Chef Rick Bayless: The face of upscale Mexican cuisine in America.
Chef Rick Bayless: The face of upscale Mexican cuisine in America. Chef Rick Bayless / Facebook

Earlier this week, WNYC’s food podcast the Sporkful launched a series of episodes, called “Other People’s Food,” to explore what happens when we cook and consume the food of cultures outside of the ones we were born into. As much as food brings different kinds of people together, there’s still a wide distance between eating tacos and understanding Mexican culture.

In part one of “Other People’s Food,” host Dan Pashman speaks with a few different people, including a professor of Food Studies at NYU, an American-born Indian food blogger, and a black food writer. (Sporkful will release three more episodes next week.) You should listen to it.

Pashman begins the show in thoughtful conversation with Nick Cho, a Korean-American podcast listener from San Francisco. Last fall, Cho took issue with Pashman’s idea to improve the centuries-old, traditional Korean dish bi bim bap by making it in a pan, similar to a baking dish, that he called “bi bum bundt.”

“Sometimes it takes an outsider, someone free from the bonds of tradition, to see a new and better way,” Pashman wrote of his would-be invention.

“Can you understand why Koreans would be offended by your piece? Or are you too white? Serious q,” Cho countered on Twitter.

Pashman invited Cho to talk it through. Their discussion is a great one. It’s worth your time just to hear the moment when Pashman attempts to apologize, and how Cho reacts to that.

Unfortunately, the second half of the episode—an interview with renowned chef Rick Bayless—is horrifying. Bayless is widely considered to be the face of Mexican food in the United States, or at least upscale Mexican. He’s won seven James Beard awards, owns six restaurants in Chicago, has written nine cookbooks, and has a national line of salsas and tortilla chips. When the former president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, visited the White House in 2010, it was Bayless who cooked the state dinner.

The Salt, NPR’s food blog, published a story about the conversation between Pashman and Bayless titled “Is It OK When a Chef Cooks Other People’s Food?

To be honest, I don’t think this is a particularly important, or even interesting, question.

At this point in our dining culture, chefs draw inspiration from everywhere around the globe. Chefs are curious and creative people, and they should be allowed to cook whatever they want. Here in Seattle, chef Brandon Kirksey, who is white, makes very good Korean food at Girin. Every night at Bateau, sous chef Justin Legaspi, who is Filipino, makes beautiful food inspired by rustic French fare. One of Seattle’s most respected chefs, Jerry Traunfeld, who is white, uses the flavors of India and China’s Sichuan Province at his restaurants Poppy and Lionhead. For many years, the tajarin noodles that comprise Cascina Spinasse's most beloved dish (the Food Network recently named it one of the "Top 5 Italian Foods in America") were handmade by a Latino man named Martin Islas. At Kedai Makan, which I recently reviewed, non-Malaysian chef Kevin Burzell dives deep into the complex flavors of Malaysian cuisine. I could go on.

All of these chefs have the right to cook the food they want. People may not like it, and that’s also their right. But the conversation about whether or not it is okay distracts from the real issue: privilege.

The simple truth is that it is easier for white chefs like Bayless or Traunfeld (or Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker) to become enamored or passionate about another culture’s cuisine, get lauded for it, and make money off of it—easier than people from that culture. It’s an idea food writer Francis Lam touched on back in 2012 in this New York Times article about chefs including Bayless and Ricker.

“Some reasons are obvious,” Lam wrote. “An American-born chef is more likely than an immigrant to have the connections and the means to grab investors or news media attention—even more so if the chef came up through a prestigious restaurant or culinary school or is quick with a witty quote. Diners’ familiarity and comfort levels can play a part, and can even edge into prejudice.”

That’s not to say that white chefs don’t work very hard to be successful. Many devote years of their lives to the study and understanding of cuisines that, at first, are utterly foreign to them. They dedicate time and energy to educating their diners. The point is: It’s complicated and awkward even at its most earnest.

Which is why it’s infuriating to listen to Pashman’s interview with Bayless, because he's a white chef who seems completely incapable of seeing any of his own privilege. He begins by talking about how he fell in love with Mexican cuisine in 1967. A fourteen-year-old Bayless, fresh from a year of eighth-grade Spanish, convinced his parents to take a trip to Mexico City on a whim.

“I made all the airline reservations, the hotel reservations,” Bayless says, before wondering, “why any parent would allow their fourteen-year-old to do this.”

Privilege, both financial and cultural, makes international travel not only a possibility, but a leisure activity.

A few minutes later, Pashman asks Bayless, "Do you think that at times in your career it has been to your advantage to be white?"

“I certainly have never thought about that,” Bayless says. (The luxury of being able to never think about race is pretty much the essence of white privilege in America.) He goes on to say that he “put everything together from nothing, basically, just like any other entrepreneur.”

Bayless not only refuses to acknowledge any sort of privilege, he goes so far as to say that he is actually the victim of the evil, mythical (dun-dun-dunhhhhhhh!) reverse racism.

“I know that there have been a number of people out there that criticized me only—only!—because of my race,” says Bayless. “Because I’m white, I can’t do anything with Mexican food. But we have to stop and say, ‘Oh wait, is that plain racism then?’”

In an admirable attempt to get his guest to acknowledge his white privilege, Pashman talks about his own. But he doesn’t go far enough. Until he and other food writers—or chefs, or diners—call out this privilege, the issue of whether or not it’s “okay” to cook other people’s food will always seem like way more of a head scratcher than it actually is.

It’s important to recognize that privilege isn’t just white. It can be male, as New Yorker writer Hua Hsu noted in this article exploring Asian-American identity and recent cookbooks published by Asian-American chefs such as Dale Talde and Danny Bowien.

“It’s worth noting that the most famous Asian-American chefs are almost all men who chose cooking as a mode of self-expression; kitchen work was not a responsibility that the culture thrust upon them,” Hsu wrote.

Privilege, of course, isn’t entirely the domain of men. I’m a brown woman whose parents immigrated to the United States from the Philippines. They came with basically nothing, but they worked very hard, and I grew up decidedly upper-middle-class. I graduated from college debt-free, which has made it easier for me to pursue a career like writing, which doesn’t pay particularly well.

I’m aware that it’s a privilege to have this job—to have meals that I would otherwise not be able to afford covered as a work expense. It makes me aware, with every bite, how many years of thought and work and struggle can go into the opening of a restaurant, the making of a single dish.

In the opening episode of this important series about representing other cultures through cooking, Pashman introduces Bayless as someone who has thought “a lot about these issues.” But it’s obvious that Bayless hasn’t spent much time thinking about these ideas at all. The rest of us should.