Luke Tsai in East Bay Express: Cooking Other People's Food: How Chefs Appropriate Bay Area 'Ethnic' Cuisine [Oakland, Berkeley]




Here in the East Bay, often it’s chefs with Chez Panisse pedigrees who own and operate some of the most-heralded restaurants, from Japanese ramen spots to upscale Mexican eateries. And when food reporters write about these places, there’s a tendency to talk about how the chefs have “elevated” the traditional versions of the cuisine, whether it be through farm-to-table sourcing or fine-dining cooking techniques.

We need to have a talk, then, about this matter of cooking other people’s foods and whether it’s possible for chefs to do so in a respectful manner. Otherwise, the restaurant industry will always be rigged in favor of what Preeti Mistry, the chef-owner of Temescal’s Juhu Beach Club, calls the “Iggy Azaleas” of the ethnic-dining scene: overhyped, culturally appropriative restaurants whose stories dominate the blogosphere and prominent food magazines, even as their white owners and chefs wonder why everyone always has to make a big deal about race.

Restaurants and chefs mentioned:
The Kebabery (not yet open), Kamdesh, Aria Grill, Oasis Food Market and its sister restaurant, Oasis Kitchen, Empellon (New York City), Preeti Mistry, the chef-owner of Temescal’s Juhu Beach Club, Russell Moore at Camino, Ramen Shop in Rockridge ,Chez Panisse, Comal in Berkeley, Eddie Huang, Charlie Hallowell at Penrose, Jay Porter chef-owner of The Half Orange, in Oakland’s Fruitvale District, Togi’s Mongolian Cuisine in downtown Oakland, Sophina Uong and Calavera in Uptown Oakland, Cosecha


An interesting article. It brought to mind this Washington Post article from 2015, which takes a very different view.

Also, Luke Tsai has posted on HO.


The Sporkful has a 5-part series on Other People’s Food. I’ve linked part 1

It’s such a tricky topic because the line between what is culturally authentic and respectful is different for everyone. The first episode with Rick Bayless was really well done.


That is a great series. Thank you for sharing.

I’d been a defender of Bayless before that interview, and was surprised to hear him deny having had any sort of white male privilege in the restaurant industry. Seriously?


I wonder if Moore and Hopelain of Camino aren’t just willing to take a flyer with The Kebabery with not too much downside. The rent could be more than reasonable because that part of North Oakland at Market and 42nd Street, a few blocks northeast of the hub at San Pablo Ave and 40th St, is littered with places such as Commonwealth, and Cafe Biere at Adeline & 40th Streets and Salsipuedes which just couldn’t make a go of it.

According to some articles from last June, Moore’s plan for Kebabery is for take-out, catering, and casual dining with sandwiches, salads and grilled kebobs - all items that might not need the range of resources of a heavy-duty kitchen.

The places that have lasted in the neighborhood such as Homeroom and Hog’s Apothecary are a few blocks east and are on the more heavily trafficked 40th Street corridor that links MacArthur BART and the expanding Broadway area near Kaiser. There are still authentic Middle East dishes at Oasis Market and Marwa Market at Telegraph and 31st Streets with fresh breads and kebabs


Let the food do the talking. If it’s authentic, it’s authentic. The informed food cognoscenti can discern for themselves what is good and what is proper cuisine - even if a so-called “ethnic” cuisine is cooked by a chef who is not of that race or national origin. “Foodies,” on the other hand, often fall for certain buzzwords. In part, savvy marketers leverage the cachet of these buzzwords, but perhaps there’s a less commercial explanation, too: the food media (which, btw, is for the most part rather hackneyed) continues to rehash information and promote fodder to foodies’ expectations by repeating these buzzwords. A chef’s pedigree is a salient detail because there’s a correlation, but not necessarily a causal relationship, between a chef’s pedigree and his/her ability to cook good food. The question becomes to what extent the chef’s pedigree will translate to successful cooking of food belonging to an ethnicity or culture that isn’t originally theirs.

But for people being able to really try the food and have an informed perspective to evaluate it, we are left to rely on whatever information we have from food media or word of mouth. When one is trying to decide on where to eat when there’s 50+ options of the same cuisine, heuristics would tell him/her that such pedigree or background is a good starting point to narrow down the field of what might be good.

