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Why some Cultural Cuisines Make it Big While Others Flounder

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From Korean bibimbap to Filipino sisig, in today’s North American cities there’s always something new to discover. But why do some cuisines make it big while others flounder? Turns out it takes a lot more than an insta-trend to do the trick.

Written by Christina Gonzales

Illustration by Vesna Asanovic

“Does he eat sushi?” asked Kate, in reference to her friend’s new boyfriend.

It was a rhetorical question, of course. It wasn’t about said boyfriend liking sushi per say, it was about a whole lot more.

Over the last 100 years, ethnic food in North America has become a form of cultural currency. Just like music, art, or architecture, it has worked its way into the hierarchy of cultural commodities, revealing to us much more than just our culinary preferences. Similar to the way in which musicians and artists are leaders in the cultural conversation, so too are those who are experts on food.

To put it plainly, the more you know about ethnic food and the more of it you eat, the more sophisticated you are.

This is especially true for educated, enlightened millennials. In their world, eating a variety of ethnic foods implies superior social, cultural, and intellectual status. Kate’s liking for sushi cements her on an invisible hierarchy of cultural progressiveness—she goes to museums, she appreciates classical music, she eats sushi.

And while sushi is certainly commonplace in North America, it’s a good example of the way in which people judge each other based on what foods they do or don’t eat.

A BRIEF HISTORY

This fascination with ethnic food and drink in North America began among white elites in the 1800s, says Krishnendu Ray, author of The Ethnic Restaurateur and food studies professor at New York University. “In the New York Times in the 1880s, [journalists] talk about ‘German, exotic beer’ and how interesting it is,” Ray says. German beer was considered fashionable then, now it’s Filipino sisig, Cypriot halloumi, Malaysian laksa.

There are a number of reasons why minority food has become a fundamental part of the cultural world, explains Ray. First, the language around food changed with the Civil Rights Movement. “We were no longer publically allowed to display disgust and disdain towards other people’s food,” Ray explains. Thus, the consumption of ethnic foods became a virtuous act.

The reason why certain ethnic cuisines go “haute,” (and by this, we mean redecorated and packaged in way to suit white, upper-middle-class tastes) in North America, seemingly over night, is to feed what sociologists like Ray call “cultural omnivorousness,” defined by a need to consume more genres of cultural commodities, from art to music to food, by the upper-end of the social world.

Highbrow cultural activities used to be going to the ballet, attending a lecture by a novelist, or going to the theatre. Now it includes dining at Michelin Star restaurants, or a visit to one of the World’s 50 Best.  

DOES EVERYTHING NEED TO BE ELEVATED?

Food critics are some of the leading voices in the discourse surrounding ethnic food in North America - its authenticity and accessibility. And they often determine what’s considered trendy in any given North American city.

Chris Nuttall-Smith, food writer and ex-restaurant critic at The Globe and Mail, believes people in North America are impatient for food to mature. “We want more variety, better-quality food, and—I hate the word ‘authentic,’ - but [dishes] similar to how you’d find it at its source,” he says.

And while Nuttall-Smith was one of the most revered restaurant critics in Canada, he certainly recognizes his place as a Caucasian food expert writing about other races’ foods.

When asked why certain cuisines become “elevated,” it touches a chord: “What do you mean ‘elevation?’ Does Thai food need to be elevated?” He asks. “Elevated just connotes that it’s better all of a sudden, right? You see white people using ‘elevated’ a lot. They say, ‘Oh, you really need to elevate this dish.’ Because nobody ever says you need to elevate a French dish, you just assume it’s already elevated.”

Ray says that the term ‘elevate’ with regard to food means that a dish has been made using French cooking techniques with Japanese plating style. That’s the Western definition of a refined dish. But some proponents of ethnic cuisine, like Amy Besa, author of Memories of Philippine Kitchens and co-owner of Purple Yam, a Filipino restaurant in New York, feel that Western acceptance is irrelevant.

“[Filipino] food has its own integrity and its own inherent value,” Besa says. “That value does not depend on the validation of outsiders. We do not need Western journalists to tell us how good our food is. ‘Haute cuisine’ is a Western standard. For me, it does not apply to our food.”

