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Celebrity Chefs and the Appropriation of Ethnic Cuisines

Celebrity Chefs and the Appropriation of Ethnic Cuisines

Check any chef’s Instagram feed, and you’ll immediately discover most aren’t one-trick ponies. Celebrated Boston chef Mary Dumont of Cultivar fame is best known for contemporary New England fare, yet it’s not unusual to see her work in Italian and Japanese accents like spices, crudo and house-made pastas.

In Louisville, Seviche’s Anthony Lamas puts a modern spin on homestyle Latin cuisine with Southern influences he’s embraced since living in Kentucky for more than 20 years. And in Chicago at Big Jones, the Indiana-born Paul Fehribach showcases his interpretations of classic Southern food, from the lowcountry to Louisiana.

Chefs highlighting other cultures and ethnic flavors in their dishes is nothing new, however, in recent years there’s been an uproar over those who reportedly take it too far. Prominent social media influencers and activists have been vocal in calling out those they believe appropriate cuisine from marginalized ethnic groups.

Some operations have even been shut down – such as a 1990s hip-hop themed eatery in Pittsburgh serving gourmet fried chicken – forcing them to change their concepts. It’s a subject polarizing many in the culinary community, yet they aim to compromise.

“We don’t have intellectual property rights in food like they do in music or technology or a number of industries, so we can cook anything we want. The conversation should be how do you reconcile the questions of privilege and the questions of power and control and benefit.”
– Paul Fehribach

Immerse yourself in the culture and/or community.
Seviche‘s Anthony Lamas suggests those eager to cook ethnic cuisine learn everything possible about it. “Traveling is a great way to learn about new foods,” he recommends, “but you’ve got to spend time in these places.

“Visit a country and stay there for a month or two. Spend a lot of time with someone who understands the food. There’s a lot that goes into creating these foods from different cultures.”

Be humble.
“Reading stories about people and sharing stories with people is important because it keeps the cuisine human in my heart and in my mind,” says Fehribach. “I want to be part of the story, but I am not going to make the story about me.”

Give back to the community.
Every winter Fehribach hosts “Soul Food Week” at Big Jones. The two-week event spotlights historic and burgeoning African-American culinary artists, and is also an educational experience for diners.

As they nosh on favorites like fried okra, peach cobbler, and spaghetti and oxtails, they learn about their origins. “The history of this food is just loaded with dynamite,” declares Fehribach, who also sits on the board of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. “It’s a rich history, but it’s also full of conflict and appropriation is at the center of Southern culture. … the black hands that were creating this food didn’t get any of the benefits.”

He cites fellow Chicagoan Rick Bayless, chef/founder of Mexican-inspired Frontera Restaurants group, as an example of a culinary leader giving back to a culture that’s richly benefited him.

“(Rick) buys tons of ancient breed corn from farmers in Mexico every year, which allows them to retain their land and their birthright in that seed,” says Fehribach. “He also patronizes Mexican artists and he employs and trains Mexican chefs. Lots of Mexican-Americans have their own restaurants now because of him.”