Why the backlash towards the Bon Appétit pho video is mostly misguided
For starters, let’s simmer down with the Internet lynch-mobbing
In the past few days, I’ve been bombarded with concerned messages about this story and video (it’s since been removed, but you can watch it here) released by Bon Appétit. In said video, which was foolishly entitled “Phở is the New Ramen,” chef Tyler Akin of Philadelphia’s Stock explains how he eats phở, a Vietnamese dish that he serves at his acclaimed restaurant. What must have seemed like an innocuous act of culture-sharing has since enraged the Interwebs’ anti-cultural appropriation coalition. As a proud, Vietnamese-American food and drink writer, I too posted it on my Facebook wall in disgust, mostly at the title. But to those crucifying the chef and his restaurant across Yelp and social media, please, for phở’s sake, put down the pitchforks because this goes way beyond one guy.
For those who may be unfamiliar, phở is a noodle soup dish recognized as the hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine. It’s a complex and time-consuming thing to prepare—the broth is often simmered for over 10 hours, employing a blend of just as many spices—and it makes for a delicious, soul-warming meal at any time of day. Most importantly to this story though, there’s fundamentally no right or wrong way to eat it. Any Vietnamese person will tell you that their mom’s or dad’s phở is the best, and each family’s recipe is at least slightly different. That’s in part due to the fact that the birth of phở is so intertwined with Vietnam’s own tumultuous history of colonialism and war (Andrea Nguyen has a fantastic explanation from her upcoming The Phở Cookbook that you can read here), and the fact that people living in enslaved, third-world countries aren’t always the best at documenting frivolous things like the official recipes to noodle soup.
The “accuracy” of the dish is further complicated by its accompanying accoutrements, which are addressed in the video: in the South Vietnamese tradition of my family, we pile the bowls high with fresh mint, cilantro, sawtooth herb, jalapeños and bean sprouts and then splatter our broth with Sriracha and sweet hoisin sauce. In the Northern school of thought, from which Akin seems to derive his method, such contamination is frowned upon and the dish is eaten more plainly, with sauces dipped on the side. But these are only general guidelines—the point is that you can build the dish however you like. For example, I hate bean sprouts (they’re a waste of space), so if I were making a video about how I eat phở, I’d say “step one: chuck the bean sprouts.”
Getting back to the point: if we accept the basic truth that phở is best left to the discretion and palate of the person eating it, Mr. Akin has done nothing wrong in the video. He’s simply sharing how he chooses to enjoy it, which is totally valid (and it’s nothing new). I’d say I was even genuinely curious to see how this mỹ trắng boy prepared my favorite food, and I chuckled watching him twirl his noodles as if he were a 5-year-old eating a bowl of spaghetti. But to his credit, he ends the video saying, and I quote, “That’s my approach, it’s not the only way. The beauty of phở is you can do it however you want.” What more of a disclaimer do you need? Should we condemn anyone who ever dares to cook a dish that belongs to another culture?
No, the blame for this falls solely upon these particular Bon Appétit editors, who, whether willfully or unknowingly ignorant, would benefit from some training in cultural awareness (this isn’t a blanket statement; I’m a huge fan of the magazine as a whole). To be clear, here’s how a video is pitched at a media company: Someone comes up with a concept and angle, they find talent for the video (yes, obviously it SHOULD have been any one of the Vietnamese chefs in Philly) and then they cut/edit/re-package to their liking, slap on a clickbait-y title and call it a day. Assuming editorial discretion was at play, there is no part of this process in which the person on-camera would have had a say in how the finished product turned out. Thus, it’s makes sense to assume that Akin’s initial comments comparing phở to ramen were prompted, a pre-determined angle conceived in the planning process. He says, “We’re talking about phở in relation to ramen…” as if he were asked to compare them.
In my eyes, the video’s title (“Phở is the New Ramen”) and the story’s title (“PSA: “How You Should Be Eating Phở”) are the most problematic parts, in addition to being about 11 years late to the game. These would have been written by an editor. The new ramen? Seriously? Give me a break. This has my blood boiling in so many ways. And it shouldn’t just offend if you’re Vietnamese. As a reader, you should be insulted that this writer thinks you’re too feeble-minded to understand a dish without a recognizable reference point—one like ramen that’s been eaten, digested and shit out of the mainstream American hashtag #foodie hype-cycle and thus needs to be replaced. Side note: It’s twice as insensitive when you consider Japan’s WWII occupation of Vietnam during which at least 400,000 people died of forced starvation (there was no food to even compare!). So Bon App, you done fucked up, and you apologized and we accept. That’s that, right?
Act 2 of this shitshow comes, sadly, from those who truly meant well. Once the social justice coalition caught wind of the comments section, everyone was quick to drop their own thinkpiece on the matter. From Foodbeast to Nextshark to the perpetually foaming-at-the-mouth blog The Love Life of an Asian Guy, these well-meaning writers declared an injustice upon “the Asian community,” saying “the Asian community is livid.” What? The Asian community? Didn’t this whole hoopla start because BA called phở the “new ramen?” Wasn’t part of the issue that you can’t just randomly compare the foods of two totally disparate cultures with no similarities whatsoever? Would a person of any non-Vietnamese Asian descent understand phở any better than a mỹ trắng? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean they have a claim to it. In an effort to wrong a right, they went all the way back to square one.
Even worse, tons of Interwebz trolls started leaving one-star reviews on Stock’s Yelp page (because we know how that solves all the problems). It’s a real shitty and spiteful way to handle an incident that could have instead been used to educate and inform. Is the answer really to try and damage the livelihood of a hard-working husband-wife–owned business because they shared their opinion in a video they likely didn’t come up with? Where’s your indignation for the restaurateurs who are charged with embezzlement, or your vitriol ones who are convicted for sexual harassment? These businesses are still alive and well. One day, the benevolent gods of cultural sensitivity are going come back to earth and tell you you’re doing it wrong.
If you’ve read this far—bless your heart—, you’re probably wondering, “Why the phở does this even matter?” It matters because if you’re going to get worked up behind your computer screen and then burn someone at the digital stake, you should at least do it right. Sure, it may be tedious and require an amount of critical thinking, but what is the point of making a stand against cultural appropriation if you’re going to be just as reductive as the people you’re condemning?
This is but the opinion of a 20-something Vietnamese-American food writer. Any and all dissent v welcome. And, if you want to see a video of how to eat phở done right, check out Munchies’ take.
TL;DR: There’s no right way to phở—so by definition, there’s nothing wrong with a white chef explaining his particular method of eating it. What sucks is the publication’s angling of the story (“Phở is the new ramen,” “PSA: This Is How You Should be Eating Phở”) and the overall boiling down of ethnic foods into trends and hype by the overwhelmingly white food media at large. What also sucks, but in a totally different way, is how the backlash that ensued then proceeded to both victimize a mom-and-pop business on Yelp AND lump all Asians into one group, as though Chinese, Korean or Japanese people have any more claim to the dish than the white man does.