaurante en Los Ángeles, siempre respondo con Chego o Kogi porque pienso que son establecimientos únicos que representan la diversidad de esta ciudad. Tengo respeto por Roy Choi porque anuncia su comida como algo angeleno y hace esfuerzos para ofrecer algo a la comunidad—su trabajo con Locol en Watts por ejemplo y su “fast food revolution.” Está usando sus recursos para levantar el espíritu a la comunidad de Los Ángeles.

Como he pasado la mayoría del fin de semana y aún la semana pasada en Michigan, no tenía la oportunidad de probar un lugar nuevo de fusión en Los Ángeles. Sin embargo, me topé con la fusión afuera de Los Ángeles, y este encuentro me interesaba también. Me presentó un taco durante una cena en un restaurante japonés con el Instituto de Estudios Coreanos. Se llama “Hamachi Taco,” y describe como “a tartare of yellowtail and truffle-soy in a taro root shell.”

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Este taco me parece… ofensivo. El “taro root shell” en vez de una tortilla era ilógico. Se desmoronó en mis manos antes de podía probarlo. Disfruto el pescado. Era como un ceviche con un sabor ácido, pero no entendía la inclusión de un tomate. Era una combinación muy insensible, y aunque no era repugnante, no ordenaría este taco otra vez.

Soy una defensora de la fusión—especialmente en Los Ángeles donde muchas culturas diferentes se interactúan. En algunos sentidos, toda comida es una fusión considerando las adaptaciones inevitables de ingredientes que han inmigrado a través de fronteras. Sin embargo, no toda fusión es buena. Y no se deben combinar todos ingredientes para crear fusión. Si alguien tiene un entendimiento de los ingredientes específicos de las culturales, es más posible que puede crear fusión efectivamente y con respeto—como Roy Choi, quien se inspiró por los restaurantes diversos de Los Ángeles. Doy la bienvenida a la fusión como una representación de dos o más culturas en un lugar, pero no me gusta el forzar de dos concinas juntos para aprovechar la moda de fusión sin respeto por las culturas que los ingredientes representan. En estos casos, la fusión no es una metáfora de la identidad pero apropiación por las ganancias.

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Mi plato favorito de Chego–el “chubby pork belly bowl.”

Kogi: La Fusión de Los Angeles

Blog Número Cuatro

un taco de Kogi en el museo MOCA / D. Solomon

Gustavo Arellano, autor de “Taco USA,” cree que la historia de comida mexicana es, en parte, la historia de “trends.” Que la gente – frecuentemente angla, no latina – busca lo más innovadora, lo más único de la cocina. Muchas veces, busca lo más autentico, también. Pero en 2008, el nuevo “trend” fue Kogi Korean BBQ. No por su autenticidad, sino por su mezcla inesperada de tacos mexicanos con carne y condimentos coreanos. Comida “fusion” no fue nada nuevo para Angelenos – piensa, por ejemplo, en Chinois on Main, el restaurante famoso de Wolfgang Puck que mezcla cocina china con técnica francesa, establecido en 1983. Y en Little Tokyo, un lugar pequeño llamado La Chicken había hecho tacos con sabores japoneses por años antes. Pero Kogi fue una revelación para muchos. Creo que la ubicación de Kogi tuvo algo que ver. O, en verdad, su falta de ubicación. Kogi no es un restaurante “brick and mortar,” sino un camión. Lo que los mexicanos y latinos en Los Angeles llaman una “lonchera.” No nos gusta decirlo, pero loncheras – a pesar de su popularidad con la escena de los bares de la vida nocturna – tradicionalmente han sido asociadas con la gente trabajadora y pobre. Sigue leyendo “Kogi: La Fusión de Los Angeles”