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What Is Cultural Appropriation, and How Does It Come up in Restaurants?

Patricia Kelly YeoAuthor

In the months following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd, industries nationwide have been reckoning with the ways they’ve perpetuated systemic racism. The restaurant industry, of course, is no exception, and is now contending with the way they, as employers and purveyors of hospitality, have ignored or exacerbated the problems that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)* face daily.

Though whites-only lunch counters and back door entrances for Black patrons may be long gone, incidents of explicit racial discrimination in restaurants still occur today. At Baltimore’s Ouzo Bay this past June, management denied entry to a Black woman and her son, citing her son’s black Air Jordan T-shirt, black shorts, and sneakers, because Ouzo Bay upheld a strict dress code, prohibiting “excessively baggy clothing” and “athletic attire.” However, the woman, Martha Grant, recorded a viral social media video showing a white boy wearing a similar outfit dining in the restaurant while she and her son were forced to leave. After the ensuing media firestorm, the manager involved was fired.

Of course, the restaurant industry’s complicity in upholding the current racial and socioeconomic status quo goes far beyond such overt acts of racism. Earlier this year, the coronavirus pandemic had already laid bare the inequities in the restaurant industry, which disproportionately impact BIPOC workers. New Orleans-based chef and activist Tunde Wey elaborated on the industry’s problems in an early pandemic-era interview with The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner. “I think the biggest issue with employment in general — anywhere in the world, but especially in the U.S. — is lack of choice,” said Wey, underscoring the fact that many restaurant industry workers must work in precarious, underpaid positions because they don’t have another option. 

Chefs and restaurateurs across the country are being forced to reconsider how they do business. It’s not just about staying afloat during an unprecedented health and economic calamity, or updating cleaning protocols to keep employees safe — they’re also now facing the ways they have perpetuated the systemic racism that runs deep in the veins of American society. From fine dining to fast food, this industry has long been buoyed by the underpaid labor of Black and Brown workers. Regardless of an owner’s best intentions, restaurants can run the risk of letting toxic workplace environments fester while they deal with very real considerations about a business’s bottom line. Much has to change in the food industry for America to move forward.

For many BIPOC in food, this is no longer just about a seat at the table. It is about overturning it entirely, and starting anew.

For many BIPOC in food, this is no longer just about a seat at the table. It is about overturning it entirely, and starting anew. “Something that profits off of Black and brown dollars should be Black-owned,” award-winning Washington D.C. chef Kwame Onwuachi told the New York Times, regarding his recent departure from Kith and Kin, one of D.C.’s most prominent restaurants that features a menu inspired by cuisines of the African diaspora. 

Onwuachi’s departure highlights one problem the restaurant industry has long grappled with but needs to fix now: cultural appropriation. 

What is cultural appropriation, and how does this apply to the restaurant industry?

According to Oxford’s online dictionary, cultural appropriation is defined as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” Oxford’s reference site dates the term’s origins to the 1980’s, when academics in critical race theory began to criticize the way largely white people in the Western world cherry-picked aspects of Black culture to exploit for profit, entertainment, or “new” ideas.

Cultural appropriation in food has often made headlines in recent years in relation to Asian cuisine, from the now-shuttered Lucky Lee’s in New York billing itself as “clean” Chinese food in early 2019 to Bon Appetit’s infamous 2016 how-to video (statement linked here) on eating Vietnamese pho, which provoked scathing reactions online for the white male video host’s ignorant, clearly misinformed advice on the “right” way to eat rice noodles. Of course, BA’s own recent upheaval has led to more major changes, including the ousting of its editor-in-chief. 

More recently, white food media darlings like Alison Roman and much of the white on-camera staff at Bon Appetit have come under fire for raiding the “global pantry” of ingredients. To industry outsiders or restaurant owners just trying to scrape by during a pandemic, these criticisms may seem insignificant, but they have real-life consequences for anyone trying to make a living in food today. 

“Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture,” writes intersectional feminist activist bell hooks in her essay “Eating the Other.” Though hooks’s essay deals more generally with cultural appropriation, the idea that “ethnicity becomes spice” can be seen across the restaurant industry, as white chefs and/or white owners make a living by selling food from cultures that are not their own. 

How have restaurants engaged in cultural appropriation? 

Industrywide, there is no shortage of examples of cultural appropriation. The story, in most cases, is similar: a largely white team, like the couple behind Lucky Lee’s, opens a business that capitalizes on non-white cuisine by introducing food they have “discovered”, Christopher Columbus-style, or claim to have somehow refined and improved. 

The idea that white people are the ones capable of “improving” heritage cuisines for BIPOC is problematic to say the least. The misguided white couple behind Lucky Lee’s championed their “clean” Chinese food as superior to conventional, “greasy” takeout fare from immigrant-run businesses, and neglected to consider that such cuisine evolved to suit white American tastes and allow Chinese immigrants to make a living.

When white chefs control the culinary narrative of marginalized cultures that aren't their own, the long-term impact extends beyond simply offending BIPOC in food media. There are dozens of notable white chefs who have accumulated professional credibility and personal wealth built off what they’ve taken from non-white culture, but meanwhile, BIPOC chefs, food writers, and restaurant owners have long been sidelined, both in terms of industry recognition and by consumers. The myth of MSG-related Chinese restaurant syndrome damaged the perception of Chinese-owned restaurants for the better part of the last two decades — but few white-owned restaurants serving Chinese food were the butt of any MSG jokes.

