Food, Race, and Power: Who gets to be an authority on 'ethnic' cuisines?

by Lorraine Chuen

Some of us will remember when Bon Appetit Magazine caused an uproar last September for publishing an article and video featuring Tyler Akin, a white chef, titled “PSA: This is How You Should Be Eating Pho”. The backlash, in my opinion, was justified: that a white chef should be considered an authority on how food from other cultures is consumed is both absurd and worthy of outrage. But the reality is, Akin is far from being the first chef to tell racialized folks how to eat their food.  

For instance, simply take a glance at a few critically acclaimed chefs/food writers and their online biographies, and you’ll learn that Fuchsia Dunlop, Nina Simonds, and Carolyn Phillips (among many others) have all made a career out of specializing in Chinese cuisine, despite their whiteness. You don’t need to read closely to quickly learn that they love calling themselves authorities on the food of others. According to her website, Nina Simonds is ‘one of the country’s top authorities on Asian cooking.’ Fuschia Dunlop tops Nina - her website includes a quote saying that she is a world authority on Chinese cooking’.

It’s not just Chinese food. Most foodies have likely heard of Rick Bayless. After spending four years travelling through Mexico to study their culinary traditions and ‘test recipes’, Bayless returned to America to build a culinary empire.  Bayless has since published several cookbooks, owns many critically acclaimed restaurants, and is on the eleventh season of his own television show (“Mexico: One Plate at a Time”), all focusing on traditional Mexican cuisine.  

I do not doubt that these people are talented chefs. But what irks me is that many will argue that they deserve the title of ‘authority’, and that despite their whiteness, they are hardly foreigners. After all, many of these chefs have years of classical training (or personal study) in the countries they specialize in. They’ve learned the language! They know the people! They’ve immersed themselves in the culture! They’ve studied the craft! How positively adventurous! How very admirable!  But here’s the thing: my parents—and every other immigrant—moved to a new country and learned the language, got to know the people, adopted their way of life, simply because they were forced to, and not because it was fun or exotic or interesting or something that they were curious or passionate about. How come we don’t see swaths of immigrants being publicly lauded for culturally assimilating?

It’s only special when White people do it, I guess.

I also want to draw attention to the entrepreneurial food world, where we encounter Lee’s Ghee, the ghee business launched by former model Lee Dares. Ghee has always been used in Indian cooking, but when the white Dares packages it up in a jar and dresses it up in ‘used saris’, it becomes artisanal, something for foodies to enjoy, perhaps the next big thing to spread on bread, like avocado-toast. In one article, Dares briefly attributes her success to the wisdom and tutelage of ‘elderly Indian women’ whom she met on a seven week internship in India, but of course, they aren’t the stars or the ones profiting from her business. The ‘elderly Indian ladies’ are just name-dropped to make the product seem more ‘authentic’ (but not really name-dropped, even, since of course, they’re never given names).

At this point, it may seem like I am cherry-picking, merely basing my observations off a few anecdotes. Anticipating this, I wondered if it would be possible to quantify the extent to which white chefs consider themselves authority figures on the cuisines of other cultures. To do so, I scraped recipes from the New York Times Cooking online recipes collection, which is a searchable database containing over 17,000 recipes with an enormously wide reach - the NYTFood Twitter account has over 1.25 million followers. Each recipe from the database is given a number of tags to make it searchable; and many of these recipes have tags that flag the ‘ethnicity’ of the cuisine.  If you filter your search results to Chinese cuisine, for example, you’ll get a compilation of over 260 recipes.

I wanted to know: just how many of these Chinese recipes were authored by Chinese chefs or food writers? Indian recipes by Indian chefs? Caribbean recipes by Caribbean food writers? Who is getting paid to write these recipes, and who is given a platform to share them? Ultimately, who is given the opportunity to write about how these dishes should be cooked? 

If we have learned anything from Lee Dares, Fuschia Dunlop, and Rick Bayless, the answer is somehow both outlandish and wildly predictable: overwhelmingly, white people.

(Update: To clarify, note that the variable for "author" here was taken as the author listed under the by-line. Sometimes the recipe is taken from a different source - i.e. not originally by the by-line author, who is writing about the dish more generally. See the methodological notes section for more details**)

Of the 263 entries under the “Chinese” recipe filter, almost 90% have White people listed as author in the byline. For instance, ‘Vegetarian Mapo Tofu’ is by David Tanis, a professional chef who doesn’t appear to specialize in any ethnic cuisine but authors several of the recipes in this category.  Only 10% of the recipes are authored by Chinese writers (and these recipes are authored by the same 5 Chinese people: Gish Jen, Ken Hom, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, Elaine Louie, and Joyce Howe).

Dishes listed as “Indian” on the website (of which there are 216) are no better.  Less than 5% of the recipes are authored by Indian writers, and 90% are by White people.

There are 86 dishes listed as “Vietnamese” (11 of which are some interpretation of pho, including: vegan pho, vegetarian pho, turkey pho). 95% of these dishes are catalogued as authored by White people. 

