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May 7, 2013 05:04 AM

Does Race Matter in the Kitchen?

There seems to be question of whether it is appropriate to bring up the ethnicity of the management and/or kitchen staff of a restaurant.

**The original post was removed, and I have edited this post to reflect that.**

Essentially, in a discussion of the best bet for ramen in DC, one place was recommended by a couple of 'Hounds (not me), and then someone posted:

"The best ramen in DC is run by Hispanics?"

I don't know about the management of the restaurant, but I didn't think it had any place in the discussion.

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  1. No, it does not matter.

    Best fried rice I ever had was made by a guy from Oaxaca. He had worked in a Chinese restaurant for years.

    Also, did that post get removed?

    1. No, it doesnt matter in the slightest to me. In the case of most restaurants I know, I have no idea of the race, ethnicity or nationality of the folk in the kitchen. Nor do I care.

      I'm unsure whether the question is inherently inappropriate for discussion on the board but that's why we have moderators.

      1. My opinion is that no, race does not matter in the kitchen. If the kitchen staff is well trained and know what they are doing, know how to achieve the correct balance of flavors through being trained by someone who knows what they are doing, and the ingredients are good, the food will come out well executed.

        Many of my favorite restos in the US, be they Vietnamese, Pakistani, or Korean, have almost entirely Central American and/or Mexican recent immigrant kitchen staff. I think we have all read that this is true even in very fancy French restos in the US. Same when I lived abroad in the Middle East and many of my favorite international restos had Nepalese, Indian, and Bangladeshi cooks. When it goes wrong, it isn't because of race, but because of poor training, bad ingredients, or substituting with wrong ingredients, or sometimes just bad cooking.

        Not to mention that I have been to plenty of restos where the cooks are preparing the cuisine of their particular ethnic background, and the food is mediocre or bad.

        3 Replies
        1. re: luckyfatima

          "Not to mention that I have been to plenty of restos where the cooks are preparing the cuisine of their particular ethnic background, and the food is mediocre or bad."

          Yep, there are bad cooks in every country. That's why they have to leave their native lands to cook elsewhere, where people may not know just how dreadful they are. :D

          1. re: Isolda

            Yeah - this is why I would not try Indian food for YEARS after having a horrendous take on it in a sketchy little dive in my rural college town in the Northeast. When I finally was coaxed to give the cuisine another try by friends, I was amazed by the difference.

          2. re: luckyfatima

            I agree completely with everything you've written - but I do still find there to be a romanticism given to the personal background of the chef/owners of an establishment. Particularly to "ethnic" restuarants.

            Whether it's that the establishment is family owned for x number of years, using historic family recipes, or even menus only available in the "native" language (especially when that language is not the main language of the region). When talking about Rick Bayless (Mexican) or David Thompson (Thai) - often the stories heavily emphasize how much they love the culture, immersed themselves, and study. Whereas the "origin story" of Thomas Keller and French food is just more a case of "he was trained in French kitchens".

            Ultimately, I think that this goes to the difference that "fine cuisines" are treated vs. "ethnic". Fine cuisines are taught. You go to school, work in a kitchen under a top chef, practice for years and are taught the skills to be to become a chef. Whereas ethnic cuisine isn't taught but is rather "feeling and emotion". It's passed from generation to generation and is almost talked about as though it was genetic.

            On another thread there was a discussion about non-Japanese sushi chefs - and what that discussion essentially says is that there's no way to design a proper training course to become a top sushi chef. Now, it may be that at this time the top sushi chefs/schools (and thus learning opportunities) are all in Japan and conducted in Japanese - making access to that education a challenge for non-Japanese cooks. But to say that sushi (or ramen, or whatever) is strictly tied to an ethnicity - but that French cooking can be learned by anyone in the right environment definitely starts to tread into problematic thinking.

          3. Not to me. But then I'm looking for deliciousness when I dine in a restaurant, not authenticity (whatever that is).

            Almost every place I've eaten in the DC area has Hispanic workers, whether serving or in the kitchen. Not surprising since that is the available low cost labor pool here.

            It is not surprising that the most enterprising amongst them start food-related businesses themselves.

            1. I have seen this question come up a few times, mostly in relation to the increasing number of non-Asian chefs cooking traditional Asian cuisines (viz. Andy Ricker, Zak Pellaccio, etc.). It all seems to stem from subjective notions of authenticity, as if sushi isn't truly sushi unless you sit at the bar for omakase under the tutelage of a stern Japanese master.

              Cooking is a skill that can be learned with study. It does not take race to understand flavor and technique. Stated another way: it does not take a child of the same race to love her grandmother's lasagna, even less so to cook it. Two Asian-Americans far more reliable on the topic than I had an interesting exchange on this topic from the First Generation's viewpoint: