Last week, the New York Times published a piece by me entitled “Cuisines Mastered as Acquired Tastes.” In it, I tried to explore how American-raised chefs learn to cook the food of immigrant cultures, and why they so often become more successful than the immigrants themselves.
I admit the article started in my head because I felt that immigrant chefs often get dealt a tough hand, but I tried to report out an even story. In part, that was because I really respect the American-raised chefs I wrote about, but also because I think many of the factors that make for this phenomenon aren’t anyone’s “fault”—they’re tied up in a bigger picture of how restaurant people, media, and our society deal and don’t deal with all the weird stuff that happens when you mix all kinds of races and cultures together like we do in America.
But then my friend Eddie Huang emailed me. The son of a Taiwanese immigrant restaurant family and chef / owner of Baohaus, he wrote, “Look, for a lot of the article I was like, ‘FRANCIS, HAMMER THEM!’ I really didn’t like the thing about the chefs being more ‘objective’ because they’re distanced from the food and it’s not personal. I disagree entirely. Food is PERSONAL. Business is personal! The Godfather was wrong!”
And so we talked, immigrant son to immigrant son, food-lover to food-lover, Chinaman to Chinaman. (It isn’t the preferred nomenclature, but it works for us.) We had an honest debate over whether it’s right for chefs to “take” someone else’s culture and sell it, what responsibilities writers and chefs have to make sure people understand where cuisines come from, and, in the end, what it means to be an immigrant in America. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. It’s long and there is some tough talk in there, but we felt it was worth sharing. And please share your thoughts in the comments below, but you don’t want to see how Eddie deals with trolls. – Francis Lam
Eddie: So wassup, how’d you feel about the article? Did you say everything you wanted to?
Francis: Well, no… I mean, it’s a huge subject and I definitely didn’t do it justice. My hope was, really, just to get some of these questions out there, about who gets to represent cuisines in the public eye. I had to skip a lot. One thing I didn’t address at all, for instance, was the perspective of the costumer. One man I emailed with, Jim Leff, the founder of Chowhound, talked about how angry he gets when he goes to, say, a Chinese restaurant, specifically asking for some ill behind-the-red-curtain flavor, and they (intentionally, he believes) don’t give it to him as a white man.
Eddie: HAHA, yeah, mad people still believe in the “other menu.”
Francis: So there are lots of racial / cultural dynamics that go unspoken in restaurants. The story was inspired when I saw two things: One was a commenter on Eater saying that Andy Ricker opening up Pok Pok in NYC was an “automatic upgrade” to Thai food in the city. The other was a bunch of Yelp reviews of neighborhood Thai places that were all, “this sucks, this isn’t authentic.” And so I got to thinking—I love what Andy does, I have total respect for him, but it also seems that people ignore that his reality and the reality of the average Thai immigrant restaurant owner are very different.
Eddie: But look, you threw the gwai lo mad softballs in the article. As a Chinaman… what do you think, G?
Francis: Honestly, I don’t know how to think about it as a Chinaman. I mean, I started on this because I’m the son of immigrants, because I love food and respect the people who work in it. Even if the food isn’t great, I don’t get down with dumping on the people. You know who’s easy to dump on? Immigrants who don’t really speak your language, who don’t conform to your idea of “authentic.” But then, as a writer who’s interested in chefs at all levels and what they do, I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff to be said about people like Alex Stupak from Empellon, who’s going from modern fine dining to trying to learn about traditional Mexican food, something he didn’t grow up with.
Eddie: Well, the crux of the issue for me is this… 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.
Eddie: 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? Cue Jim Mora: “We talkin’ bout expats?!?!” F*** OUTTA HERE!
“The Man” may not outright turn countries into colonies anymore, but it’s only because it’s easier to commodify the goods. It relegates foreign people and countries to the role of factories whose sole purpose is to create culture that gets bought and amplified by someone else and they get left hanging. For people like me who have watched Americans cycle through Kung-Fu, The Art of War, Feng Shui, and Kung Pao Chicken (which done right is still a classic) like culture fit for a scenester’s email blasts… you’ll have to excuse my paranoia when an American chef tries to express sincerity about understanding our culture and cuisine. These cultural artifacts may be the butt of ironic jokes today, but they meant something to us.
