Rant about authentic Chinese food
A man once said to me, “Because I’m [insert nationality], the food that I cook is [insert same nationality].” It made sense to me. I think the particular nationality in the phrase could easily be applied to any of the popular ethnic food in the U.S. Authenticity is a subject that can be tackled endlessly. It’s no secret how I feel about supposed Chinese food that doesn’t live in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood. This got me thinking even more… maybe I’m going about all wrong with authenticity. Maybe it’s not about who cooks the food or what the food represents or emulating. Maybe it’s all about who eats the food. Let’s first establish that if you think something is delicious or represents something, I WILL judge you, but I’m not going to correct you. If you love the shit outta General Tso’s AND you think it’s ‘real’ Chinese food, more power to you. If you love Hunan Kitchen and think it’s ‘real’ Chinese food, more power to you as well.
So in the even that the Four Season’s hotel wants to kick out Joel Robuchon in NYC and hire Fuchsia Dunlop to cook ‘authentic’ Chinese recipes to big ballers, you know, I would still have to call a pig a pig. The question of authenticity has often centered around who does the cooking. Here in the United States, you’d probably find there’s many Hispanics or Latin Americans in the kitchens. And if someone like Fuchsia Dunlop cooks the Chinese food, I have no doubt it’ll be pretty close to what ‘authentic’ flavor is.
If it’s not about who cooks the food, then is it really just about the food itself? I understand that supporters of a cracker-backed, Chink-cheffed ‘Chinese’ restaurant would say that if price wasn’t a concern, many Chinese people will go. This is true. But price is a real thing, and if you have enough ballering Chinks, they’ll go to fancy Chinese places. After all, there are some pretty ballering and pricy Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong and they’re pretty much frequented by mostly Chinese folks. Where does that leave us if we talk about ‘authentic’ food?
The clientele. This is also one of the more racist way to talk about it. If I said that ethnic food like Chinese food or Mexican food, when served mostly to crackers, simply can’t be authentic. Then I’m the bad guy. Hold up though. If you open a Chinese restaurant, first and foremost, YOU WANNA MAKE MONEY. So it’s no secret that these restaurants in white neighborhoods do better profit margins than those near Canal Street, because many cracker-backed restaurants have smart accountants and business people, and if the business model of a Chinatown shop was better, it would be more widely adopted. Money is the reason that fancier Chinese restaurants don’t open in Chinatown, and the location is why not as many Chinese people go. And the lack of Chinese clientele is really what separates an authentic restaurant from an inauthentic one. When it comes to authenticity, flavor is secondary to clientele.
I had this discussion with Jonathan earlier and he mentioned some Australian dude who’s studied Thai food really closely and has opened Thai restaurants with one in Bangkok. I discount that man’s efforts because while he might be opening it in Thailand and providing authentic flavors, he’s doing high-end food (to give you an idea, his set menu is 1500 baht, while normal green papaya salad street food style in Thailand is 25 baht. Do the calculations yourself). Sure he’ll win over some baller Thais, but the world must be about more than how you cater to ballers. That’s just not enough.
The truth is I’m way too cynical to believe any notion of doing certain ethnic food with higher quality ingredients at the best price possible. You need to be catering the food to the people of the ethnicity for it to matter. Take someone like Rick Bayless for example. I’m sure the average earning Mexican in Chicago would delight in the food at Rick’s restaurants, but are they priced for the average man? So going forward, in judging authenticity, it is only about two things: One – Where is your restaurant? Two – Who eats there?
You can take a restaurant that uses higher quality ingredients, and plop that shit on Mott St or East Broadway. You absolutely can. The idea that nouveau chefs want to do better ingredients but not for the people who’d could use it the most, it’s baffling. If ingredients matter, why can’t a restauranteur show me that while catering to the people? If you open an upscale Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, you pay more for more skilled workers, and you pay more for higher quality ingredients. So then it’s about whether the business person thinks Chinese people will pay the premium. Is it more racist for me to say that if a Chinese restaurant is full of crackers then it’s not Chinese food? Or is it more implicitly racist that business owners don’t have faith that Chinese people would be willing to pay a premium for higher quality ingredients produced by higher quality craftsmen? If they believed it, they would open it there already.
P.S. – Oh and I know the pictures are of hot dogs and some pastries. The hot dogs were pricy and disappointing, and they were from Epicerie Boulud. The pastries are good, but if you compare them to France you might be disappointed. So don’t do that. They’re good pastries, and priced the way pastries are in these parts of town.
Posted by Danny on November 1, 2011 at 7:54 pm
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