When American Chefs Cook Immigrant Food
If you read Francis Lam's story for the New York Times last week, maybe you thought about it for a few minutes: why do American-raised chefs who learn to cook the food of immigrant cultures often become so much more successful than the immigrants themselves?
It's a very interesting question. I don't know the answer (or that there's just one?), but as an immigrant, and a food lover, I'm really happy to see the question make headlines. There's an interesting followup conversation between Lam and Eddie Huang today on Gilt Taste (where I used to work).
Huang is the son of a Taiwanese immigrant restaurant family, and the chef/owner of Baohaus. Lam, who clearly has a lot of respect for the American-raised chefs he wrote about, is also the son of Chinese immigrants. Check out their conversation. It's provocative:
On the awkwardness of an American chef cooking another immigrant's cuisine:
to have these CIA grads come through, repackage the food, and sell it back to me at a premium is just ludicrous. You made fun of us until we were embarrassed about our food and changed our menus to appease your HORRIBLE taste in shrimp with lobster sauce, now your kid grows up and wants to tell ME what Chinese food is because Bear Stearns sent him to Shanghai for six months? - Huang
On the sincerity of an American chef cooking another immigrant's cuisine:
People should treat restaurants like college. In NYC Thai food, Sripraphai should be the survey course everyone takes and Andy Ricker is 200 level, then Professor Harold Dieterle at Kin Shop is a 300 level creative writing course. - Huang
The reason I didn't "hammer" anyone in the story is that the issues are more structural: the way the media covers things, the way the media's audience is always looking for "new" and "creative", that everything has to be about novelty, the way customers demand stuff they don't even understand. - Lam
On 'claiming' immigrant food as American -- Huang and Lam disagree about this:
The food's not American, Francis. It has roots elsewhere. It's entirely unfair to claim it for America. That's happened to us way too many times. - Huang
That's interesting. I think I see the fundamental difference in our thinking here... Because my concern is the opposite: that the term "American" has been denied to people too many times. - Lam