Review: The Ethnic Restaurateur

I picked up Krishnendu Ray’s The Ethnic Restaurateur after some mainstream news outlets reviewed it positively. As an enthusiastic consumer of “ethnic food” who has been struck by how trendy restaurants owned by white people get to charge a lot more for the same dish that I could make at home for almost nothing, this topic is close to my gut.

Much of the book uses data and sociological analysis to confirm what many of us suspected is true of the way people perceive cuisines and foods. The section I found most illuminating was the historical one showing the rise and fall of certain cuisines in the haute/expensive category. Using data on average bills at restaurants, Ray showed that changes in how “haute” a cuisine is track changes in the socioeconomic and racial status of various ethnic groups. The incorporation of Italian and Greek food into haute cuisine tracks their increasing acceptance as “white” by American society. Japanese food has also risen to become the most expensive cuisine on average, tracking the status of Japanese people as “honorary whites”.

It is no coincidence that changes in racial status track the racial composition of restaurant workers — a history I was unaware of. At the turn of the 20th century, restaurant workers were mainly German and Irish, such work being shunned by more privileged Anglo immigrants. Later on, Italians and Eastern Europeans became the dominant group of food workers, followed by Latinos and Asians. This succession of groups doing badly-compensated food work mirrors changes in racial categories, with groups that are accepted as white being able to move on to more lucrative work.

Ray offers evidence for other truths that I had suspected were true:

  • “Ethnic” chefs who want to make it in haute cuisine have to actively strive to “de-ethnicize” themselves. The primary way to do so is to undergo elite culinary training, at the Culinary Institute America (CIA), for example. There, one is trained in the “French technique”, a qualification for any cooking haute cuisine — even if one ends up cooking haute Indian cuisine.
  • Ethnic restaurants are constructed as “the Other” to haute cuisine. They are supposed to be cheap and to represent some sort of “home cooking” rather than the kind of expertise that one learns at the CIA. At the same time, there are restaurants that try to distinguish themselves from both haute cuisine and ethnic restaurants — allegedly better than home cooking, but not purveyors of snobbery. Ray offers an interesting example of a mid-price Filipino restaurant that initially catered to white Americans, and conceived itself as making American-influenced Filipino food. The restaurant owners quickly found that they hit a plateau until they appealed more to their native roots, playing on the pull of authenticity. At the same time, the owners were keen to distinguish what they did from Filipino home cooking. An illuminating quote from an interview with one of the owners:
when food writers came to our restaurant I realized that if you are a food writer you cannot say they are neither this nor that and because we were from the Philippines they started calling us Filipino. And we had Filipinos showing up and giving us a lot of trouble. They started quarrelling with us and telling us that this is fake Filipino food… They gave us very bad review. The Filipinos. Not the non-Filipinos… We did not like aspects of Filipino cuisine. It is fatty and soupy. We couldn’t do that in an upscale restaurant. Home cooking and restaurant cooking are completely different animals (The Ethnic Restaurateur, p. 177).
  • Chefs and reviewers routinely gesture toward authenticity, nativity, and cultural familiarity in order to validate themselves/certain places as truly ethnic. For example, cookbook writers often profusely acknowledge the servants or family they grew up with for teaching them about the food in question In contrast, French or haute cuisine cookbooks maintain an entirely “professional” demeanor that emphasizes the individual originality and technical skill of the writer rather than ancestral sentimentalism.
  • In order to become trendy in the dominant white imagination, ethnic chefs must be “found” by white people. A food magazine editor writes that he “caught wind” of an up-and-coming Indian chef. In contrast, Greek chefs, for example, are better able to announce their own arrival on the scene. (Greek cuisine is another one of those recent entrants into the haute cuisine category — for a long time considered too “ethnic”, it has become increasingly common for restaurants that conceive of themselves as serving Greek food to be on the higher end of the price scale.)
  • Subjugated cuisines are drawn into haute cuisine only by being added as spice to essentially French cooking techniques. However, it is still important to have an ethnic chef as a “native translator”. The dominant consumers of such cuisine view themselves as cosmopolitan and valuing the native’s point of view, yet class dictates that they do not consume from the cheap “ethnic” places that the restaurant workers’ families probably dine at.
  • There is an interesting emergence of an “ethnic haute” genre epitomized by David Chang of Momofuku fame, and Floyd Cardoz with his haute Indian restaurant Tabla. I have questions about how far these restaurants disproportionately incorporate ingredients from cultures that are considered to be closer to white, e.g. using more Japanese and Korean influences rather than Chinese.
  • The existence of haute cuisine is essential for chefs to remain a profession. Thus, it is key to their survival to do the boundary work of distinguishing themselves from home cooking. Ray points out that this is especially important for chefs because cooking is a relatively insecure and emergent profession. More secure professions can afford to take a step back and open the door to “native knowledge”, as one sees in professional doctors considering alternative medicine. The distinction between haute and ethnic cuisines is not an outcome of consumers’ preferences alone.

There are many writings on the subject of appropriation of ethnic food. This book is valuable for how it offers in-depth data, interviews, and textual analysis that could serve as material to work with for a critique of cultural appropriation.

In subsequent posts I will look at how Yelp data supports some of the hypotheses of this book, and how all of this bears on the cultural appropriation debate.

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