Cooking Other People's Food: How Chefs Appropriate Bay Area 'Ethnic' Cuisine 

It's time to talk about pedigreed restaurateurs that co-opt traditional eats — and how the food-media hype machine enables cultural erasure.

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The small, unassuming building on the corner of Market and 42nd streets — a mostly residential, working-class stretch of North Oakland — is an unlikely location for one of the most highly anticipated dining establishments in the East Bay.

Years ago, the building was home to a hair salon, and more recently a restaurant serving high-end "New Baja"-style small plates. Now, Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain, the husband-and-wife owners of Camino and two of the more prominent restaurateurs in the East Bay, have taken over the space and plan to reinvent it as The Kebabery. Yes, it's a restaurant specializing in grilled-meats-on-a-stick, but prepared in the quintessential California style, with lots of organic vegetables and other locally sourced, seasonal ingredients.

This is great news for fans of Moore's wood-fire-driven California cuisine — and also for those who don't have the budget to dine at Camino on the regular. But it's also the latest example of a rather curious phenomenon in the food world: Seemingly overnight, and even though the restaurant is still months away from opening, The Kebabery might already be the most talked about kebab restaurant in the entire East Bay.

That's despite the fact that the region is home to a wealth of more traditional Middle Eastern restaurants: Kamdesh, with its deliciously savory rice; Aria Grill, with its assortment of excellent grilled meats; and both Oasis Food Market and its sister restaurant, Oasis Kitchen, with their spit-roasted shawarma and habit-forming garlicky red-pepper sauce.

All around the country, many of the most famous purveyors of global and immigrant cuisines — the so-called "ethnic" foods — are actually chefs without family ties to those particular cultures. As food writer Francis Lam documented in a 2012 New York Times article entitled "Cuisines Mastered as Acquired Tastes," many of these prominent "ethnic" restaurants are helmed by white fine-dining chefs, who later in their careers decide to dedicate themselves to a particular cuisine for which they've developed a passion.

In New York City, a white former high-end pastry chef named Alex Stupak runs what is probably the city's most highly acclaimed Mexican taqueria, Empellon. In Portland, Oregon — and, arguably in the whole country — Andy Ricker, another white male chef, is the king of regional Thai cuisine.

Here in the East Bay, often it's chefs with Chez Panisse pedigrees who own and operate some of the most-heralded restaurants, from Japanese ramen spots to upscale Mexican eateries. And when food reporters write about these places, there's a tendency to talk about how the chefs have "elevated" the traditional versions of the cuisine, whether it be through farm-to-table sourcing or fine-dining cooking techniques.

No one is making a serious argument that chefs should only ever cook foods to which they have a direct ancestral connection. But why is it that these mostly white, "pedigreed" chefs attain such incredible fame and success when equally talented immigrant cooks might labor in obscurity for years? And what does it mean that food pundits are so quick to hail these chefs as authorities on their adopted cuisines?

We need to have a talk, then, about this matter of cooking other people's foods and whether it's possible for chefs to do so in a respectful manner. Otherwise, the restaurant industry will always be rigged in favor of what Preeti Mistry, the chef-owner of Temescal's Juhu Beach Club, calls the "Iggy Azaleas" of the ethnic-dining scene: overhyped, culturally appropriative restaurants whose stories dominate the blogosphere and prominent food magazines, even as their white owners and chefs wonder why everyone always has to make a big deal about race.


Non-Denominational Kebabs

Moore, for his part, seems keenly aware of the tricky cultural terrain that he's navigating as he prepares to open The Kebabery. The chef, who is half-Korean — though he said that he looks mostly white, so many people don't realize that he's bi-racial — said he's sensitive to the typical narrative of a successful chef picking up a new cuisine and trying to improve on it.

"I'm not saying, 'I'm going to be like Oasis but better,'" he said. "That's never been my goal."

click to enlarge Chef Russell Moore tends to some flatbread at Camino. - ANDRIA LO
  • Andria Lo
  • Chef Russell Moore tends to some flatbread at Camino.

On the one hand, Moore feels good about the type of business he plans to run — one that will support small farmers, provide jobs for people who live in the neighborhood, and offer high wages and health insurance to everyone on staff. Although he hasn't set exact prices yet, he said he's committed to making the restaurant affordable enough that people who live in that part of North Oakland will actually be able to eat there regularly. And Moore stressed that, of all the things he hopes The Kebabery will be, a traditional kebab restaurant isn't one of them.