In the long run, restaurateurs who blindly engage in cultural appropriation reinforce the idea that it takes a “respectable” white person, or a team whose perspectives reflect and cater to a presumed white middle-class diner, to make non-white cuisines trendy, cool, and thus palatable to the average American diner. 

When a dish becomes trendy, like Hawaiian poke or Nashville hot chicken, some businesses owned by people whose culture is being served up do sometimes see an uptick in customer interest — but they’re also often pushed aside in favor of white-owned restaurants serving the same foods without the cultural context. In an Eater article criticizing Alison Roman, writer Navneet Alang asks why Nashville hot chicken, invented by the Black Prince family, has managed to garner national praise while the work of America’s Black cooks and chefs continues to be sidelined and ignored.

Is it possible for a restaurateur to honor another's cuisine without appropriating?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to addressing, reducing, and eliminating cultural appropriation in restaurants, the food industry, or America at large — but If BIPOC chefs and restaurant owners had the same opportunities as their white counterparts, it is unlikely that the issue of cultural appropriation would be so common industrywide. Unfortunately, they face countless hurdles in starting restaurants and other hospitality businesses, from a discriminatory small business loan application process, to the way mainstream food media caters to a white audience, to a public unfamiliar with the cuisines they champion.

However, some lessons from two Los Angeles chefs can help maneuver the industry towards appreciating and honoring cuisine originating from BIPOC cultures, instead of blindly appropriating it.

In LA’s Chinatown, local chef Johnny Zone and his wife Amanda Chapman are the city’s first purveyors of Nashville-style hot chicken, Howlin’ Rays, open since 2016. According to Star Chefs, Zone was working in a Hollywood French restaurant when he first tasted Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville in 2014. It was love at first bite, and Zone worked tirelessly to bring hot chicken back home to the West Coast for the first time. Though Zone, who is white, declined to speak for this interview, his record of commitment to honoring the Black Southern heritage of hot chicken is apparent online. Zone’s Instagram features a post of him from 2016 at Prince’s Hot Chicken with André Prince Jeffries, whose uncle, Thornton Prince, first opened the hot chicken spot, where Zone says his life was changed two years prior and he was “blown away by the hospitality and the food.” 

In March of this year, when Nashville was hit by the sixth-costliest tornado in American history, Zone flew in from LA to help. He helped rebuild part of Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish, another Black-owned hot chicken restaurant in the city. “Without Nashville, @howlinrays would not ever have been born,” says Zone’s social media from March. From the beginning, Zone has honored both the birthplace and cultural heritage of the phenomenon that has made his career and grown his restaurant from a single food truck to a sprawling takeout and delivery business. And when Kim Prince, the niece of André Prince Jeffries, opened Hotville Chicken in LA, Zone welcomed her into Howlin’ Rays where she demonstrated the art of frying for a video by the Los Angeles Times.

Another white LA chef, David Schlosser, has been recognized by food media for his respect for Japanese cuisine. Schlosser is the chef behind Shibumi, a Japanese kappo-style restaurant hailed by the late food critic Jonathan Gold as 2016’s restaurant of the year. Schlosser, a classically trained chef with apprenticeships in France and Japan under his belt, was once under the tutelage of Masa Takayama, the chef behind several high-profile sushi restaurants, including LA’s Urasawa. However, according to LA Weekly, Schlosser took his love of Japanese cuisine beyond just sushi, and spent four years in Japan learning to cook traditional multi-course kaiseki while serving as chef of the U.S. ambassador.

“I was the first white guy to work for Masa,” Schlosser says in a video for Eater. Though Schlosser declined to be interviewed for this article, his deference to Masa and his years-long track record of learning the ins and outs of kaiseki cuisine demonstrate his commitment to honor Japanese culture, rather than picking and choosing Japanese flavors and techniques in pursuit of widespread acceptance from American diners and food critics alike. Shibumi’s offerings are a far cry from slapping a crowd-pleasing spicy tuna crispy rice appetizer on the menu. Most importantly, Schlosser never fails to recognize his separation from the culture he champions through food.

What can you do to move away from cultural appropriation?

For consumers, the best way to help shift the industry away from cultural appropriation is to do your research about the restaurants you patronize, and move your direct financial support to BIPOC-owned and operated restaurants and bars. When it comes to dining out, “put your money where your mouth is” takes on a whole new meaning.

Learn about the origins of the cuisines you cook, and share this information with your guests on your website and your menu, paying homage to the history and techniques that make the food so unforgettable. Chefs and owners can also find ways to support and uplift BIPOC-run businesses that cook the same cuisines that you do through partnerships, mentorships, and financial support.

For restaurants, the problem of systemic racism extends far beyond who cooks what in the kitchen. But when it comes to honoring the cultural origins of the cuisine you offer, whether that be an entire menu or just a few crowd favorites like an avocado ahi tuna poke, it’s easy to move toward progress. 

How? Learn about the origins of the cuisines you cook, and share this information with your guests on your website and your menu, paying homage to the history and techniques that make the food so unforgettable. Chefs and owners can also find ways to support and uplift BIPOC-run businesses that cook the same cuisines that you do through partnerships, mentorships, and financial support. 

When it comes to cultural appropriation, the restaurant industry’s buck stops here.

*BIPOC is “an acronym that stands for Black, Indigenous and people of color. The term is meant to unite all people of color while acknowledging that Black and Indigenous people face different and often more severe forms of racial oppression and cultural erasure as consequences of systemic white supremacy and colonialism. It is a noun and since it includes the word "people" it would be redundant to say "BIPOC people." It is pronounced "buy-pock" as opposed to saying each letter individually. - Diversity Style Guide

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