Is It Okay For Chefs To Cash In on Another Cultures' Food?

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That's the question tackled in a Gilt Taste piece that's been making rounds and stirring debate over what can (or should) be claimed as American cuisine. 

Food writer Francis Lam penned a New York Times story titled, "Cuisines Mastered As Acquired Tastes." It was all about how some American-raised chefs are being hailed as ambassadors for cuisines they have no cultural ties to. Thai chef sensation Andy Ricker, Chinese restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld, and Rick Bayless, who the NYT calls "America's most renowned master of Mexican cooking," are just a few examples. Lam explores how and why such chefs can become more successful than those who grew up with the food in their home countries.  

When the piece ran, Lam's buddy Eddie Huang, chef and owner of Baohaus in New York City, emailed him with some qualms. What evolved is an honest, thought-provoking discussion between two Chinese immigrants about culinary ethics. 

For Huang, it gets personal:   

Immigrants, my parents and myself included, are exposed to years of ridicule. I was made fun of for my stinky lunch upwards of 10 years. Immigrants of our parents' generation have largely given up any hope that Americans will like their food. . . . Then, to have these CIA grads come through, repackage the food, and sell it back to me at a premium is just ludicrous. You made fun of us until we were embarrassed about our food and changed our menus to appease your HORRIBLE taste in shrimp with lobster sauce, now your kid grows up and wants to tell ME what Chinese food is because Bear Stearns sent him to Shanghai for six months?

Huang believes that culture is something worth defending ("Why do Asians like myself care so much about their food culture? It's all we have to be proud of in this country!") and that people should be "cognizant and respectful of the people and cultures we take from." He believes "we are a society that praises the student with no regard or respect for the master." 

For Lam, what's more important than the chef's native land is whether he or she has passion for the cuisine. He cites Alex Stupak of Empellon, which has been proclaimed by some critics as the "Best Mexican Restaurant in NYC." Stupak married into a Mexican family and learned the food through her family and traveling. "I buy that that experience is formative," Lam writes. "He's got passion and respect for it." He says he fails to understand how this restaurant could take away from the "original" Mexican places. 

The two men go on to discuss whether other cultures' food can be claimed as American. For Huang, the answer is no. "It has roots elsewhere. It's entirely unfair to claim it for America," he says. Lam believes that the issue is extremely complex.  

Gustavo, of course, has his own take on the topic, which he explores in his book Taco USA. He believes that Mexican food in America has evolved to a point where there's no such thing as authenticity--and that's okay as long as non-Mexican chefs don't try to glorify their cuisine as truly authentic. 

For many diners, the thought-process behind all this gets blurred when it comes to the actual food.   

As one commenter put it, "Someone who is Italian can cook bad Italian food, and someone who isn't Italian can cook good Italian food. Which one is "more Italian?" For me the question should be "which one tastes better?"

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