"This is going to be non-denominational," Moore said, explaining that he and Hopelain wouldn't have even put the word "kebab" in the name of the restaurant if there was an easier way to encapsulate the type of food they plan to cook — i.e., a small, rotating selection of grilled meats, served with flatbread and a variety of little salads. It was an affinity for that style of cooking and eating that drew Moore to making kebabs in the first place, more so than any particular transformational experience eating at some traditional kebab shop in Israel or Iran.

So, according to Moore, even though The Kebabery will prominently feature Middle Eastern flavors and spices when it opens later this year, the idea isn't to duplicate or improve upon someone's Persian grandmother's recipes. Lead chef Traci Matsumoto-Esteban is of Japanese descent and cooked mostly Asian food prior to working at Camino. Her carrot salad might taste just like something you'd find at a Moroccan or Tunisian restaurant, but the strictly non-traditional sauerkraut salad that might accompany another kebab plate certainly would not. And over the past few years, Moore has developed a flatbread recipe — inspired by the one at Oasis — that uses whole-wheat flour and a slow leavening process, so that in the end it resembles a Chad Robertson (of Tartine Bakery fame) bread as much as it does a traditional flatbread.

But Moore also acknowledges that, because of Camino's great success, and because he too is a Chez Panisse alumnus, the fact of the matter is that The Kebabery is going to garner a ton of local and national press, much of it before he's even served a single kebab.

"That's privilege that a chef that came from Afghanistan isn't going to get automatically," he said.

And even if Moore is consciously trying to avoid being, as he put it, "the white guy who says [he's] going to make the best kebabs in the world," it's easy to imagine that some of the publications that write about The Kebabery will come at it with that angle — maybe not the part about the white guy, but they'll praise the restaurant's elevated versions of Middle Eastern-inspired dishes. They'll perhaps talk about how much nicer the setting is compared to your typical kebab shop.

"I'm aware of the cultural privilege that we have going into it. We're going to try to not make that into a marketing thing," Moore said.

click to enlarge The flatbread will be prominently featured at The Kebabery, a new restaurant in North Oakland. - ANDRIA LO
  • Andria Lo
  • The flatbread will be prominently featured at The Kebabery, a new restaurant in North Oakland.


Whitewashed Media

If you're a chef in Oakland or Berkeley, where even fine dining tends to be fairly casual, a stint at Chez Panisse — the mother ship of California cuisine — might be the best way to raise your stature in the public eye. So, when Ramen Shop opened in Rockridge in 2012, with its uniquely Californian interpretation of ramen, almost every article about the restaurant led with some discussion of the Chez Panisse pedigree of the three non-Japanese owners: Jerry Jaksich and Sam White, who are white, and Rayneil De Guzman, who is of Filipino descent. Peruse any roundup of best Bay Area ramen joints, and you'll find Ramen Shop at or near the top of the list.

Meanwhile, until recently, Berkeley's Comal was practically the only game in town when it came to high-end, regional Mexican cuisine. The chef, Matt Gandin, is a self-described fourth-generation Jewish American who has loved Mexican food since he was a kid.

Ramen Shop and Comal are both very good restaurants in their own right, and it's important to note that their chefs have been nothing if not respectful when discussing their passion for Japanese and Mexican cooking.

But this fact remains: You'd be hard-pressed to find a Japanese or Mexican eatery in the East Bay that got even a fraction of the pre-opening media hype both restaurants received, and both are often included when national publications do roundups of where to eat in Oakland or Berkeley — often to the exclusion of equally worthy immigrant-run spots.

Much has been written in recent months about the unbearable whiteness of the food-writing community. (I take no satisfaction in being, to my knowledge, the only food writer of color who has a full-time gig with a major Bay Area publication.)

One of the most egregious examples of the kind of tunnel vision this can cause was a recent article about a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn, on the food blog TheInfatuation.com. Blog co-founder Andrew Steinthal opened his review of Kings County Imperial, a restaurant helmed by "a pair of non-Chinese Chinese food enthusiasts," by invoking just about every existing stereotype that Americans have about Chinese food: that it's "gross," that it leaves diners with "meat sweats," and that it primarily exists in the form of cheap, dive-y takeout joints. Kings County Imperial co-owners Josh Grinker and Tracy Jane Young might not explicitly be hailed as the white saviors of dirty, gross Chinese cuisine. But when the review opens as it does, and then Kings County Imperial gets praised as effusively for its artisanal soy sauce and "modern, clean" approach to Chinese cooking — well, it's not too hard to infer the subtext.

Here in the Bay Area, the dynamic tends to play out in more subtle ways, both in terms of what restaurants even get press coverage and what the chefs themselves say. You'll hear a lot of talk about how chefs were inspired by the flavors that they encountered in a certain village that they visited, and how they wanted to apply certain fine-dining techniques or sourcing principles in order to create their own version.

This being Alice Waters country, what you'll hear about more than anything is a restaurant's farm-to-table credentials: its use of local and sustainable ingredients, i.e. the amazing pasture-raised pork that the mom-and-pop takeout joint around the corner most certainly isn't using, or the locally sourced cabbage that's going to add a whole new dimension to a fancified Burmese tea leaf salad.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of this on its face. It's great to support local farmers who are doing things the right way. And no one expects a restaurateur to say, "We're serving a slightly less awesome version of this dish that we just learned how to make, but we're going to charge 30 percent more. Cool?"

But, as Taiwanese-American chef Eddie Huang pointed out in an interview with the Express this past June, a lot of times this business about a chef putting his or her own creative twist on a dish — or, in this case, using "higher-quality ingredients" — is code: "This is a better, safer version of this immigrant food."

And make no mistake: There are real financial implications to this, as well. It's why Ramen Shop can charge customers $18 or $19 for a bowl of ramen — compared to, say, $10 or $11 a bowl at one of the comparably esteemed Japanese-run ramen shops in the South Bay. It's why the Oakland restaurateur Charlie Hallowell can charge $20 for a plate of kefta-style meatballs at his North African-inspired restaurant, Penrose, whereas Aria Grill, a traditional Afghan kebab shop in downtown Oakland, charges $12 for a similar, more heartily portioned dish.

There are valid reasons for restaurants like Ramen Shop and Penrose to charge what they do — reasons having to do with paying fair wages, supporting sustainable agricultural practices, and so forth. So, perhaps the better question to ask is whether similarly ambitious, immigrant-run, farm-to-table restaurants are able to command similar prices.

click to enlarge Preeti Mistry believes it’s important for chefs to acknowledge their privilege. - ANDRIA LO
  • Andria Lo
  • Preeti Mistry believes it’s important for chefs to acknowledge their privilege.

Juhu Beach Club's Mistry, who is of Indian descent, argues that this often isn't the case: She said she gets a ton of push-back on her prices, which some customers feel are too high for Indian food.

"People are willing to pay more when the kitchen is full of straight white guys because they look like they should be paid more," she said. "If you see a bunch of brown people in the kitchen, the food should be cheap."


Beyond Delicious

Of course, there are chefs and diners who will read this article (or even just the headline) and have a visceral response against it — who will, perhaps, feel that Moore and others are being needlessly apologetic for something that shouldn't even be an issue.

"Delicious is delicious," the argument goes.

And if Moore's kebabs turn out to be tastier than any of the ones served at the Bay Area's more traditional Middle Eastern restaurants, why shouldn't he embrace that title proudly? Isn't this all just a case of political correctness gone haywire?

Jay Porter is the chef-owner of The Half Orange, a sausage and burger restaurant in Oakland's Fruitvale District, whose menu dabbles in Korean and Mexican flavors — the latter, in particular, a tribute to the years he spent living in San Diego and his frequent travels to Baja California. (Coincidently, Porter was also the proprietor of Salsipuedes, the restaurant that preceded The Kebabery at 4201 Market Street.)

According to Porter, intentions are what matter. In his view, every chef ought to have a good reason to be cooking whatever cuisine or dish he or she is cooking — perhaps all the more so if it's a cuisine they didn't grow up eating themselves.

"If the answer is, 'I learned these cool techniques and no one is applying it to this cuisine,' that's probably not about creating an experience or a bond with the diners," Porter said. "If the reason is this genuine love and community with your people, that shows — and that's a kind of authenticity."

Porter said that, if he were to open a restaurant that served a cuisine that he had no cultural context with, it would likely ring false with his guests.