Can a non-Japanese chef make good Japanese food? Sure, as long as he/she understands the cuisine and the principles underlying it. Why there’s a greater chance of a Japanese chef making proper Japanese food, however, is that the Japanese chef should have naturally been steeped in Japanese culture and therefore have a good understanding of the elements that make particular Japanese dishes good. Take, for example, dashi - many non-Japanese chefs get this wrong, even high-end places like Manresa don’t quite get this, imo. On the other hand, some of the best sashimi I’ve had was at Saison - not just in terms of quality, but in how the texture and flavor demonstrated they knew exactly what they were doing with a Japanese-inspired dish, even if the food isn’t Japanese.

Ultimately, it depends on each individual chef and/or restaurant, as well as the cuisine a chef is trying to tackle. Blanket statements about whether a restaurant with “ethnic” cuisine will be good or not based on the pedigree of a chef are useless.

My take has always been to find people who demonstrate tastes similar to yours and/or who have a very good understanding of what makes a particular cuisine good. Follow them, and largely ignore food media, San Pellegrino lists, blogs, etc. I partly blame people like Bauer, who seem to often be uninformed about good “ethnic” food. You can tell by not only the restaurants they choose, but also by what they choose to focus on when they write a review.


Everything we’ve tasted at Topolobampo and Frontera Grill has been genuinely tasty; and the wine program is serious.

(Jeane) #8

Honest, I just do not “get” the whole issue. Am I missing the point (I’ll admit maybe I am, lol)?

Personally, “ethnic authenticity” not something I worry about much. A great chef is a great chef, and there’s not as many around as we like to think.

Sophina Uong’s Cambodian by race and Californian by upbringing. If that disqualifies her from making the most amazing fried green tomatoes at Pican, or the sous-vide goat at Revival; let alone Calavera’s stunning chile verde salsa (SO MUCH better than before under Irabien) and octopus ceviche with avocado and pineapple…well, all I can say is, those folks can feel free to stay away and give up their seats to us. Woohoo!

We have followed her to three restaurants and will continue to do so as long as she remains in the Bay Area. She is one of the very few chefs we do follow, in fact.

As an Asian I don’t feel insulted when someone else wants to cook Asian food. Banks White, another chef we follow, cooks SE Asian food better than 95% of the SE Asian restaurants in the Bay Area. My Hong Kong-born DH has been impressed every time by White’s cooking, whether at FIVE or at The Keystone. He remarked he’s never encountered a non-Asian chef before - and that includes Douglas Keane, btw - who has such a perfect feel for Asian flavors.

I’m not sure of the exact percentages, but I understand the majority of restaurant help, including line cooks and up-and-coming chefs, are Hispanics. So…are we supposed to suddenly limit them to “only” cooking Latin American food?

One of the greatest Cantonese chefs I ever knew made a luscious grilled Porterhouse steak with Chinese flavors that remains the best beef I’ve ever eaten, and I’m 65 yrs old with a whole lot of Chicago steak around my waistline. It was better than any steakhouse could do. Should I have dissed it because it wasn’t “authentically U.S.”?

After all, my grandmother was “authentically” Japanese, from Tokyo; one of the first women to graduate from college back in the 1870’s, in fact. But I’m sorry to report, she was a lousy cook. I mean, seriously awful. Every one of my nine aunts and uncles agree on that. She s&*#ked in the kitchen, although she loved growing food. I could certainly make you a dinner that is just like what she used to do, but authentic doesn’t automatically mean good, in any language.

Now, if we are talking about (today’s) restaurants that exist on hype and race from trend to trend, wouldn’t that be more the restaurateur and VCs? There aren’t really that many chefs who are so well known that a new restaurant bearing their name will be an automatic success. Look at some of the recent 'crash and burn" new places that have recently closed in Napa and the Mid-Market SF. So much more, as Bradford points out, is involved in whether a restaurant succeeds or not.

The issue just seems a bit absurd if we’re looking at real-life examples. Do we throw stones at Michael Chiarello because he loved Spanish food enough to open Coqueta? I’m willing to throw the verbal brickbats if I don’t like the restaurant’s cooking - but not from the idea that he has no right as an Italian-American to cook Spanish food.

