Uncanny Valley, №. 3: Atomix, Burning, and The Critic’s Gaze
Jonathan Gold started his column,“Counter Intelligence,” in 1986, spotlighting the underreported ethnic restaurants of Los Angeles. Twenty years later he became the first food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and passed away in 2018 having left an undeniable impact on our food culture. It’s been twenty-five years since Ruth Reichl published her oft-cited review of Great N.Y. Noodletown which dared ask the question: shouldn’t we be judging ethnic restaurants as just, no qualifier, restaurants? The public has been reading these kinds of reviews since before I was born; I’ve grown up in a world of people reading them. And yet, it must be said: I’ve been working in the service industry for ten years now, and cannot remember a time in which I’ve heard customers be more racist toward ethnic people, even while eating ethnic food.
I’ve been taking orders and making coffee and mixing drinks long enough to have seen Korean food come and go as a trend, and to witness it evolve and re-emerge again, this time as New Korean. Since my first food job delivering orange chicken to stoned college students in Texas, I’ve watched the public develop a kind of literacy for the more regionally specific definitions of international foods. It’s not just Mexican or Thai now — people want to know: is this Southern, Isan, Chiang Mai? The questions which Jonathan Gold and Ruth Reichl asked decades ago are now accepted as rhetorical. We’ve had the answers for years, but still seem largely stuck in asking the same questions, finding comfort in their familiar successes. Their examples have left behind the paradoxical legacy of many trailblazers — not more envelope pushers, but more copycats. It was only in the first week of 2019 that the Washington Post made the decision to rename its international food column, acknowledging that grading non-Western cuisines within a rubric of Cheap Eats may have put a ceiling on their perceived worth.
Many of the most common narratives surrounding international food concern its power as a uniting and democratizing force. Yet the very idea that we need uniting or democratizing at all acknowledges a culture in need of fixing. That food is evocative is a given — but what of the evocations themselves, having arisen from the experience of an admittedly imperfect culture? Might they not be imperfect too? Restaurant criticism offers a clear window into the deficiencies of our conversation, which is itself a window into the deficiencies of our culture. That, in 2019, the Post needed to make its decision and to explain its justifications provides all the evidence we need: decades of ethnic food journalism may have advanced the cause of ethnic food while doing little for the cause of ethnic people.
Much is made of the way our food gets to our tables — the histories of the ingredients, the people who prepare it. But they’re different questions which better broach matters like tolerance and equality: how do we talk about the dishes once they arrive? Don’t the people cooking those food have their own ambitions, and shouldn’t we allow them space not just to translate, but to grow, invent, evolve? The food is already here, and it is delicious. It is perhaps time to move beyond a question of whether we appreciate these products, and toward one which places the burden on our own shoulders, asks how we appreciate them, and why. This new question concerns our own roles in the exchange, and our consumption of ethnic products as a product of our own culture, warranting its own scrutiny.
Atomix, the fine dining New Korean offering from Junghyun and Ellia Park, touched down last May as a provocative, instant classic — just months after its opening, it has been given three-star reviews by Eater and the New York Times (which named it the year’s Best New Restaurant), and that coveted Michelin Star. Esquire’s Jeff Gordinier, in his rave review, anoints Park as nothing less than one of “the top-echelon talents in America,” and several reviewers have wondered aloud if the restaurant is redeeming the notion of the tasting menu altogether. It’s hard to think of a hotter restaurant, or one which has won as broad (or as ecstatic) an adulation. But the adulation, while ecstatic, often gives me pause. Pete Wells, in his New York Times reviews of the Parks’ two restaurants (and other New Korean establishments) illustrates that the shortcomings of the food conversation are not confined to the remaining Cheap Eats columns of the world.
“A restaurant isn’t a particularly good medium for expressing philosophical concepts,” he writes, as he names Atomix the year’s best new restaurant, adding, “but it’s ideal for expressing a whole culture.” It’s a truly befuddling statement, but not an uncommon one, falling into the same trap as many other Western critiques of non-Western things — in its well-intentioned desire to glean understanding from an extra-ordinary contact with another culture, it limits that culture to the area of things gleaned. Sadly it is rare to see a critic ever acknowledge the much larger area of cultural gaps, of things he doesn’t understand; and it’s much more than the restaurant that gets shortchanged.
I’m reminded not only of countless restaurant reviews but of film reviews, book reviews. Vogue critic John Powers, in his review of the Lee Chang-Dong masterpiece, characterizes Burning as a thriller “about Toxic Masculinity.” It’s strange to put such definitive terms to a movie which conspicuously shrouds itself in mystery and unanswered questions, which draws much of its power from playing both sides of every line, carefully and masterfully cultivating an atmosphere of uncertainty. One can’t help but wonder if he might have written a different review, for a different publication, for a different audience. As a Korean-American with two Korean-born parents I am significantly more literate in the nuances of Korean culture than the average American film critic; my knowledge of the hierarchically-leveled language, my ability to parse tonal changes, means I got a fuller sense of how characters saw themselves in relation to each other. And yet I also knew from my familiarity with other Korean media that there were many things that must have been going over my head — tropes and analogues being drawn and utilized that I could not quite appreciate. I found myself wishing I knew more about Korean culture so that I could further understand this film, and found it more than a bit frustrating when I returned home and read review upon review of American critics making decisions about what this movie was saying about Korean culture, based on their reading of what was, after all, just one movie, made in a language that they did not understand.
In interviews Lee draws attention to many themes, among them the helpless anger of young people in a broken world, the North-South conflict which looms in the psyche of all Koreans. There is, notably, no mention of Toxic Masculinity. And there would never have been — while patriarchy and gender inequality are of course common across many cultures, the term itself has become a kind of platitude in the specific time and place of this American political moment. That Burning is defined, let alone spoken about, in these terms speaks to the critical failing of much of our criticism — it is not what the movie is about, but what the critic understands it to be, the ways in which on some level confirms already held understandings. Applied across the gaps between countries and people, these necessarily limited understandings result in a kind of cultural manspreading, taking up space in a way that prevents others from having a seat at the table. The conversation reveals itself as one-sided, offering little room for learning or sharing or growth.
Which is not to say that there is necessarily a problem with Americans engaging with the parts of international films and books and restaurants that we (foreigners in this instance) understand — there are aspects of universality and humanness in things, and much of art should be defined by the experience of its audience; the point is that there is something unfortunate to be understood about our own culture, which is all too often satisfied with our limited understanding of other cultures. It’s far too often that a restaurant, rather than acting as an entry point for an unfamiliar culture, is treated as a representative of that culture.
So back to Wells’ opening salvo, which is especially strange when you consider that the Parks themselves run another, very different restaurant, Atoboy, not two blocks away. It’s stranger still when you consider that Wells has eaten at this restaurant several times, reviewed it, and just last year named it one of the eight best new restaurants of 2017. He starts his review of Atoboy with his strong opinions on banchan, the small plates of the Korean food experience, often offered for free at Korean restaurants. To his credit, he allows Atoboy to change his mind — but he has already framed the entirety of his review in an American gaze (and really, what has Atoboy changed his mind about, other than banchan?) This oblivious and willful gaze is the subject of much grievance on Asian Twitter, where nearly every one of his reviews is met with frustration. “French Skills Meet Korean Flavors at Soogil” (are there no…Korean skills?); “Hwaban Is the Modern Korean Restaurant Where You’d Take Your Mother” (in which he, outdoing himself, notes the restaurant’s lack of…menacing décor?); the list goes on. While he is but one man, it’s hard to understate the extent to which someone with his platform drives and defines the conversation — a New York Times review is a news event in and of itself, covered by other food sites.
In any case it’s the “whole culture” remark I find to be less micro-aggressive and more indicative and representative of our limited way of evaluating international cuisine at large. It’s nearly impossible to reconcile it with the evidence that a single millennial couple might have so many ideas about Korea that they are able to, in the blip of personal time that is two years, and for one market, fill two highly acclaimed and distinct restaurants with those ideas. Which is to say nothing of the fact that Chef Park left his role as Chef de Cuisine at the pioneering New Korean institution Jungsik in order to do his own very different thing, or of the fact that Seoul is replete with Michelin-starred tasting menus conceived by chefs doing their own very different, New Korean things. Or that the food at many of these restaurants is, like the food at New American restaurants is for us, new territory for a lot of Korean people as well — that there are an increasing number of artisan pastes and sauces being made, part of a culture that is itself growing and evolving and shifting. It would be absurd, maybe even nonsensical, to claim that an American chef, serving New American food, might be expressing the entirety of American culture. And yet, when it comes to ethnic foods, here we are.
If food connects, and restaurants are the site of that connection, what then is this way of looking at and experiencing restaurants? Who is being connected to whom? This is food as a bridge to a single room, and not a country made up of them. A room in our image, and not in those of those who inhabit it — identity as a fixed point, of Western utility. The foreign auteur is seen, on some level as a translator of his culture, and not as an individual expressing, questioning, advancing it. Absent from this Wells-ian, New York Times-ian vision of Korea is the idea of Korea as an Actual Country, which exists even when we aren’t in contact with it, when we aren’t eating Korean food, or watching Korean movies — seventy five million people (and another seven or eight million living outside the Koreas) who might have different ideas as to what Korea is to them; who come from different regions and countries and social classes, who, like we do, might have differing views on politics, different relationships to their culture, opinions on movies and books, and banchan. And it’s fine that an American man has strong opinions on banchan, subject to change — but maybe we all do? Isn’t it time for our restaurant conversation to reflect an idea of cultural identity that is ultimately comprised of complicated, individual (and constantly evolving) expressions?
While Atoboy is one of my very favorite restaurants, and I’m dying to eat at Atomix, and I’m wildly, madly proud to see a Korean chef occupying the high art dining space of the rave-reviewed tasting menu, I highly doubt my parents would see him as a representative of the country they were born in. I certainly don’t see him as a representative of myself — an I think telling aspect of the celebration of New Korean cuisine in New York City is that every chef of this cuisine, which uses Korean as a lens through which any food can be seen (rather than as a restriction) is Korean born; Korean-American chefs have much more complicated, often arms-length relationships to their ancestral cuisine. It’s something you sense in most interviews with the Corey Lees and David Changs of the world, and though I’m not a chef, their feeling is one I and many other Korean-Americans know well (more on that in future pieces).
Perhaps there is a pressure on those critiquing foreign objects and experiences, to portray every such object and experience as evidence of, a step toward, some Greater Good (people are dying to believe that they can better the world through consumption). But while food changes food culture, I remain skeptical of the ability of food culture to change culture. We still seem to be thinking in terms of cause and effect (a way of seeing things which shifts blame from the consumer, onto the service — this is the restaurant industry, after all). And while I hope that ethnic restaurants are one day evaluated by the same criteria as American restaurants, this is still, unequivocally, a country which does not judge minorities on the same terms to begin with. If it is a matter of cause and effect at all, we certainly have it backwards — decades into a more inclusive food journalism the conclusion is relatively simple: Food is still judged differently because people are still judged differently, because our food culture is a product of our culture. And until the culture which produces the evaluations changes its attitudes towards international people, and broadens the possibility of their roles in our world, any idea that we judging each Other equally feels like, more than anything, an affectation.