Indeed, he acknowledged that this was true to a certain extent with Salsipuedes, which closed after less than a year: The small plates menu might have successfully captured the essence of upscale New Baja cuisine, but the restaurant wasn't able to recreate culture in which that particular food thrives — and, so, diners couldn't connect with it.

"I think that serving people food that doesn't have some kind of emotional component is really cynical. Deliciousness cannot be measured on a scientific meter," Porter said.

What's more, in extreme cases, immigrant cuisines in particular face the threat of having their stories erased, or taken away, from their native practitioners altogether. Take Mongolian food, for instance: In the United States, most diners associate it with the type of buffet-style grill restaurant that's commonly found in suburban strip malls, but those actually have nothing to do with Mongolia whatsoever. "Mongolian barbecue" was invented by Taiwanese restaurateurs and has been widely perpetuated in the United States by a fair number of non-Asian entrepreneurs, as well.

Meanwhile, real Mongolian food is mostly left to languish in obscurity, its banner taken up by just a handful of small, immigrant-run restaurants — including Togi's Mongolian Cuisine in downtown Oakland — that tend not to get much press.

Calavera, the upscale Oaxacan-focused Mexican restaurant in Uptown Oakland, also provides an interesting case study. The restaurant currently faces a lawsuit involving former employees, who accuse the owners of a number of different labor violations. At least one former cook claims that she was fired after the restaurant exploited her for her deeply rooted knowledge of tortilla-making, and other recipes she had learned as a native of Oaxaca.

The lawsuit is still pending, and the owners of Calavera — one of whom is Latino — have vigorously denied the allegations. But this narrative — of an immigrant cook having her cultural knowledge co-opted so that someone else can profit — resonated with many people.

Calavera's current chef, Sophina Uong, began working at the restaurant subsequent to the allegations and is herself a relative newcomer to Mexican cuisine, as a Cambodian-American who has cooked at restaurants specializing in everything from Southern food to California cuisine. She says she's spending a lot of her time tweaking Calavera's menu, but also learning techniques and recipes from the Mexican cooks who have been on staff since the restaurant opened.

When asked why she has always worked in cuisines that are fairly far removed from her own personal background, Uong said she's simply always looked to challenge herself by learning something new.

"There are no borders in cooking, I think," Uong said. "You cook from the heart."

Perhaps, as Porter argues, it does come down to intentions. For some customers, the chefs who aren't cooking from the heart are the ones who get in trouble when they cook a non-native cuisine — especially when it's a cuisine of people who have been historically oppressed, to whom the food has deeper significance than just playing with a new set of flavors.

click to enlarge Oakland resident Noah Cho believes it’s offensive for non-Korean chefs to tinker with Korean dishes to the point that they’re unrecognizable. - ANDRIA LO
  • Andria Lo
  • Oakland resident Noah Cho believes it’s offensive for non-Korean chefs to tinker with Korean dishes to the point that they’re unrecognizable.

Noah Cho, a multiracial Oakland resident whose father was Korean and whose mother is a white American, has commented extensively on this issue via social media, particularly as it pertains to Korean dishes, many of which were created as survival foods and thus have deep roots in hardship endured by the Korean people. To Cho, it becomes offensive, then, when non-Korean chefs tinker with a dish like bibimbap — the classic rice bowl with meat, vegetables, and hot sauce — to the point that it's unrecognizable: "You can make a quinoa bowl with veggies in it, and just not call it 'bibimbap.'"

Cho explained that the reason he takes food so seriously is because it was the only way he was able to communicate with his paternal grandmother, who didn't speak English. He recalls sitting with her for hours folding mandu, a kind of Korean dumpling.

"If you serve me bad mandu casually, that's very offensive to me," Cho said. "Maybe if you understand that, you can even make it better."


The Iggy Azaleas of Food

Ultimately, this isn't about who is allowed to cook what food. Like so many different narratives that are playing out in America right now, this is just another story about privilege: who has it, and how those who have it should use it.

At the end of the day, chefs should cook whatever kind of food they love to cook, and they should do it with all of the passion, skill, and technique they can muster. But, as Juhu Beach Club's Mistry pointed out, white chefs in particular should also be willing to engage their critics and speak to why they've chosen to focus on a certain cuisine or why they've decided to prepare a dish a certain way.

"Since when did 'white' become a pejorative term? You are. You get a lot of privilege from it. In this instance, you'll have to talk about it — plain and simple," she said.

