What’s a Chef’s Street Cred Got To Do With a Successful Restaurant?
Almost everything if you’re cooking soul food in Harlem, argues Lower East Side restaurateur and author Eddie Huang. Admittedly, this is a delayed response to Huang's (nearly) year-old combined “review” of chef Marcus Samuelsson’s autobiography, Yes, Chef, and Harlem-based comfort food restaurant, Red Rooster. When the review broke, there was a flurry of reaction from food bloggers, and rightly so — Huang and Samuelsson have a knack for garnering media attention and, on the surface, Huang claimed to be writing about food.
But Huang didn't write about food (devoting only a few sentences to it), he wrote about street cred — an attribute rooted in the dubious theory that education and other middle class characteristics exist in inverse proportion to ethnic authenticity. The conclusion: Samuelsson has none and, therefore, he’s unqualified to open a restaurant in Harlem.
Huang makes his case as follows: Samuelsson does not understand soul food because he’s not from Harlem. Harlem residents only appreciate traditional soul food restaurants like Amy Ruth’s, as distinguished from more formal jazz clubs like the Cotton Club (his apples to oranges comparison not mine), mainly because the former offer takeout. Unlike Huang, who often reminds us that he’s Taiwanese-Chinese American cooking Chinese food relatively close to Chinatown and has no formal culinary education, Samuelsson just doesn’t belong.
He doesn’t belong, not only because he was Ethiopian born and Swedish raised, but also because he has bought into “the establishment idea that table clothes, square plates, and stars define an objectively good restaurant.” Huang asserts, “The value system [Samuelsson] applies to Harlem is not one the community has ever accepted.”
Not so. One of Harlem’s most beloved and long-running institutions will always be Copeland’s, a restaurant whose waiters wore tuxedos to serve its own version of soul food. Yes, it had a cafeteria in a separate facility, but its main restaurant was complete with all of the formality of fine dining, tablecloths included. There are countless other examples. The Harlem experience is as diverse and cosmopolitan as the people who occupy or come uptown to enjoy it.
But wait: Huang has back-up. Enter “rapper-producer” Shiest Bubz. While this man has no identifiable connection to the culinary world, he’s black and he’s from Harlem. Bubz’s contribution: He doesn’t “seem to be enjoying himself,” and he doesn't go to Red Rooster “[b]ecause every time [he] come[s] it’s some extra-bougie extravagant event … and then you can’t even get takeout.”
So Shiest Bubz represents “real Harlem” — a term Huang himself carelessly throws around without definition — and a chef who holds events to elect the first black President (Huang begins his piece derisively referring to an Obama fundraiser held at Red Rooster) does not. A simple Google search would educate Huang about real Harlem’s rich history of political activism and avid support of political fundraisers.
Huang’s use of Samuelsson’s ethnic identity and formal training (remember, a minus when it comes to soul food) as a yardstick by which to measure the success of the latter’s cuisine discounts his skill and many years of hard work and achievement as a chef. The problem with this type of thinking is that it limits the creative freedom and possibilities of an entire group of people and genre of food. If a chef must be from Harlem to cook soul food in Harlem,if soul food must be the same as it’s always been, and if restaurants themselves must conform to certain rules like offering takeout as opposed to tablecloths in order to appeal to one kind of customer, the outlook for diversity, growth, and development becomes pretty bleak.
When we allow folks like Huang with some degree of “street cred” to police who can cook soul food and what that food and the restaurants it occupies must look like, people eventually believe them. To believe Huang is to believe in the ghettoization of soul food and its chefs. Chefs and restaurant owners of any kind of cuisine should be entitled to complete creative freedom. To quote Huang quoting Samuelsson: “Harlem is big enough, diverse enough, scrappy enough, old enough, and new enough to encompass” everything that Samuelsson represents. Who is Huang to tell him or Harlem otherwise?
Harlem, please stand up.