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Sep 1, 2008 10:15 AM

Bourdain asks: Why Can't We Have That Here?

*WARNING* to the Authenticity Police: Authenticity is discussed here!

In our previous discussions, we've hit upon the thought that you can never actually replicate a particular food experience from one place and time in another. This has gone several places - some of us think that new traditions have to evolve based on the new ingredients, cultures, geography. Some of us think that it's a matter of sufficient volume - get enough people thinking along the lines of the authentic experience, with sufficient knowledge and understanding, and the food becomes more authentic.

Tony Bourdain voices these thoughts in his blog about the Spain show. He speaks to the wonderful food he had in Spain, Japan and other locations and asks, why can't we have that here? He says:

"Why can't I have that? How come I gotta go halfway across the earth -- to like, Singapore, or Hong Kong (or Spain), for instance, to really get MY culinary jollies these days? He's on a magic carpet ride in his own town and I'm like a full-bloom junkie, the honeymoon period over, needing a higher and higher dosage to get off in MY home town of New York!. Why?

The sad fact is, we'll never -- and I mean NEVER have it so good as in Spain. It's not like we don't have great restaurants in Manhattan - -and will surely have many more. And certainly, we can get many of the same ingredients jetted over (more or less -- if at a steep price). No. It's attitudinal. You can faithfully reproduce the look of a Spanish tapas bar in New York City. You can stock it with all the best, most authentic ingredients, just-jerked from the rivers, streams, soil and seas of Spain. You can staff the joint with the best cooks, dragooned off the streets of the parta vieja. And you'll still never be close to the real thing. Because what your tapas bar needs -- really needs -- is three or four or eight OTHER tapas bars (or casual Spanish eateries within walking distance)."

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  1. And a bunch of spaniards lounging about discussing futbol and the corrida etc to make it really authentic.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Phaedrus

      Discussing ... tennis, Formula1, motoGP, ...

    2. We also have health codes and fire codes that limit what restaurants can do.

      "Authentic" usually means "the way mom made it." Leads to some very confusing discussions. "Traditional" is less subjective.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        But see, when Tony says, "You can stock it with all the best, most authentic ingredients, just-jerked from the rivers, streams, soil and seas of Spain.", I have absolutely no problem at all understanding his meaning. He could have said "traditional" or "classic", but he said authentic, because that's what he probably meant - authentic, as in the genuine article, from the place he had just been to.

        I honestly have come to see this anti-authenticity movement here at chowhound as reverse snobbery, bordering on bigotry. I'm not specifically referring to you or your post, but to so many people ganging up on those that use the term. Some people are as righteous about the so-called misuse of authenticity as they might be about religion. It's a descriptor. It's often misused. Like delicious or tasty or yummy or wonderful or whatever other food adjective is overused and misused in everything from marketing to poorly written reviews. It carries a denotation of superiority - as if inauthentic food is inferior. But to me, that's a part of the description. Some food is indeed inferior - not necessarily in deliciousness or size or spiciness or any other descriptor, but in that one factor of being authentic.

        Tony feels that nothing is going to be the authentic experience of the originating place. You can't replicate Spain or Japan in NYC, even if you bring the ingredients and the chefs. You have to bring the attitude (and the culture) - it's the clientele. Phaedrus is right - whether its Spaniards with the futbol or Japanese salarymen with their shinbun opened up to the basubol page, you can't get the real thing without the real clientele.

        I think that if you accept that experience as being authentic, then you can extract the food you might get during that authentic experience (and there would be a broad range of types and preparations as you went down the street from one Tapas bar to the other) and relate to it as authentic to that experience. More to the point, food that you would not see in that place and time would not be authentic. It's a useful descriptor.

        1. re: applehome

          I think the operative word here is "experience".

          Without getting too far into the debate, the metaphor I think about regarding this discussion is "camping and how food tastes better in the outdoors." In this case it's about the whole experience because you're still eating hot dogs and canned beans...and yet there's some truth to it being better in that particular context.

          Regarding the reverse snobbery of "authentic", I see that and I think it's a reaction to years of yuppies, minor league intellectuals and such looking (here in the U.S.) for the most authentic and being bent and snobby when the they don't find it. Funny I was on a commuter train listening to college students talk about food and something else and they used the word next to authentic - validity. I wanted to laugh but it's a phase.

          For me there's authentic and that's a good thing and if I can get some, I say most excellent. The objection to "authentic" is the "validity" argument that because it's different it's no good...which might be the case but why get into it?

          I mean use some common sense. It's like ex-pat NY'er on the West Coast going on about bagels, deli and pizza which gets annoying. You're never going to find those things on the West Coast like in NY...just like you're not going to find decent Mexican food in NYC. The difference is if the "authentic" card is called and debated.

          Conversely the best line I've heard regarding all of this was from a transplanted Southern in NorCal eating some BBQ. All he said was, "that wasn't to my liking." I understood perfectly what he meant.

      2. One point that goes against our food culture is that we as a country have been around for a little over a couple hundred years. We don't have multiple centuries of culture-building to establish and build our own food culture that is of similar depth to that of many other countries and cultures.

        Another issue is that the we have always been a country of immigrants whose pasts were typically disenfranchised and from many paths throughout the globe. I think this impacts our food culture in at least two ways. One is the vast majority of immigrants that come here in the initial wave are mostly poor and often removed from the heart of their home country's cultural elite and privileged. Because they were poor, they probably didn't spend their afternoons leisurely sipping, eating, and chatting in the local eateries of note. Levels of cuisine like omakase, kaiseki, and even izakaya, dim sum, and tapas are true luxuries beyond the reach of most of those who In essence, would be considered peasants or of a similar socioeconomic category. Those that are relatively well-off or some how or another connected to those who are (ie, those who would cater to the middle and upper classes) have little or no incentive to emigrate. Consequently, the vast majority of immigrants didn't bring levels of food culture beyond their means with them, and those that did initially found little or no support for these higher levels of eating - their surrounding communities didn't have the economic means to indulge.

        Moreover, because the US is so multicultural, I think it is difficult for one predominant food culture to arise that is of the depth and breadth of those that have been mentioned, except in some geographic areas where there is a true dominant culture, like the San Gabriel Valley, York Avenue in LA, Little Havana, parts of Louisiana, etc.

        Our country's ethnocentrism also kept us very close-minded and naive toward cuisines until very recently - maybe since pioneers like Julia Childs and recent waves of immigrants with their food cultures opened our eyes as a relatively shallow food nation to the world of cuisines that lay beyond our borders.

        Over the past one or two decades the explosion of food media has truly whet the appetites and curiosity of so many people in this country that now we can't get enough of anything. I think in time there will be a fair amount of give-and-take in food and its importance and place in our everyday lives, and this evolution will eventually allow us to one day have it here as well...

        7 Replies
        1. re: bulavinaka

          You're right about the multiculturalism. Where we have pockets of great food, it is because of strong monolithic cultures - from pastrami on the lower east side, to whole pig que in the low country, to boudin and gumbo (and everything else) in Nola. The more we get away from those pockets, the more we get into chains and mediocre foods - places that try to replicate the foods that originated elsewhere, and do it inauthentically, presumably because they know no better, or because they're saving a buck. But the real reason they make the food so poorly is that the clientele lets them, because they know no better, or because it isn't important enough to them to have authentic food.

          I'm not sure that the explosion of food media will really help that much. For every person that watches Tony or Mario, there are dozens that watch Sandra Lee and Rachel Ray. For every hour of great food on PBS, there must be 10 of crap on TVFN.

          When Tony blames attitude, I wonder if America's core culture - the one that all the newcomers emulate and eventually become part of - is actually a very negative one when it comes to adventurous eating and the whole idea of living to eat. That core comes from the WASP, strong work-ethic, hard-nosed and no-nonsense, prude, and generally xenophobic and provincial. They don't travel - certainly not out of the country. It's a core that long ago rejected offal and endorsed prepared and fast foods. These are certainly the majority of Americans I know - in Oklahoma as well as New England. 2nd or 3rd generations of virtually every immigrant culture morph into this. It's not clear to me that today's youth is any better, that the future is any brighter.

          Perhaps Tony is right - we'll always have to go to elsewhere for the authentic food experience. Developing our own great food culture, other than in the pockets, is not going to happen any time soon.

          I honestly think that education about authentic food is important. Not traditional, not historical, not classic - but authentic. We shouldn't misuse authentic - it doesn't mean any one particular way to do anything. But it does mean something that has not been modified with shortcuts and low quality ingredients, or to meet inaccurate expectations or undeveloped tastes. The more pockets of authentic foods we can create in America, the better the food we'll all eat. If we want our food and our food culture to improve, we can't keep being happy that california rolls were invented for Americans - we need to learn to appreciate authentic sushi.

          1. re: applehome

            Some people take great leaps into food culture, some take little steps, some take a twisted path where fate bestows them the great favor, and for many, well, many never get it. And remember this is true for many in those areas that we've mentioned as well... Not everyone in countries with great food cultures are well-versed, participate in, or have great respect for their own food cultures for tons of reasons. East Asians in general are notorious for popping open a container of Cup Noodles, pouring hot water in, and calling that lunch - even dinner.

            I think Mister Bourdain is a gifted host. But I think the flaw that his show leaves us with is that this or that place in the world has great food culture - why can't we have it too? This leaves us and our country feeling somewhat barren. And rightfully so. Another issue is that we can't just slice out and bring home a piece of their culture - in this case food - and leave the rest of it back there. Both you and I have touched on this already - "Developing our own great freat food culture, other than in pockets, is not going to happen any time soon." Again, these great food cultures have evolved over many centuries, through hardship, pain, revolutions, invasions, beauty, art, waves of stability and creativity followed by ebbs of repression and dogma. When I think of great cities in Europe and Asia, I first think of the buildings. Some of these have been around before the the birth of Christ. And some of these buildings have more history to them than our entire country's history. These cultures have a huge head start on us.

            I do think that the people of today in general have a relatively short attention span. And a lot of this has to do with the media. And this short attention span definitely plays against our country's ability to establish any cohesiveness, any thread of culture or tradition that is passed on from generation to generation, that is vital in creating and perpetuating a great food culture.

            I don't have cable or DirecTV - I only catch many of the great and not-so-great shows occasionally - but am a huge fan of PBS. And my kids also enjoy PBS, who surprisingly enjoy many of the food shows as well. And I think this is one of the keys to growing and perpetuating the food culture here. It begins with adults, but adults need to pass it on to their kids as well. And this means taking the pains of going to restaurants and other food experiences that the kids may not initially appreciate. Or taking them to a restaurant that may be borderline about accommodating young ones. We haven't batted a thousand, but our batting percentage definitely increases as each of our two kids get older, and instead of wanting to eat pizza with that frickin' comic rat at the money pit disguised as a pizza parlor, they choose ethnic food or want to join us adults in cheese, fruit, charcuterie sans the wine - they still like Coke. But Mexican Coke with sugar cane. My personal experience has been that if we are fortunate enough to have developed an appreciation for better food, and if we are responsible enough to pass this on, along with the understanding of its cultural importance to our young ones, then there's a good chance that they will do the same.

          2. re: bulavinaka

            Without multiculturalism and the food it brings...California and many places would still be nice but it wouldn't be the same. Thinking about California without Mexican, Asian, Middle Eastern...why that's depressing.

            1. re: ML8000

              I couldn't agree more. But I think within the context of the OP's post, I think multiculturalism hinders the ability for our country to develop A (as in single) food culture in the short term. But it definitely argues for the point that many fruitful branches of food culture will hopefully continue to grow. My fear, as mentioned already, is that immigrants often bring these food cultures with them. But the problem is following generations emulate into the "mainstream" American culture - whatever that may be - and may or may not continue the traditions and the businesses that may keep those traditions alive. Think about how hard it is to competently run a great dim sum house in the San Gabriel Valley. It is all immigrants - I don't see their kids wanting to follow in their paths, from line cooks, to servers, etc. And their parents probably don't want them to either. "Go to school, study hard, become a doctor..."

              1. re: bulavinaka

                That's actually very insightful. You can't replicate the food authentically without the culture, and you can't replicate the culture where all the social systems, constraints and benefits, no longer apply.

                I also appreciate what you said about our kids, above. We, as first generation parents, can't replicate what we grew up with - our kids will not be of the culture we are. But we can pass on as much as we can of appreciating not only our particular foods, but of understanding the value of authenticity from all cultures. This doesn't mean that they must never eat at Olive Garden or PF Chang, but that they appreciate and hold a special place in their hearts for a great salumeria in Little Italy, or a great sichuan restaurant. Maybe they'll get to travel where we haven't, and experience the authentic foods we have yet to try. And maybe that'll be enough, if not to stop America's continual slide into the world of chinese restaurant sushi tacos and bratwurst quesadillas, at least to insure the continuation of pockets of authentic foods.

                hmmm... bratwurst quesadillas... I'm gonna have to try that... maybe some kraut, a little cheese (wisconsin, of course)...I can see it now - a tour guide in 2200, "And now we come to Boston where legend says that the bratwurst quesadilla comes from!"

                1. re: applehome

                  Hmmm... bratwurst might work - maybe even weisswurst with an apple sauce reduction with calvados, topped with gruyere, folded into a tortilla studded with mustard seeds only available at a 22nd century redeux of Taco Bell? Might that be Mister Bourdain's vision of what fast food should be like here?!?!

                  I think many of us Chowhounds are like-minded in so many ways - we just have connected different dots from different sides of the board on the same gigantic puzzle. Bottom line is we all want great food, what ever that may be, and want it now! Mister Bourdain only has so much time on each show to get his points across, but I'm sure he's given this thread's issue a lot of thought - especially while he's crossing the Atlantic or the Pacific (and probably going crazy that he can't have a smoke!) - and has probably come to some similar lines of logic.

