Chef/TV host/restaurateur Andrew Zimmern kicked off a shitstorm last week, following comments he made in a Fast Company interview that suggested his new Minneapolis restaurant Lucky Cricket would serve as a necessary interpreter of Chinese food for Midwesterners. “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,” Zimmern told Fast Co.’s Mark Wilson, a statement that discredited regional Chinese-American food, glossed over the racist, exclusionary policies of the 19th and 20th centuries that would have shaped that cuisine, and presupposed ignorance among Midwestern diners.
Elsewhere in the interview, Zimmern addressed a direct question about appropriation — “How does a white guy make a Chinese restaurant in Minneapolis that... doesn’t feel like it’s other-ing the culture?” — by calling into question Shanghai-born restaurateur Philip Chiang’s authority to sell an “Americanized” version of Chinese cuisine. “Was P.F. Chang’s not a ripoff because Cecilia Chiang’s kid owned it?” Zimmern asked in his answer. “Because, despite how he looks on the outside, he’s a rich, American kid on the inside, right?” The comment — and Zimmern’s later clarification to Eater that “by the time PFC opened the family was as ‘American’ as I am in a sense” — assumes knowledge of and erases Chiang’s experiences living as a person of color in America.
Many in the Asian-American community called out Zimmern on Twitter, describing his comments as “colonizing and condescending” and “entitled,” among other takes. Today, Zimmern issued an apology on his Facebook page. In it, he writes that “it was never my intention to set myself up as the arbiter of quality Chinese or Chinese American food or culture.” The apology reads, in part:
Let me start by saying most importantly how awful I feel and how sorry I am for my recent remarks. I am completely responsible for what I said and I want to apologize to anyone who was offended or hurt by those sound bites. Food should be for everyone, and yet culturally there is a terrible and centuries old history of white people profiting off of other cultures, in food, music, and elsewhere. The upset that is felt in the Chinese American community is reasonable, legitimate and understandable, and I regret that I have been the one to cause it. That is the very last thing I would ever want to do. And in this case neither intentions nor context matter. Feelings matter.
In his apology, Zimmern also argues that “some of my words and point of view were taken out of context in a video segment, and a few subsequent editorial commentaries about that interview,” despite the fact that his comments about appropriation were in response to a question about appropriation. (When reached for comment, Wilson says that Zimmern was “generous” in his willingness to have that conversation, and that the segment reflects the conversation as it unfolded.)
“Personally, I think you can cook whatever food you want, but the way you market your restaurant and sell the ‘experience’ is another story,” Ruth Tam wrote in the Washington Post, following Zimmern’s comments. “At the very least, don’t insult the restaurants, chefs and diners that laid the groundwork for your business plan. Own your role in the great American food story, and in true Chinese tradition, honor the past as you look forward.”
Zimmern still has some work to do, it seems. As Eater NY editor Serena Dai points out, his apology also comes with the statement that: “I have championed Chinese-American culture and cooking for decades, and tried to do the same with establishing the importance of Italian American, Chilango, and Tex-Mex cultures. I have made a career of making invisible communities, cultures, tribes and businesses visible.” In those lines, Zimmern asserts his role as an arbiter and once again, calls into question his default framing — “invisible” to whom?
• Andrew Zimmern [Facebook]
• Andrew Zimmern on Addiction, Cotton Candy, and Cultural Appropriation [FastCo]