Lucky Cricket, Andrew Zimmern’s first full-service restaurant project since becoming a television personality, opened yesterday in a mall in the Minneapolis suburbs, serving an expansive Chinese menu that touches on Sichuan, Xi’an, and Hong Kong cuisine. As Zimmern told Fast Company in a long video interview that ran today, he worried that the community “wouldn’t get” the kind of personal takes on Chinese cuisine seen at big-city restaurants like Mister Jiu’s and Mission Chinese, both helmed by chefs of Asian-American descent, but he wants them to: “So what I have to do is I have to introduce them to hot chile oil, and introduce them to a hand-cut noodle, and introduce them to a real roast duck.”
Zimmern opened Lucky Cricket with the explicit goal of starting a chain, with “putting 200 restaurants across Middle America” being the dream. “I think I’m saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horseshit restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest,” he says, implying that Chinese-American restaurants throughout the region are somehow illegitimate. (The statement also ignores the culinary output of the Hmong community in and around the Twin Cities — which Zimmern himself has highlighted before.)
So what is Andrew Zimmern — the award-winning, Minneapolis-based star of the Bizarre Foods television juggernaut, famous for trying anything with a smile and for encouraging others to do the same — doing opening a chain of Chinese restaurants? That’s the question not just at the heart of the Fast Company interview, but also one that’s currently at the center of the conversation about culinary appropriation in American food: Who gets to represent whose food, and to what audience?
It’s a question that Zimmern’s not as sensitive at navigating as one might expect from someone whose career has been about sharing and exchange. In the interview, Zimmern simultaneously denigrates Philip Chiang, the co-founder of the P.F. Chang’s juggernaut (though Chiang is no longer involved with the casual chain), and elevates himself to the position of being the person capable of opening Middle America’s eyes to the myriad regional cuisines of a vast, diverse culture. “I mean, was P.F. Chang’s not a ripoff because Cecilia Chiang’s kid owned it?” Zimmern asks Fast Company’s Mark Wilson. “Because, despite how he looks on the outside, he’s a rich, American kid on the inside, right?”
With one glib comment, Zimmern basically erases Chiang’s experience of race in America because he was from a rich family. (His mother, Cecilia Chiang, is a legendary culinary figure credited with broadly introducing San Francisco, and America, to traditional Chinese regional cooking through her restaurants and book.) Calling Chiang’s cultural purity into question in order to give his own work on Lucky Cricket a pass is deeply misguided, if not outrageously offensive.
When asked to clarify his comments about Philip Chiang, Zimmern told Eater via email: “My point was simple. Michael White is one of the best Italian cooks in world, just because he is from Wisconsin doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be able to open an Italian restaurant if he so desires. Same with Bayless and Mexican food. I think P.F. Chang’s was a great example, that family had the name and the cultural background, and were great restaurant people, still are. But by the time PFC opened the family was as ‘American’ as I am in a sense. It was a vague metaphor but I hope people got my point. I guess not entirely clear. And this question of ‘who gets to cook what’ is one we all have to consider. It’s an important one.”
Opening a chain is nothing new for Zimmern, whose other recent food projects have been focused on scale, like the stadium concession stands he’s launched under his AZ Canteen brand. He tells Fast Company of Lucky Cricket, “I’m going to pursue the big marketing idea and try to put 200 of them around because I have a lot of ambition from a business model standpoint.”
Highlighting Zimmern’s “introductory” approach, Lucky Cricket serves everything from Sichuan-inspired toothpick lamb to hand-torn Xi’an-style noodles. There are also fusion-y riffs, like a shu mai burger and a chicken-and-waffles entree featuring Hong Kong-style bubble waffles and Shanghai-style fried chicken, which Zimmern has created with “chef consultant” Alex Ong, the Malaysia-born chef known best for his tenure as the helm of at the late, great Betelnut in San Francisco. There, Ong served a menu of Asian street foods, but leaned heavily into Chinese cooking. (Ong counts P.F. Chang’s and Kikkoman USA as past clients as well.)
