Chef Rick Bayless-Facebook page photo

Restaurant ‘cultural appropriation’ in the Triangle and beyond

In the celebrity chef world, there are two very dirty words that are sometimes bandied about to impugn the heavyweights in the industry: cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation, in the chef world in the United States, is usually used when a white chef, becomes famous for cooking the native foods of another culture that’s not their own.

The scurrilous term has been repeatedly levied against high-profile chefs like Rick Bayless and Andy Ricker. Bayless (yes, the brother of ESPN’s Skip Bayless), a white chef born in Oklahoma, is well-known for his affinity and passion for fare from south of the border, and his constellation of successful Mexican restaurants in Chicago that include Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. And like Bayless, Ricker, a Portland native and James Beard Award-winning chef that has spent extensive amounts of time abroad in Thailand, is known for his empire of much-lauded Northern Thai outposts, Pok Pok, in his hometown, Los Angeles and New York City.

The Bayless-Ricker duo has long been used as examples in the culinary world as emblems of cultural appropriation. Detractors have criticized both chefs for usurping another culture’s food, almost in vampiric fashion or a gastronomical form of neo-colonialism, for their own financial gain in the United States where diners’ taste buds have slowly evolved beyond the safety net of gourmet burgers and pizzas. ChicagoNow blogger and Latina Voices editor Teresa Puente comments about Bayless and his so-called expertise on Mexican cuisine:

Something just bugged me that a white guy was gaining so much fame for his Mexican cuisine. I’m sure his love of Mexico is genuine and he does good charity work. I’m not saying he’s a bad guy, and he is a great chef. But why does the media make him the spokesman for Mexican food in the United States?

Defenders of chefs like Bayless and Ricker have waved off the criticism, and continue to assert that the pair act more like culinary ambassadors, with deep love and reverence of the cultures that critics purport that they steal from, and that the two are more well-studied in the native food, tradition and techniques in Mexican and Thai food than a majority of second generation immigrants that may feel inclined to cast the cultural appropriation accusations.

What American chefs like Bayless and Ricker are able to do that many immigrant chefs struggle to do, as Frances Lam from The New York Times points out, is to successfully subvert foreign flavors, acting almost as a food translator, to meet the expectations of stateside diners:

On one level, that means they may have an easier time with the language — telling the story of their food, or knowing how to make obscure dishes sound sexy in menu descriptions.

But that sense of translation also carries over to flavor; these chefs can more easily intuit what might impress or intimidate mainstream customers. Frontera Grill or Pok Pok NY can serve food that is true to the original because they can choose dishes that don’t have to be diluted to appeal to their clientele.

Subversion or not, even longtime critics like The Los Angeles Times restaurant reviewer and ethnic restaurant peripatetic Jonathan Gold expressed his own reservations about the praise Ricker was receiving after visiting the LA location of Pok Pok last year:

My critical-studies friends are already grumbling about issues of colonial logic and cultural appropriation. And it’s true — in Los Angeles, unlike Brooklyn or aught-era Portland, there is no shortage of restaurants featuring Thai chefs cooking Thai dishes for Thai expats (and non-Thais who wish to eat like Thais). If you were a local restaurateur eking out her living one bowl of boat noodles at a time, it is easy to see how you might resent Pok Pok’s media attention and glamour. As the professors say: There is a lot to unpack.

To all the criticism, Bayless had come out to defend himself on NPR’s The Sporkful podcast:

Well, usually people who have that opinion of me don’t want to have a conversation. Those people that say it are usually very political, and they have a mouthpiece and they just go around saying it. And everybody thinks, ‘Oh, lots of people must believe that.’ And honestly, I don’t think they do. 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?’ 


Here in the Triangle and North Carolina, the “cultural appropriation” shaming tag has rarely been slung against the cavalcade of more high-profile chefs—curiously, their own minority as a group of accomplished female chefs in the male-dominated celebrity chef landscape—though if you squint to focus a little more intently, you might be able to point your fingers to a couple of regional examples.

In Chapel Hill, James Beard Award-winning chef Andrea Reusing is celebrated for her restaurant Lantern and her style of food that pulls its influences from Asian and Southern cuisine. Next door in Durham, two restauranteurs, Billy and Kelli Cotter formerly known for its sandwich shop Toast, opened a ramen and izakaya restaurant named Dashi. In Raleigh, Ashley Christensen is the face of Southern cuisine nationally, a type of food that has deep historical ties to black history. And, in Asheville, rising star and talented chef Katie Button is heralded for her tapas restaurant, Cúrate.

In the bar tonight: Spicy sesame noodles – crunchy vegetables, roasted peanuts, fresh herbs

A photo posted by Lantern Restaurant (@lanternrestaurant) on

To claim that none of these chefs have any family roots to the food they cook would be probably be a fair statement. But, is it fair that these chefs and restaurateurs get so much national and local media attention? After all, there are plenty of talented chefs and cooks at local ethnic restaurants that toil away at places like Gourmet Kingdom, Banana Leaf, and Tower that barely get any coverage in the local press, even in the more alternative publications. There are plenty of unknown chefs, whom are born into the food that they cook, that largely stay unknown in the Triangle area despite making very good food.

So why the absence of attention and credit? The problem may not be with the chefs themselves–after all, why would you turn down attention, awards and praise? Those are all elements that help a restaurant succeed.

The problem, as Baohaus restaurateur and chef raconteur Eddie Huang, recently pointed out on a Joe Rogan Experience podcast, is the food media–the food bloggers and journalists who are all hungry for easy access, a story to write quickly and accompanied with glossy pictures to garner enough clicks in order to sell Lexuses and Vitamix blenders. Food bloggers and journalists don’t want to hunt down immigrant chefs, many who may not speak English fluently, for interviews. They don’t want to bother with translators. It’s a harder story to write which involves more time and more work.

Huang on Bayless’s success and his media-anointed status as a Mexican cuisine emissary :

It’s complicated. Right? Because he’s white isn’t wrong. The thing is with a lot of these chefs that win these awards…the Food and Wine Best New Chef, Michelin, fuckin’ James Beard… a lot of the times it’s because they can speak English, they can communicate with the writers, and the writers can write a story about them. They’re not winning because it’s the best food. They’re winning because there’s a story to write and a story to tell.”

The problem is the media. The people giving these awards and the ones selecting and saying ‘this is the best chef’ , ‘this is the best Mexican food’, it’s really obnoxious to the people of that culture that are like ‘dude, that’s really not representing who we are’ but now ‘this is the person that’s representing our food in America?’

Lam from NYT concurs that media attention comes easier when a chef is American-born:

Some reasons are obvious: An American-born chef is more likely than an immigrant to have the connections and the means to grab investors or news media attention — even more so if the chef came up through a prestigious restaurant or culinary school or is quick with a witty quote.

It’s an interesting issue to take a closer look at if you’re a self-professed “foodie”, why the same constellation of chefs always seem to get the majority of the media attention. When the national spotlight focuses on North Carolina, Raleigh or otherwise, the listicles are almost laughably predictable: BBQ (namely Skylight Inn or Sam Jones), Ashley Christensen, a biscuit outpost or two, Vivian Howard and Katie Button.

But, what’s more egregious is that the local publications also seem happy to trudge over the same stories, and to shower the praise over the same chefs. Aren’t there talented chefs and cooks making xiaolongbao (XLB) in Raleigh, cranking out excellent Indian food in Morrisville and churning out great Mexican fare in the taquerias around Durham?

There are, but you’ll rarely hear about it. And, that’s everyone’s loss.


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