“Respect” is such a loaded word. There’s plenty of “authentic” young chefs cooking their heritage that I personally don’t respect as chefs at all. I think we all have different standards, and that’s a GOOD thing. That’s why the Bay Area supports so many varied restaurants at all price levels, of so many cuisines, with such enthusiastic creativity.

One problem with ethnic cooking is that the quality of ingredients limits it. I just don’t see what’s wrong with using better quality sourcing.

It reminds me of what I said to my in-laws, the first time I tried their beloved pressed rice with the Chinese preserved duck (those flattened ducks you see hanging on clotheslines in the backyards of SF Sunset homes).

“Okay, this is what you do when you don’t have refrigerators!”


This comment from Peter Chang on Luke’s article in the East Bay Express caught my eye and rang a few bells in my head. I think that Peter Chang nailed it.


The Bay Area (and primarily SF) has traditionally been covered by Michael Bauer and collectively the places he writes about are very different than Gold’s portfolio. This has undoubtedly informed the palates of the Bay Area. Why is it a big surprise, then, that people prefer Comal to El Paisa when nobody even bothers to review El Paisa (until Luke did so last year, 7 years after it opened)? For years, Chowhound was a far better place to learn about interesting eateries than any of the normal media outlets (and its descent into uselessness is a sad story for another day). But CH fame isn’t enough by any stretch to lead thousands of people to try a place or cuisine or dish that’s outside their comfort zone, to turn Jitlada into JITLADA. It’s not impossible: Burma Superstar has turned everybody into a tea leaf salad expert; Turtle Tower is the reference for many people’s pho ga. These places are out there, but we need help separating the good from the mediocre.

(Felice) #10

I think he nailed it too. I don’t blame the chefs, I blame the media people who created the environment for this subpar formula for restaurant success. The number of lauded but mediocre $20-$30 entree restaurants is astonishing despite the existence of good, inexpensive ethnic restaurants that are underappreciated, and I definitely blame the media for this phenomenon.

If consumers were more educated about ethnic foods, then the americanized spin-offs would have to stand on their own in terms of how the food tastes compared to “more authentic” versions. Instead, these spin-offs become the benchmark for the general public (not the readers here) and an understanding of the food origin is lost.

I remember being mortified when friends in college thought Chinese food was all about sweet and sour pork and kung pao chicken. I imagine that a similar kind of ignorance would bother the owners of the ethnic restaurants, especially if the spin-offs can charge more and attract more customers. I might be reaching here, but is this why Thai restaurants don’t make their food spicy, bitter, or pungent?


" Twenty Restaurants to Consider When Eating ‘Ethnic’ in the East Bay"

Luke in the new 9/1/16 issue of the East Bay Express:

a few readers asked me to put together a list of restaurants run by people of color who do have direct cultural connections [to] the food that they’re serving — a kind of “If you like X, you should try Y instead” guide for the “woke” diner. While this is right up my alley (see last year’s list of “Ten Quintessential Oakland Restaurants”), I also don’t want to set up some kind of false binary wherein a certain kind of mom-and-pop restaurant is good, and therefore the ones run by non-native, pedigreed chefs are bad and shouldn’t be supported.

But I’m not opposed to culinary innovation, or to chefs expanding their knowledge base by immersing themselves in a new cuisine, or to the kind of cross-pollination that takes place when this is done in a thoughtful way. My hope is just to tone down some of the hype — or to at least distribute it in a more equitable way.

Kamdesh, Grocery Cafe, Vientian Cafe, Hawker Fare, Togi’s Mongolian Cuisine, Classic Guilin Rice Noodles, Masala Cuisine, A Taste of Africa, Katalina’s Island Grill, Tamales La Oaxaquena, Parekoy Lutong Pinoy, Borinquen Soul, Norma’s Meat & Deli, Kingston 11, Miss Ollie’s, AS B-Dama, Delage, FuseBOX, Juhu Beach Club, Hawker Fare, Image


I thought it was an interesting, thoughtful article about an issue of assets and access to capital. Sure, the business area is “restaurants,” but I don’t think food and cooking are the actual stuff of this debate. It’s about launching and running a business – one that is challenging and highly competitive for everyone – and what demographic group is more likely to have access to the financial resources that will 1) improve their odds for survival; 2) allow them to attempt a higher-end venue that will garner “serious” attention.

I applaud Luke Tsai for bringing attention to the structural issues in the restaurant industry but I wish it wouldn’t get so entwined with the who-cooks-what-better discussion.

