It’s never been easier for us to venture out of our native cuisines when cooking and pull inspiration from another culture’s foodways. But as writer Navneet Alang pointed out in Eater, for professionals, it’s a luxury most commonly reserved for white chefs and recipe developers.
They are the ones who are granted the freedom to cook from a “global pantry” of ingredients, and often find viral success for turning ingredients like turmeric, tahini, and gochujang into a “trend” — without necessarily paying homage to the ingredients’ roots. Meanwhile, chefs of color are often limited by what diners expect their food to look like and feel the consequences when they don’t live up to those expectations.
To reflect on this disparity and the many complicated issues around representation in food, we invited Alang into conversation along with chefs Sohla El-Waylly and Aaron Stewart, two pros who cook a wide variety of dishes with diverse origins that aren’t all necessarily “theirs,” at least by some onlookers’ standards.
Below you’ll find excerpts from their conversation, which took place as part of our Eater Talks series and was moderated by Eater staff writer Elazar Sontag, as well as a full recording of the panel.
For chefs of color, people’s assumptions about their food expertise is rooted in assumptions about their identities.
Navneet Alang: “As a writer rather than a cook, when I’m talking about food from my own culture — which would be Punjabi/North Indian culture — I can talk about it a bit more authoritatively. There’s a sense of legitimacy that comes from it, even though I was born in London and grew up in Canada. I still feel like I have this authority that doesn’t translate when I talk about say, Korean cuisine or Mexican cuisine.”
Sohla El-Waylly: “Up until very recently, everywhere I’ve worked, they just wanted me to make brown food. Which was really confusing to me because I actually don’t have a lot of experience cooking that kind of food. I grew up eating it, but I was trained in French cuisine and I worked in an Italian restaurant and I never really saw myself that way; so it was in food media where I first felt very brown. I’m finally having the opportunity to learn about what food I really care about because I’m not just creating the food that people think I should be good at.”
Aaron Stewart: “I think now I’m three years into the business [of cooking Mexican food as a Black chef], it’s getting a lot easier, but in the beginning it was very challenging because people have their perceptions of how things should be. So when they see a Black guy with food, a lot of them — 9 out of 10 — think I’m just doing barbecue. And the Mexicans who come in that find me with Mexican food are iffy too. There was this weird tension from both sides.
I didn’t see anything wrong with it, because these are the people I grew up with and the Mexican culture was always a part of my life; so I didn’t think twice until I started doing it and I had to explain myself to people. I always had faith in what I was doing was right and that it was coming from a right place, I just needed to interpret that to everyone else so maybe they could see where I’m coming from.”
Where cuisine ownership — what is “your food” — starts and ends isn’t as clear as some would assume.
Alang: “The most obvious way [to establish authority of a certain cuisine] is to connect it to an ethnic or racial identity. [But] I also feel that is both the upside of talking about cultural appropriation but there’s also a risk in that. I think linking culture to your body and your skin color is something that doesn’t make a lot of sense. For someone like myself, who has grown up in the West but is of Indian heritage, the question of which is my culture is one that doesn’t have a neat answer. The question of who own’s what is a bit fuzzier perhaps than we’d like to acknowledge sometimes.”
Stewart: “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to figure out in my days as being a chef and trying to create something of my own as me being African American, and [answering] what is my culture in food. I grew up in America and this is what I know, so for somebody to tell me that I should stick to barbecue, which isn’t just an African American thing...
I believe that once you put your own experience, your own flavor profile, or your own heart into whatever you’re cooking, then that becomes yours. It’s one thing to just cook Asian food or Bengali food... but once I start putting my experience and my taste into that, I think it becomes mine. Yes, you have to learn how to respect and pay homage to what you’re gathering from. But once you start putting your own into it, it becomes your own.”
El-Waylly: “People see that I’m brown, and so I should know everything about brown food and that’s ‘my food.’ But I think that’s the food that I feel the least attached to, because I grew up in America, in LA, so I grew up eating a lot of Mexican food and Filipino food and Vietnamese food, and I too really like hot dogs for the Fourth of July and things like that. So it’s tough when people link your food to your ethnicity, because I think it’s more complicated than that. I think it’s about the food you grew up with, which I don’t think necessarily is the food of the way you look. It’s about the food you grew up with, the food you love, the food you know — and that doesn’t mean you can’t love and get to know other food. But it’s all about paying respect to the roots where things are coming from.”
Culinary exploration — especially when cooking for others — should be accompanied by thoughtful consideration.
Stewart: “When you’re at home, nobody is there to judge you, you’re not trying to profit, and you’re enjoying cooking in your own home — which to me, the rules are off there. You’re cooking, you’re learning, you’re trying different things and the home is where it all starts for a lot of cooks and writers. But once you step outside that place, there’s different rules.”
Sohla: “There’s a difference between cooking at home for yourself versus people like us who are cooking and writing for the public. At home, you should do whatever the hell you want to do. But we [professionals] have a responsibility because we’re influencing a lot of people with our recipes and our words. So I think it’s about putting context behind things, not just taking za’atar and throwing it on a pizza and not explaining how, ‘Hey, this is like manakish, this comes from somewhere.’ I think that’s when it goes to appropriating and not just appreciation.”
Alang: “I’ve always said the same thing: that in your own home you should cook whatever you want. But I’m wondering maybe there’s a difference between the things you cook for yourself and the things that you cook for other people. Only because I’m imaging the context of having a dinner party or something like that where you invite friends over and I think it’s very easy in that kind of situation to slip into the kind of exoticization to be like, ‘We’re going to take a trip to the tropics!’ I hate the idea of telling someone that you shouldn’t do what you want in your own home, but maybe there is sometimes a risk of perpetuating the kind of exoticization of ‘foreign’ foods when you cook for other people rather than when you cook for yourself.”
Watch the entire panel conversation: