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Aug 8, 2001 02:13 PM

Non-Native Cooks (moved from People of Color Cuisine)

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Buried within Jen Kalb's very insightful response on the Outer Boroughs board (see link) is an interesting observation. She writes, in part,

"But with a "successful" cuisine that goes mainstream, you start to see shortcuts, and an evolution away from the genuine. It may take a while - the thai restaurant with thai cook and chinese helpers - the chinese helpers learn enough to open their own "thai" places, maybe with mexicans in the kitchen...the chinese owned and operated mexican places..."

Regarding that last part, surely you're not saying that one must be a native in order to cook authentic cuisine of any type, even ethnic cuisine. Authenticity has to do with flavors, textures and techniques, all of which can be learned. Of course, immersion in the native culture is an ideal way of doing this (whether through growing up therein or cooking in the region of choice for an extended period of time), but I don't consider it the only way to do it. Easy examples are non-French chefs who cook French cuisine of one type or the other or someone like Norman Weinstein who dedicated himself to learning about various Chinese cuisines.

I expect your specific reference is to the enterprising folks who opened the first Fresco Tortilla chain in NYC. I have no problem with their decision to learn Tex-Mex cuisine and open their own place. And for the money, I think they do a very good job. What makes them any different from someone like Bobby Flay or any other chef who has adapted (and adopted) a cuisine from another region from where they grew up and make it accessible back home? Perhaps you're saying the danger is that people come to expect that what they see is in fact the way it is cooked in the particular region -- but as we all know, even within that region there are tons of variations (due to economic status, market conditions, etc.)

Perhaps in this day and age, authenticity is in the eye of the beholder.

Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

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  1. I concur with Abrocodabro's previous message, and would like to add my $.2. I have been noticing on these boards a trend that seems a little dangerous to me - the emergence of "ethnic puritanism" and, simultanously, a sort of snobbery about "inauthentic" (i.e., ethnically "impure") cooking. The Mad Chowhound has also made a point about ethnic restaurants being good only if they "service their own community". I beg to differ.

    A little bit of personal history first - sorry.
    I am Czech (small Central European nation of forgettable cuisine and great beer) and for all of my life until 5 years ago I ate "pure" Czech food, mostly home-cooked. I lived in Prague and although I traveled around Europe once it became possible (the Iron Curtain only came down in 1989), I didn't have the money to eat in restaurants (I was a student). So, in France I ate bread and yogurt (still pretty damn good). In Britain I ate fish and chips. Then I got a job in NYC that for the first time in my life allowed me to eat out extensively, and suddenly I was eating all these cuisines at all these restaurants... WOW. I thought I would never want to eat Czech food again.
    I've been here for five years though and every now and then, I get homesick and just crave a plate of roast pork with dumplings and cabbage, and then I head to Astoria. BUT: the restaurants there SUCK. There are currently three Czech eateries (Zlata Praha, Bohemian Hall, and Koliba - the last one is run by the ex-wife of the owner of Zlata Praha, how do you like that?) and they are not even average quality in terms of food. In fact, they are what Czech pub food was like in the 1980s - boringly prepared, none too fresh, with bad white bread... I only go there because they are the only places in NYC I can get my veproknedlozelo, but any Czech pub back home would beat these guys head-on. And guess who eats in these places: Czechs, and a few Slovaks. Who cooks? Other Czechs. They are "servicing their community", and yet they are bad. What gives?

    On the other hand, there was a restaurant on the UES called Andrusha that closed a year ago that had the best Czech and Central European food around. The cook? Mexican. The owner? Czech. Were they religious about using those "handed down for generations" (ha-ha) recipes? No, they embellished here and there and combined things my grandmother would never think of using, and yet it all worked and tasted of home and was just delicious. Thank you for listening.

    10 Replies
    1. re: Katerina

      Katerina: I''m going to provide a link to a post by Jim Leff that is almost a year old, but still very pertinent to this discussion. pat

      Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

      1. re: Pat Hammond

        Oops, I used the *wrong word* here, I see... I'm relatively new to Chowhound. I guess "non-mainstream" conveys the meaning of "ethnic" just as well, but I think the distinction is a relevant (because a real) one. Don't you think?

        1. re: Katerina

          No, no! You used NO wrong words! And of course what you said, and very well, is relevant. Welcome to Chowhound, by the way. I enjoyed your post very much. pat

          1. re: Pat Hammond

            Hi Pat -- I concur, I thought Katerina's post was right on point and very well said. I share her confusion though about the use of the word ethnic. Guess I haven't been around long enough to know how it's been "defined" on chowhound. I've always used it rather loosely myself, to mean something a little different than the standard dictionary definition of relating to a group of people not Christian or Jewish. Not quite Katarina's suggested alternative of non-mainstream, but something close -- maybe relating to a group of people that do not constitute the majority in the U.S.?