(Katy) #13

I take your point. But I think the argument isn’t that a chef cooking a different ethnicity food can or cannot do it as well as the chef of that ethnicity. It’s about the disparity in publicity and respect that the white chef gets when he decides to make that food. There are so many delicious example of ‘ethnic’ restaurants that labor anonymously and with little profit or recognition. Suddenly their food is taken on by white chef and gets ‘upgraded’ and it’s now given respectability, cooldom and success. I can see that that’s a genuine concern.

(Jeane) #14

Dueling food writers - pens drawn at twenty paces, LOL:

Peter Kane of SF Weekly returned to Calavera in his 8/24/2016 column and agrees that chef Sophina Uong - one of the ‘you’re not the right ethnicity’ chefs Tsai specifically points to - is indeed doing a more successful job at Calavera than did opening day chef Christian Irabien.

I loved his perfect description, too: “… it’s cool to see a Cambodian-American woman leading a Mexican restaurant, which further erodes distinctions between artificial categories.”

The full read is at

(Minhua) #15

This reminds me of the earlier thread here about the ability of non-Japanese Asians to serve quality Japanese cuisine.

(Jeane) #16

One of the issues I have with ethnic restaurants is not only the generally poorer quality of their ingredients - mind you, we’re lovers of lamb and goat breast cuts, as well as most offal - but is also sometimes just the mindset.

There’s a Nepalese restaurant we adore, with a dish that is common to many Nepalese restaurants/home cooks. It’s one of those “everybody’s got their own version” dishes, so there is NO definitive recipe (not that there ever really is, for most dishes, lol).

I told the waitress, a family member, that if they used that gravy with some other meat, or even changed concept and did a fusion-type dish, it would be a sensation.

Her answer was a shocked, “Oh, no! We only use that sauce with that specific meat, NOTHING else!”

It’s not the first time we’ve run into this mind-set, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Now we personally think this family’s cooks run rings around Juhu Beach/Oakland and Rasa/Burlingame. They could easily wipe those two off the map if they tried. But they just can’t imagine integrating traditional and modern cuisines. It’s going to take another generation, or an outsider, to do so.

Asian cooking in Asia is undergoing tremendous changes under Western influences and their own increased prosperity. Nothing ever stays the same. I think what we, as diners, can do is to welcome the new while also supporting the traditional flavors, no matter who is in the kitchen.

If it takes a celebrity chef to bring a concept to popularity, is that such a bad thing? Again, do we throw brickbats at Paul Canales (born in Texas) and Michael Chiarello (born in CA) for bringing Spanish tapas to our consciousness? From everything I’ve heard, Teleferic Barcelona/WCreek isn’t so great, despite having a “genuine” Spanish pedigree.

My DH, who’s a graduate of City College’s hotel & restaurant management program, where you’re essentially forced to work as a waiter all through school because of how they schedule the classes, thought it was hysterical that this issue was even raised.

“Most cooks don’t deserve being called chefs,” was his response, “and a good chef is a good chef, regardless of what s/he chooses to cook. It’s what comes out of the kitchen that counts, and it all comes down to flavor. That’s ALL that matters!”


It’s what’s on the plate that matters, not labels and pigeon holes that are the post office’s province, or reassurance to only those uncomfortable with their senses. Could Marian Anderson sing Verdi? Aretha Franklin Donizetti? Could Eric Clapton play the blues? Paul Butterfield?

(Gary Soup) #18

Or could Donald Trump dance to gospel hymns?


(Therese) #20

I’m very intrigued by this unnamed Nepalese restaurant, dish, and chef.

I agree with most posters in this thread who have read the article that the issue is primarily who gets credit, financing, and fame for their dishes. Part of that lies with food writers, and, like felice says, the generic consumer’s lack of familiarity with many of the foods, and often a distrust of the unfamiliar.

One issue that hasn’t been talked about too much is that often the upscaling of the pricetag comes with a shift in preparations to market to the more conservative palate. Often spice or other strong flavors are reduced, chewy textures eliminated, more tender and less flavorful cuts of meat are used. And most of my oldest friends are the sort who appreciate this de-spicing (that’s why I go to chowdowns), explainering of things pretty basic to the remotely food aware, and assurance that they won’t bite into any “weird” meat.