                  In my eyes, what he poses is more rhetorical, maybe even a challenge to all interested to never settle for anything less than the best as an eater, a restauranteur, a chef, a provider, etc. He wants everyone to have great passion for life and for everything that feeds into the chain of events where the cumulative set of traditions and values is leached out and personified in depth of food culture at least equal to those others that he is so in admiration of.

                  Will this country ever rise to this level? If Brittney Spears is the best we can do for cultural icons, if "Fast Food Nation" ultimately becomes our nation's food epitaph, and if George Dubbayah is an example of the depth of our leadership, we have a long way to go...

            2. re: bulavinaka

              Having spent the weekend hopping from a Korean supermarket in L.A. to a Japanese one and a pan-Asian one and having recently been to the one in Thaitown, it struck me that it's not just Americans who are sometimes craving "authenticity" in cuisine (leaving the debate about that word alone).

              I've had great Asian food, prepared fresh, not Americanized. And these stores were filled with Asian ripoffs and convenience foods sold to the immigrant communities that shop there. (I knew that, but the trip really reinforced it.) The frozen dumplings are every bit as "Ore-Ida frozen french fries" as anything the U.S. can offer up. Looking at the sauces aisles, possibly by some exponent.

              Fortunately these stores have the fresh ingredients from which to make one's own, too.

              I'm not criticizing people who would buy the frozen stuff and eat that - everybody's got a different point of view on what they want from their food, a different budget and amount of available time and skill. When I'm hungry, I'll go for a convenience food too.

              Heck, Tony could have said "why can't we have that here" about authentic American food in its many varieties... it's still around but gets harder and harder to find in the radio noise of all the faux and fast bastardizations of food out there now. To some degree that must be happening in Tokyo, Hong Kong, etc., looking at the commercial brands available with not so hot ingredients.

              Then there's the drastic difference in ingredients from place to place, which speaks to the 'why can't we get that here' question. Would love to see Bourdain trace what changes about a cuisine as it's interpreted in other lands. Thread on that is here, partly a rant about peas in Thai red curry and wondering if they were a desperate foreign substitution or simply some misguided but authentic application:

              But yeah, even Chinatowns aren't China.

            3. Folks, this has been most interesting and entertaining. I really enjoyed the discussion. I feel like I am watching "My Dinner With Andre" again except its all about food. Kudos to all.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Phaedrus

                I think your simply stated first entry summed it all up... Thanks

              2. As my parents (who are from Europe) remarked to me this evening, "The service here is over the top; every 2 minutes a waiter stops by to pour more wine from your bottle, ask 3-4 questions, or ask if you need anything else. If you decline dessert, the bill arrives. Not only do you feel on-edge but you are in and out within 60 minutes."

                At least when it comes to French and Spanish restaurants, the US culture is such that it is hard to replicate the authentic, relaxed atmosphere of a European eating experience.

                4 Replies
                1. re: ooroger

                  "Not only do you feel on-edge but you are in and out within 60 minutes."

                  I think this sentence sums up a lot about the difference of food in the US and most other parts of the world. Here in the US people don't take the time to eat. For them, they eat to live. In most other parts of the world (Europe, Asia) people live to eat. Coming myself from Europe I still have problems here in the US that in nearly every restaurant you feel rushed and it is hard for me to meet any America who is willing to sit for 2-3 hours to have a nice meal (and I am not talking about a tasting menu but just a simple meal of appetizer, entree and perhaps dessert). Most people in the US still don't see food as a joy but just something you have to do from time to time. As long as this attitude doesn't change there will never be a real food culture in the US.

                  1. re: honkman

                    Short meals are not limited to the US. Most restaurants I ate in while I lived in Japan, outside of izakaya where you pay to eat and/or drink for x amount of hours, got parties in and out within the span of 30-45 minutes. Students are expected to eat their school lunches in about 15 minutes. Japan still has a very strong food culture despite having shorter meals. You can still enjoy eating without spending 2-3 hours at a time doing it.

                    1. re: queencru

                      There are of course also short meals in Europe, e.g, students and their school lunches or workers during a 30 minutes break but I was talking about the mindset to be able to enjoy long meals because of the food. I missing this kind of mindset with many Americans who are often not patient in a restaurant and want to have their food as fast as possible and be out of the restaurant as soon as possible. If the majority of people have this mindset about food you will never het the same food culture as in most countries in Europe or Asia

                    2. re: honkman

                      Yes, it's often disappointing. I remember when in Nice for a conference many years ago, recommending La Merenda to some fellow American attendees. They did go, coming in a few minutes after me that evening. They also ate quickly and were gone, while I lingered an hour longer and ended up socializing with an Italian doctor and her friend who were in town on holiday.