Mistry acknowledged that, even as a queer chef and an immigrant kid, she too benefits from privilege: "Embody that in how you run your business — how you hire, what neighborhood you're in, what your price point is."

In the meantime, those of us who write about food for a living should perhaps think a little bit harder before we declare some fine-dining chef's passion project to be the best Mexican (or Japanese or Chinese) restaurant we've ever been to. And everyone should make sure that there is a certain amount of respect paid to those who have come before us — to the generations of cooks who made a cuisine what it is before today's chefs started riffing on it.

In Mistry's view, at least, the chefs at Ramen Shop really do embody that kind of respectful attitude toward their adopted cuisine — a reverence for the techniques and sensibilities of Japanese culinary culture, even if some of the dishes the restaurant serves can only very loosely be described as Japanese. But she said other chefs take a more "Columbus-y" approach and then bristle when they're called out on it.

"It's very Iggy Azalea," Mistry said, alluding to the Australian rapper who has been accused of co-opting Black hip-hop culture and not having a particularly nuanced understanding of American race relations. "Have respect for the history and heritage — especially when you're a privileged person cooking a cuisine of a historically oppressed people."

Then there is the matter of how successful chefs use the platform that they've been given. Or, as Mistry put it: "When you come up, you bring others with you. That's a tenet of being."

click to enlarge The Half Orange’s Jay Porter collaborates with neighboring businesses in the Fruitvale. - BERT JOHNSON/FILE
  • Bert Johnson/File
  • The Half Orange’s Jay Porter collaborates with neighboring businesses in the Fruitvale.

One thing that stands out about The Half Orange's Porter is that, at least on social media and his personal blog, he very rarely talks up his knowledge of Mexican food culture as a way to drive business to his own restaurant. Instead, he constantly shines a light on the immigrant-run mom-and-pop businesses in the Fruitvale, who are ostensibly his competitors. It was through one of Porter's tweets that this critic first learned about Taqueria El Paisa@.com, which Porter asserted serves the most delicious tacos he's eaten in California. He also collaborated with one of his neighbors in Fruitvale, the Mexican ice cream shop Nieves Cinco de Mayo, whose owner, Luis Abundis, created all of the desserts for Salsipuedes. And he said nothing makes him happier than when he sees customers at his restaurant wander over after their meal to buy a churro from the cart parked outside.

"Whatever kind of food we're doing or whatever our background is, everything is going to be a better experience for everybody if we include our influences and our neighbors," Porter said.

When asked about Comal's success, Gandin stressed that the restaurant has never made any claims that it's serving "cleaned up" or more "refined" Mexican food. Then, he started talking about how not enough is said about the collaborative aspect of a restaurant — how one of his cooks in particular, a hard-working Jalisco native named Martín Blas, had contributed to the development of certain recipes.

Given how crucial Blas' role has been, and all of the articles that have been written about Comal, why hadn't we heard about him before?

In an email, Uong explained that executive chefs tend to be the ones who get all the credit in the restaurant industry as a whole. "The fact that kitchen staff don't get a lot of visibility in the front of house isn't unusual, nor does it indicate that they aren't valued," she wrote.

This is a fair point. But it seems like it might behoove restaurants that have non-native chefs, and that lean heavily on the deep-rooted, traditional knowledge of the immigrant cooks on staff, to find ways to shine more of a spotlight on those cooks — whether it be through pop-ups or other kinds of opportunities.

Dominica Rice-Cisneros, the Mexican-American chef-owner of Cosecha (and yet another Chez Panisse alum), said she understands that, for magazines such as Sunset and Food & Wine, there's real appeal to running a big photo spread of some blonde surfer dude who cooks Mexican food. But she said what she looks for when she visits a white-owned Mexican restaurant is whether there are Latinos in high-profile, upper-management positions — "not just the part-time prep cooks," Rice-Cisneros said.

Moore, on the other hand, said he only hopes that The Kebabery might act as a kind of gateway for the type of customer who will drive out of their way to dine at a Russell Moore restaurant, but might never set foot in any of the Bay Area's many excellent traditional kebab restaurants.

"You're crazy if you live in Oakland and you don't try the Middle Eastern restaurants, Asian restaurants, or Mexican and Latin-American restaurants," he said.

"That's most of the good food in the area."


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