While Asian cuisines are broken down into individual countries, Africa is treated as a monolith, with all 73 recipes affiliated with the continent listed under one filter in the database. The authors are overwhelmingly (84%) White - although some recipes are authored by Frances Lam, who is Chinese. Only one author has East African roots and only one other is Black. 

Caribbean countries are also all lumped into one category, with only one of the recipe authors from Puerto Rico.  On the contrary, fifteen of the 102 recipes listed are authored by Daisann Mclane, a white woman whose website homepage banner features a photograph of her in the middle of a crowd of black folks, paired with a tagline that describes her as someone who likes to  dive "deep into cultures, music, food and places".

There are many more types of cuisines listed on the database, but looking at the handful surveyed, the trend is obvious: it's White people, not racialized folks, who are considered the experts on how to cook non-Western dishes. 

The amount of power that White people hold continues to both amaze and disturb me. White folks have the power to tease, torment, and mock (this food smells like poo, they’ll tell you, or perhaps: your lunch looks like worms, or maybe, simply: that’s disgusting, with a pinch of their nose). I spent an entire childhood lying about my favorite foods and being embarrassed about bringing noodles to school for lunch because of the casual racism that White folks learn apparently as early as middle school. White adults are no better: I recently had a coworker tell me, over dim sum, that chopsticks were the laziest eating utensil ever invented (whatever that even means).

White folks have the power to torment, often without consequence; but the special thing about White people is that they also have the power to make a trip to your home country for a month or maybe twelve, get inspired, and dictate when your previously unpalatable dishes suddenly become socially acceptable, trendy, and profitable in the Western world. And inevitably, with the popularization of certain ethnic dishes, comes erasure. I can’t help but wonder, what becomes of dishes when they are prepared for the white gaze - or in this case, white palate? What remains of food, after it’s been decontextualized? What are flavours without stories? What are recipes without histories? Why are people of colour forgotten, over and over again, while their food (also: vocabulary, music, art, hair, clothing) are consumed and adopted?

For me, a savoury tea egg will always remind me of my yai yai, who used to cook them in batches when my family visited his and my grandma’s apartment in Scarborough. Congee will always remind me of Sunday morning breakfasts with my dad. Pork chops with tomato sauce smothered on a bed of fried rice will always remind me of my mom’s recreation of a Hong Kong style cafe classic. Though I’ve only been to Hong Kong once and grew up in one of the whitest and smallest towns in Southern Ontario, my family’s home cooking was always a way for me to feel closer to ‘home’—a forever nebulous concept for many diaspora kids. I may be the furthest thing from being an expert on Chinese cuisine by the standards of Dunlop or Simonds, but food has been entrenched in my identity for as long as I can remember.

When I look at the repertoire of work that White chefs and restaurateurs have built on ethnic cuisine, it feels in a way, dehumanizing. White people are able to establish outrageously successful careers for being experts and authorities on the stuff that racialized folks do every day simply by existing. But of course, people of colour will rarely, if ever, be called experts on how to simply be themselves. It’s as if racialized folks and their ways of life are objects to be observed—study material, of sorts—rather than entire countries, cultures, and individual complex lives.

So I hope that any ‘foodies’ reading this can start giving credit where credit is due. I hope that any foodies reading this can stop erasing people of colour. I hope any foodies reading this will support food blogs and cookbooks written by POCs. I hope they’ll make a conscious effort to give their business to family-owned or POC-owned restaurants, rather than the newest trendy White-owned joint specializing in ethnic fare. And I hope the Cooking section of the New York Times starts publishing more people of colour.

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*Methodological Notes: Data on race and ethnicity was interpreted and coded manually and is therefore subject to human error.  Although race and ethnicity are related but separate characteristics, for the purpose of this investigation they are grouped under one variable. When specific information was offered online about the writer’s ethnicity (e.g. Chinese), that was coded in the data, but in most cases, the variable is coded under race (e.g. White). I recognize that the subjective nature of these methods is an inherent limitation of this sort of work, but the data set is publicly available at this link, and I encourage others to notify me at lorrainechuen[at]gmail[dot]com if they find errors in coding. I will happily update the dataset and visualizations. Thanks! 

**Methodological Notes, Part 2 (update to original post): I should clarify that the recipe author variable was taken as the author listed under the by-line of the recipe.  In some cases, the original author of the recipe is not the author listed under the by-line.  For example, the Chicken Congee entry is "written by" Sara Bonisteel, but the recipe is taken from a cookbook by Fuschia Dunlop. When this occurs, it's usually because the by-line author is writing an introduction to the recipe. This alters how the results could be interpreted: in some cases the by-line author is a different ethnicity than the author of the original recipe, and I hope to work on a second round of analyses that takes this into consideration.

Nevertheless, the by-line author is the name a reader/user sees when browsing the recipes collection, is the name we tend to attribute the recipe to, and ultimately, they are still the ones writing about the dish for the New York Times.  All in all, this raises interesting questions around ownership (if not authority), as well as a conversation around copyright and food. If you'd like to collaborate further on this or have any thoughts on the issue - please drop me a note!