TL;DR: Lucky Cricket is basically Andrew Zimmern’s corporate sit-down restaurant, Applebee’s but with pork dumplings and dan dan noodles. P.F. Chang’s, but good. In comparing Lucky Cricket to P.F. Chang’s — and, more specifically, asking aloud if Chiang’s Chinese heritage gave him sanction to create a “ripoff” of its cuisine — Zimmern not only makes a value judgment about authenticity, the thorniest of all thorny culinary crutch concepts, but he also makes it without questioning why he gets to pass judgement in the first place. That act of “translating” on behalf of the presumably white audience — the idea that American diners need to have something unfamiliar “made more palatable” to get them to the table — has shades of a strange, increasingly outdated form of cultural elitism.
“It’s true that this market needs that kind of thing, and it’s true that I want to do it,” Zimmern tells Fast Co. of pan-Asian-style restaurants like P.F. Chang’s and Lucky Cricket. “Does it need to happen? I think it does, I think it does. Someone else is going to do it, someone else is going to be the next P.F. Chang’s, and I don’t want ’em to blow it. And is it up to me to do it? I don’t know. I certainly think I’m in the conversation, you know? And just because I’m not Chinese, I leave that to the rest of the world to judge. But if I can get people to open up their mind one degree, just spread those blinders one degree about something new to eat from another culture, I think we… the rising tide floats all boats. Plus we have a T-shirt that says ‘Get Lucky’ in Chinese on the back.”
But there is a fundamental difference between someone deciding to translate their own heritage to a mass American market and someone translating someone else’s culture for the same end. Lucky Cricket is a white, American chef’s attempt to stuff all of China into an easily digestible experience for people who he believes won’t engage otherwise. He went pan-regional, he now tells Eater, because it’s “[m]ore accessible and more choice. Tastes in the Midwest and elsewhere would be more accepting of a variety of styles embracing a range of regions rather than doing a straight up Sichuan restaurant for example.” By inserting himself as the designated translator for what audiences want, he focuses, through his own, white lens, what gets to be culinarily or culturally significant in diners’ minds.
“If a dish hasn’t been eaten or reimagined by a white person, does it really exist?” Soleil Ho asked in her 2016 Bitch Media piece about culinary appropriation. It doesn’t at Lucky Cricket.
There’s no doubt that Zimmern is knowledgeable — as teachers go, Middle America could certainly do worse. As his show went on, Zimmern proved himself a capable cultural translator and a warm, generous interviewer and participant. But this isn’t just about spreading ideas, it’s about building a business — a “big marketing idea,” for Zimmern, not for the Chinese cooks he so admires. Zimmern’s partner in Lucky Cricket is restaurateur Michael McDermott, who founded and sold Kona Grill (an Arizona-based multi-unit chain that serves sushi and steaks, and is named for a region of Hawai‘i’s Big Island) and whose McDermott Restaurant Group owns Rojo Mexican Grill (a Minnesota-based Mexican restaurant with two locations).
As Michael Twitty put it in a piece for Eater, those with power and privilege in the food world “need to understand — and act on — the importance of forming real relationships with members of these communities, crediting them for their contributions and paying forward their collaborative successes by giving those individuals the ability to succeed through their own cooking.” As it always should, the conversation around appropriation asks us to follow the money.
“My life’s work has always been about exposing people to different cultures through food, so my goal with Lucky Cricket to take guests on a journey and showcase the authentic flavors of the Chinese foods that I love,” Zimmern says in a press release about the opening. He’s banking on (quite literally) his position as trusted culinary explorer, which allows him to be an arbiter, here, of “authentic flavors.” But where his shows brought American audiences with him to meet the people behind the foods he was fascinated by, his restaurant keeps those people out of the equation.
When asked again why he is the right person to start a megachain of Chinese restaurants, he puts it simply to Eater: “Why not? I have the skill and the will.”
Watch: Fast Company’s interview with Andrew Zimmern
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater’s restaurant editor.