“I can only speak to people who truly love the food,” Besa explains. “I have many customers who are not Filipinos, who have never been to the Philippines, but totally get the food and love it. If people don’t love it, then they’re not my audience.”

Whether Filipino restaurateurs need recognition from the Western world or not, the upscaling of Filipino food has begun in North America, with restaurants popping up from Calgary to Chicago. Ray says the burgeoning of Filipino cuisine has a lot to do with the economic status of Filipinos in the United States and Canada: “East coast Filipinos have some of the highest per capita income (higher than whites by the way). [And second-generation Filipinos grew up in] social worlds that are largely multiracial, white, cultural worlds.”

HOW TO GO HAUTE

An ethnic minority group with an upper, professional middle class that’s “savvy enough to realize food has become sexy,” says Ray, is one of two key ingredients by which cuisine goes “haute.” For example, when a Filipino dentist brings his white colleagues to lunch at Purple Yam in Brooklyn, suddenly, Filipino becomes part of their cultural conversation. Once this happens over and over again, Filipino food suddenly becomes hip.

The second key component of ethnic food going haute, Ray says, is the existence of a star chef.

“Who’d have thought that Scandinavian food would be the next big thing?” questions Ray. “It’s a food of scarcity; nothing grows in the place half the time. So you take moss and wild berry [and put it on a plate], but you still need a René Redzepi,” the head chef of Noma in Copenhagen, which has been awarded two Michelin stars and was ranked the world’s best restaurant in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014.

“But remember,” Ray explains, “René only happened because Ferran Adrià, [head chef of the famous El Bulli], happened before him. You need a celebrity superstar chef with a signature.”  

Adrià’s signature was molecular gastronomy, and Redzepi’s was foraging from his own – albeit sparse – soil. But for others, a signature can be simpler. Hence, David Chang’s ramen and steamed buns, Markus Samuelson’s Swedish meatballs, Yotam Ottolenghi’s Israeli-British brunch.

The above chefs propose more than just meals. They propose an ideology, and what they offer extends beyond the meal itself. Chang does Momofuku, but he also does Mind of a Chef. Samuelson does New York City, but he also does Bermuda and Sweden. (After all, doesn’t Samuelson’s Ethiopian roots and Swedish upbringing only contribute to his Western appeal?) Meanwhile, there’s not a food lover’s home in London, England where you won’t find one of Ottolenghi’s cookbooks.

BARRIERS TO ENTRY

Unfortunately, for other cuisines, like Caribbean or Eastern European, the jump into the haute category is proving to be more challenging. Food sociologists believe that a nation’s standing in the hierarchy of the global economy is at the crux of it all.

“If you call it ‘soul food,’ it becomes impossible to charge more than $10 to $12 [for a meal], unless you’re in Harlem and Bill Clinton frequents your spot,” Ray says. “The barrier is black-white racial relations, which is harder to mend compared to Asian relations. And that is linked to Asia as a major economic power. That’s the major story in the second half of the 20th century - the rise of Asia, the rise of Asian elite, the rise of Asian middle class. And we’ve never had that with an African class. We haven’t had that story yet.”

There are major players in the worldwide food game, and popularity doesn’t happen by accident. Often times, a nation’s government funds the marketing of their cuisine. Just look at Spain, Norway, Thailand, and South Korea. The familiarization North Americans have with their food is a years-long, ongoing process, which encompasses everything from food trade shows, to inviting key thought leaders in the food space, to pilgrimages to the country and experiencing their cuisine.

Coincidentally, as Filipino food approaches its peak, Besa, along with Manila-based chef Myrna Segismundo, were given a budget by the Philippine Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs to cook dinners across Europe and North America, showcasing native Filipino ingredients. Segismundo covered London, Brussels, The Hague, Amsterdam, and Berlin. And this fall, Besa’s tour includes New York, Toronto, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Seattle. While the exact cost of the tours is unknown, one can say with certainty that awareness is always backed by money.

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This is exactly what the unknowing millennial food enthusiast might not know. That every restaurant concept popping up in their city, from Royal Thai to Andalusian tapas, has a story that encompasses so much more than what’s “trending.” Cultural cuisines go haute almost exactly the same way a hip-hop group becomes famous.  
“The formulas are parallel,” Ray jokes. “You’ll need a good musician, a good manager, a good promoter, [and] you’ll need some good luck.”