Francis: I hear you. But at the same time, people learning about other cultures can be both sincere and awkward about it, right?
Eddie: People should treat restaurants like college. In NYC Thai food, Sripraphai should be the survey course everyone takes and Andy Ricker is 200 level, then Professor Harold Dieterle at Kin Shop is a 300 level creative writing course. There is a place for people like Harold taking flavors and creating a cuisine that fits his own taste and personality. I think it’s great to develop cuisine. The problem though is that some people will go to Kin Shop, misunderstand its place in the canon and anoint that as the standard in Thai food.
This may not seem like a big deal, but I’ll tell you… A huge part of the reason I opened Baohaus is because everyone thought Momofuku pork buns were the original and it pissed me off. I’d been eating them since I was a kid, I knew they were from Taiwan and no one stuck up for us so I did. If you don’t defend the things that matter to you, no one will. Why do Asians like myself care so much about their food culture? It’s all we have to be proud of in this country! A lot of these ABCs don’t even speak Chinese, they’ve lost their tongue, all they have is this food. It matters. It matters a lot.
Francis: I dig. And you don’t want people “discovering” a cuisine, and all of a sudden, they’re seen like the OGs of that kitchen. But let me get back to Stupak. His story is that he’s an All-Universe Top-5 pastry chef, all spheres and whatnot, and then drops it to learn about Mexican food. He was like, “You wanna say I’m ‘just’ doing tacos, that I’m ‘wasting’ my talent? Peep this: spheres are easy for me. I want to learn about this cuisine that’s bottomless, that I’ll never master. That’s my challenge.” The food that comes out isn’t abuelita’s, because that’s not who he is. He’s still the guy that makes chocolate bend into knots. But he wants his food to be showing what he’s trying to learn about Mexican food.
Eddie: I admire that. I went to Empellon. It’s not my bag, but it’s definitely admirable that someone who could have cruised doing something he was comfortable with found a passion and wants to pursue it. Do I think it is the “Best Mexican Restaurant in NYC” as his website states? Absolutely not. Do I think it elevates Mexican cuisine? No.
That type of “modern” food with international influences is like diversity at a law firm or Ivy League school. There is an “international class” that produces similar individuals worldwide. At a certain point, food isn’t an ethnic thing, it’s a class thing. You can go to Taichung and there are “modern” restaurants like Wein that use “international class” techniques like sous-vide, foam, square plates, and exotic reductions “inspired” by Taiwanese folklore and Shanghainese flavors. The food at Empellon could be the food at Wein could be the food at Aquavit could be the food at Kin Shop. There is a formula to these restaurants and the foreign influences are interchangeable like WWF characters.
Francis: That’s fine if that’s your take on modern cuisine, but I still don’t see why you feel that takes away from the “original” Mexican places. I mean, it sucks that not everyone big-ups a deep place in a Mexican neighborhood, but I don’t see someone like Stupak as personally responsible for preventing that.
Eddie: He’s not preventing it, but there’s a dope book Fighting for Air. It’s about broadcast radio but the concept of scarcity applies. The more simulcast shows and “modern” restaurants there are, the less air play is available for your deep-Mexican. It’s not Stupak’s fault and that’s why I feel guilty saying these things. Warren Buffet didn’t create capitalism and Stupak didn’t create the rules of modern cuisine, but they both take part in it.
Francis: But when you wrote me and said, “FRANCIS, HAMMER THEM!” what did you mean?
The reason I didn’t “hammer” anyone in the story is that the issues are more structural: the way the media covers things, the way the media’s audience is always looking for “new” and “creative”, that everything has to be about novelty, the way customers demand stuff they don’t even understand. I don’t think it’s the fault of individual chefs who benefit from the situation.
Eddie: Good point. We have to have solutions and as a writer I think you should reprimand the market. That’s what I meant. Call them out for their bad taste and chefs that benefit from the folly of the markets and don’t do something to stop it. You have to do something. Personally, I lose money every day on beef noodle soup on my menu. People come to Baohaus wanting baos, not noodles, but it’s important for me to represent as much Taiwanese food as I can.
Francis: But who are those noodles for? What are you trying to do with them?
Eddie: Those noodles are an introduction. Everyone knows ramen but they don’t know Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup. Taiwanese people respect the effort we put in. The Ambassador of Taiwan has had me go cook my Beef Noodle Soup at the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Center. I take pride in the food my Mom raised me on.
It’s good and I’m determined to find it an audience in America. Anyone that takes pride in what they grew up on and fights to tell that story is a hero to me. What is it that you were passionate about, growing up eating?
Francis: I guess for me the question of “growing up,” in terms of food, isn’t just your childhood. I think the key word is “passionate,” if that passion also includes a sense of respect for the subject. Like Stupak, he fell in love & married into a Mexican family and starting learning the food through her family and traveling. I buy that that experience is formative - he’s got passion and respect for it.
Eddie: I buy that too, but I strongly feel this way… We have to be cognizant and respectful of the people and cultures we take from, and America is a place where we co-opt the shit out of everything and there’s no easier place to do it than food. It IS taking whether people want to admit it or not. You and I both know that people frequently call Empellon the best Mexican in the city and that’s the message we’ve sent.
Francis: Sure, but that’s another thing—we’re simplistic when we talk about “good” food. Yes, some people just want to call Empellon the “best” Mexican food in the city. But that’s goofy, because, well, what KIND of Mexican food are you talking about? Like there’s only one kind of Mexican food and you can grade it good, better, best? We need to think about what we say. We need to use our heads for more than a hat rack.
Eddie: YES! More than a hat rack! But if it were up to the publications, the market would agree that Empellon is the champ. You could easily see Stupak getting nominated for a James Beard award but not someone from the Red Hook Ballfields. It’s just like Joe Frazier when Ali was in jail, everyone knows who the real champ is: the people from the Ballfields, but like Frazier, I don’t blame Stupak. It’s not his fault. There is a larger systemic class problem. We are a society that praises the student with no regard or respect for the master.
Francis: CONFUCIOUS AIN’T NEVER COME HERE.
Eddie: As much as I hate Confucius, there should be a level of respect and tribute paid for the people who schooled you.
Eddie: I wish that Americans didn’t have the need to cut off the narrative from the motherland and butcher our culture into components for a tasting menu. You can be successful like Xi’an Famous Foods or Baohaus serving largely unadultered food that is true to the pantry and palate with better messaging. Now, the discerning reader could say “Eddie, you love hip hop, that was the biggest commodifier.” Yes! But that’s why I love hip hop.
It was the only moment I’ve seen in my lifetime where the villagers took the Man’s tools and proved Audre Lorde wrong. You CAN dismantle the Master’s House with the Master’s Tools, DJ Kool Herc showed us that.
Francis: Well…would you prefer Stupak to say: “I’m doing food that’s not really Mexican, it’s a mashup of that and what’s in my own head”?
Eddie: This is totally unfair of me to tell someone what to say. But, you asked me a question and I’ll answer it. If I could write his press release, I’d say, “I’m making modern New American food that borrows ingredients and techniques from a Mexican pantry.” Or, make fun of it like Danny Bowien [of Mission Chinese Food] does and basically say, “I love Chinese food. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I respect this, that and the other Szechuan restaurant. Please don’t consider me a master, I’m just a dude with a tea pot full of dirty girl drinks.” Danny Bowien is a guy who NAILS it in terms of messaging. He does funky hybrid party Chinese food that I think we’re all honored to be the inspiration for. Danny hit me on twitter today wanting to put my Hainan Lobster Rice on the menu, do it! I love that people like Danny and Kareem Abdul Jabbar are interested in our culture in an inquisitive and honest way. I think Stupak is the same. His wife is Mexican and there’s a genuine passion, plus who am I to judge. I’m just saying, we need accurate messaging because it’s offensive to the diaspora. The culture needs to consider the villagers.
Francis: I dig.
Eddie: I think America also needs to look at itself and start to create more “American” food.
What is it? Let’s explore that more closely. What would that look like?
Francis: You said,”I wish that Americans didn’t have the need to cut off the narrative from the motherland.” But here’s my position on that: That’s what makes us who we are. I want to acknowledge that and celebrate that. If we believe America is the land of immigrants, those narratives have to change from how they were in the motherland. Immigrants bring their culture with them, but it doesn’t make it all the way, frozen intact, when they settle here. It changes to some degree because they are here, and that’s what makes us American… as long as we can all respect that we have different stories and came from different places.
Eddie: Dude, if we are the land of immigrants, I wish they’d stop trying to pass laws against “illegal immigration.” We can’t even honestly go there because The New Colossus is a lie.
Francis: But this is what I fight for, you dig? I fight for the fact that immigrants are just as American as anyone else, no matter how much of an accent they have.
Francis: And EVEN if the immigrants themselves don’t think of themselves as being “really” American.
Eddie: Agreed. Yes, I reserve the right to be American when I want to be.
Francis: My parents have been here damn near 40 years, more than half their lives. They still talk about “those Americans.”
Eddie: Considering how much I was shit on, I’ve earned that right, haha. I also talk about “those Americans.” I hope you do too, HAHA.
Francis: Naw, man. I am they and they is me. Even if I want to fistfight with some of us sometimes.
Eddie: We’ve lost you brother… hahaha
Francis: My take on it is: You get to think of yourself however you want. But I’ll be damned if I let someone tell you you’re not “really” an American.
Eddie: I agree with that. I think I’m so disenfranchised that I don’t want to be American anymore. It’s a club I’m tired of trying to get into. I’d rather drink at a Karaoke bar. But, I know deep down, I am American. I go to China or Taiwan and people fight me on basketball courts because I play like an American. That’s what makes this so shitty for us. We have no home.
Francis: That’s the thing with immigrants—they sacrifice a lot, and so often feel like they don’t belong wherever they happen to be. They’re not standing where they came from, and then they find themselves in a place where they always feel like they’re different. They tough it out, usually to work for a better life for their kids and hopefully for the community they’re in. It’s seeing that that makes me say, “They deserve a home, and it’s America. That’s the promise of America.” And so that’s how I feel about a lot of this food. If I had to choose, I would just call it ALL “American” food and be done with it.
Eddie: But that’s disrespectful.
Francis: And it’s also too simple an answer; that’s why I felt like this article should be written. All these issues are too complicated to just dump in a bucket called “American” – or at least, too complicated to dump in a bucket and not think about it anymore.
Eddie: The food’s not American, Francis. It has roots elsewhere. It’s entirely unfair to claim it for America. That’s happened to us way too many times.
Francis: That’s interesting. I think I see the fundamental difference in our thinking here… Because my concern is the opposite: that the term “American” has been denied to people too many times.
Eddie: Yes… a lot of us believed in what America was supposed to be about. That City on the Hill. But we have come to see America as a processing plant that imports materials and people from all around the globe, chews them up, and spits out something new that bears the blood, sweat and tears of something foreign, yet claimed and branded American. It’s not fair.
Francis: Well, for me, it’s almost a matter of religion. This is like faith for me: The American ideal is what I’m after, even though in reality, America the country is flawed in pursuing its own ideals. But I keep thinking we just have to work to get closer and closer to those ideals.
Eddie: I am a nihilist.
Francis: I hear you, it can be frustrating.
Eddie: No, it doesn’t exist.
Francis: You believe in NUSSING.
Eddie: No, I believe that MSG WILL give you headaches no matter what Tony Bourdain tells me.