            Reading Jim's post, I get the sense that he was addressing a perceived pejorative association that the high-brow culinary elite had assigned to "ethnic" food. Can you shed some light on this whole thing in a quick post for this newbie, or should I just wade my way slowly through all of the past posts?

            Thanks, Dennison

            1. re: Dennison

              Here's my point of view: Lots of people use the word "ethnic" around here. I usually understand what they mean. But the word that resonates what chowhound is about for me, is "deliciousness". Is it delicious or is it not? And there can be long semantic discussions about it, but I think it's as simple as that. Is it delicious?

              The word "ethnic" has carried with it certain connotations. I think, and hope, that is becoming less true. That everything is ethnic, is true. So the word tends to lose it's meaning. This isn't a scholarly tretise, and you deserve better. But this is the best I can do!! pat

              1. re: pat hammond

                Hi Pat -- Great answer, thanks a lot! It cuts through the intellectual muck and endless semantic oneupmanship batter to get right at the main point about our meals -- do we want to eat it and does it make us happy? Glad this place exists to help me find new places to try out! BTW, I do appreciate your patience and willingness to help. :-)


                1. re: Dennison

                  My pleasure! pat

                  1. re: pat hammond

                    Talk about distinctions without differences. Ich bin ein ethniker. Nous sommes tous les ethniques. Ichiban ethnik-sans. Yet in talking about the joys of food ... good food ... a lot of good food, we do need some shorthand descriptors to separate the sheep from the goats.

                    Maybe in today's restaurant environment we can think in terms of (shudder) traditional cooking as opposed to (gasp) fusion cuisine. Regardless of who is doing the cooking or how well they are doing it, if a restaurant is attempting to follow recipes and cooking styles originally indigenous to a country or region, say, Guatemala, then it's traditional. If the restaurant is offering hamachi bernaise, then it's fusion.

                    The chow rules. If it's delicious, labels are unimportant. In hounds-talk, however, labels can and should provide some commonly understood guidance.

              2. re: Dennison

                My take on words like "ethnic" and "tribal" is that they are generally used to describe people other than whoever is talking, in a somewhat similar manner that one would say "You have an accent" to someone whose accent is different from one's own. The fact is that all of us are "ethnic" or/and "tribal," and all of us "have an accent."

        2. re: Katerina
          Dave Feldman


          I loved your post, Katerina.

          The word "ethnic" might be important in your context. Maybe these substandard Czech restaurants survived not because the food was hyper-delicious, but because it was a place for Czechs to commune with each other, to remind themselves of their homeland?

          I envy you your opportuntity to experience so many new cuisines in a short period of time -- it must be very exciting.

        3. You make many good points.

          I would never claim that you have to be a native to cook the cuisine - nor is being a native or of a particular ethnicity any guarantee that you can cook that cuisine or show any creativity within its traditions. There are a lot of bad indian restaurants with indian chefs and owners, bad chinese takeouts, bad taquerias with mexican cooks,etc etc etc.

          There are also wonderful restaurants where the cooks hardly learned the cuisine at their mothers knees.Katerina gives a great example of this last -the Czech owned place with cooks of a different ethnicity. Obviously, that owner has imprinted a Czech culinary sensibility on those cooks in the training - there is something in the ingredients, techniques, combinations, some quality that the owner has succeeded in conveying that makes the restaurant recognizably czech.

          HOwever, I think though if people have been immersed in a tradition and a way of thinking about food, they have at least a better shot at communicating the food. Skills and knowledge can be learned at home, through apprenticeship with a good teacher, formal culinary education, cultural immersion, tasting good food,careful observation, whatever. But depth of knowledge of a cuisine matters a lot. If I am a Chinese,say and start a chain of taquerias, and hire a bunch of minimally-trained mexican kitchen workers to cook but send out their salsas and beans from a commissary and dont give them any fresh cilantro to put on the tacos they cook, and give them strict instructions on exactly how to assemble each dish, the tacos or whatever wont be any better than if they had been cooked by robots. Nothing can ever move that dish to another level. The owner doesnt care -he has made his calculation, he is filling a market niche and plenty of uncritical bellies at low cost. Just to clarify I am not specifically talking about Fresco Tortilla, which is a cut better than most tho its salsa is poor. Im certainly not dissing Bobby Flay or anyone who is really working at their cooking - Im talking about what happens when cooking becomes a mass product - where "thai" or "indian" becomes a standard takeout menu like "chinese" or "italian" and nobody in the kitchen has pride in the product or even control over what is produced. And none of the consumers call them to account.