The foodie universe was scandalized last week when Eric Ripert, celebrity chef and proprietor of Manhattan’s Le Bernardin, posted a recipe for pho on his Instagram page. The recipe was accompanied by a picture of the chef sitting at his desk, lifting strands of noodles from a steaming bowl of the Vietnamese staple. The only problem was that the noodles weren’t correct, and the dish didn’t appear to be pho. It bore a close resemblance to ramen.
Many of Ripert’s 658,000 followers jumped all over the mistake, calling it yet another instance of cultural appropriation: a white chef laying claim to an indigenous cuisine he knows nothing about. Cultural appropriation in food is nothing new, as anyone who has been in Taco Bell, Benihana or Olive Garden can attest. Recently, though, it has attained well-funded and well-publicized heights.
Thomas Keller raised many eyebrows when he opened a Mexican restaurant, La Candela, in Yountville, California, yet it was hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as an example of “cultural appropriation done right.” Gordon Ramsay didn’t get off quite as easy with Lucky Cat in London, an establishment that blends a number of Asian cuisines and was famously panned by critics. Even though neither chef is French by birth, it’s interesting that they drew no criticism when they opened French restaurants—at least, they weren’t accused of capitalizing on a foreign cuisine they had not been born into.
While wealthy white chefs make soft targets, the reality of cultural appropriation in food is complicated. When the first Northern Italian restaurants arrived in this country, they were widely criticized for not being authentic (that is, they didn’t smother everything with tomato sauce and they failed to offer red-and-white checkered tablecloths and table lamps made from Chianti bottles). It was only when large numbers of Americans began traveling to Tuscany that Northern Italian cuisine became chic in America. No one seems to really criticize Olive Garden or Taco Bell anymore, either: people who are interested in real Italian or Mexican food simply go elsewhere.
Yes, it would be nice if more delicatessens and bagel shops were operated by Jewish people, although that doesn’t seem likely (if you’re unclear about the difference, compare Russ and Daughters in lower Manhattan to your neighborhood bagel joint). And the truth is that we live in a melting pot where the most interesting restaurants fuse influences from all over the globe. And yes, Ripert should have known better, given that he trekked all over Asia with Anthony Bourdain. What’s in a name? Had he called the dish an Asian-inspired entrée soup, few people would have had cause for complaint.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, has been re-released on Amazon in print, e-book and audio book formats. Has America’s greatest chef cut a deal with Satan for fame and fortune?