Why can't I just cook what I want an like?
and other common sentiments in the food industry, examined
"Why Can't I Just Cook What I Want And Like?"
In an equal world, everyone would be able to do just this. However, that is not the reality of our current times. There are two major hurdles that stand in the way of everyone “cooking what they like”: equity of access & proper representation.
Right now, we do not have systems allowing equitable access to social, economic, and political capital. Only privileged segments of the population — often affluent white men — can feasibly start a food business, acquire press & media support, and be rewarded (especially financially) for their work.
So when these individuals consciously decide to utilize the foods of another culture, particularly if it is from a marginalized group, to reap a level of success & profit that is either unattainable or far more difficult to obtain for the people from that group, it is absolutely deserved of additional scrutiny.
This is not to say everyone can only cook foods from their specific backgrounds, but it does mean there are important questions we need to be asking:
1/ Why is this person the right person to be disseminating their interpretation of this cuisine? (Authenticity is a myth. All chefs interpret at some level, so what makes this person’s contributions unique & additive?)
2/ Is this person paying respect to, and representing properly, the ideas / flavors / principles of the cuisines they are drawing upon? (If a consumer is interacting with this ingredient/dish/cuisine for the first time, are they receiving an education that is helpful or harmful?)
*This is usually where appropriation comes into the conversation.
3/ If this person is profiting from the cuisine of a certain group of people, how are they uplifting that community so everyone in it has improved access to opportunities in the future? (Just “making X cuisine more mainstream” is not good enough — that’s white saviorism.)
Unbalanced & improper representation are also rooted in unequal access. Because the majority of gatekeepers in the food industry are also affluent white men, their biases, preferences, and prejudices naturally shine through. Because there are not enough BIPOC to challenge these stances, the opinions of a privileged few become the baseline assumptions of certain cuisines, cultures (and in effect, people) adopted by the masses.
For example: it’s widely understood the “ethnic” descriptor does not refer to foods from W. Europe, and there is a corresponding correlation between “ethnic” and “cheap”. Why is that?
Additionally, the areas in which these people lack knowledge are often painted as unimportant, versus being recognized as gaps in understanding.
For example: the regionality of cuisine is often downplayed (or ignored) for countries outside of the U.S. & W. Europe in exchange for a “simpler” understanding of, say, Vietnamese, Mexican, or “African” (which, btw, is a continent) food.
Even if you did not directly contribute to / are not directly responsible for these two major issues, you can still benefit from the current system.
Until everyone is able to realize their potential equally in our food industry, you do not receive an exemption from having to reckon with our collective problem where only certain voices, foods, and cultures are elevated.
Now, for the questions & statements that inevitably follow this kind of conversation...
“So, I can only cook food from the culture I’m from?”
No. That would be limiting and counterproductive. However, if you desire to cook food & represent a culture outside your own, especially if it is of a marginalized group, it is then your responsibility to be aware of the larger factors relating to that cuisine, culture, and people. Additionally, you should be actively working towards helping that community achieve equity in our society.
If this feels like “too big” of a requirement, ask yourself why you feel entitled to ownership over (and ability to profit off) an aspect of someone else's culture when they themselves are unable to.
Remember, there is also a difference between using some ingredients / flavors / techniques occasionally vs. asserting expertise over a cuisine. The former necessitates introduction, attribution, education; the latter requires all of the above and asking yourself the question: why you?
“Why does it matter who cooks/writes/teaches food if they are an expert and/or do a good job?”
What defines an “expert”? Often, terms giving someone power & recognition are based on structures of oppression, and must be examined.
For example, many culinary schools hold a PoV that reinforces the superiority of Western gastronomy & ignores the sociopolitical aspects of food. Do we accept instructors who gloss over non-European cuisines & food history as total experts?
Places like CIA cost ~$50K/year, and grant its students a veneer of “expertise” upon graduation. Is our perception of expertise simply pay-to-play?
Also, what exactly dictates a “good job”? Is “good” dictated by mass appeal? Or does “good” mean challenging existing norms & demanding intellectual rigor? Whose definition of “good” are you embracing as the standard?
“Isn’t all food fusion? So why does it matter who is cooking what?”
(Almost) all food is fusion, yes, but not all fusion is equal. Some foods have evolved through migration patterns over time, or developed through trading routes, while others have changed under instances of colonialism, imperialism, and war.
The results of these past interactions still play out today. Therefore, we must incorporate levels of nuance in how we as chefs educate, frame, and present food. Thoughtful representation requires understanding how food, power, and change intersect — which is why it matters who cooks what. To honor a subject we must also be cognizant of how our own actions will affect its future.
Food does not owe us “approachability” or ease of access. We are liable for the hard work of learning & unraveling its significance on our society if we are to proclaim food to be our craft, and ourselves as its representatives.
“Food shouldn’t be so political. Food is supposed to bring us together.”
Food is a basic necessity for human beings, and therefore has always been utilized as means of control & reinforcing privilege. (Please refer to my previous post Yes, Food Is Political for a more thorough exploration of this.)
Reducing food into an idea of “breaking bread together” for instantaneous inter-group unity minimizes the incredible harm food can (and has) inflicted, especially when done for the benefit of the dominant group. This surrenders the power of food to affect change to those already in control; now when food is used to oppress, we’ve built a wall of cognitive dissonance to ignore it (and gaslight those who rightfully call it out).
Instead, we need to embrace food as a complex & ever-changing system of relationships that can be engineered for a better future for everyone.
Stay Tuned for Part Two
“I am a [insert marginalized identity] in the food industry and I have achieved success, so why can’t others just suck it up?”
“I didn’t have [good pay/benefits/etc.] when I was coming up in the food industry, why is everyone now complaining?”
“Kitchen culture is tough for a reason. Those who can’t deal with it shouldn’t be there.”
“This is just how the restaurant model is. If you don't like it, you can get out of the industry.”