Today is GiveBIG, the Seattle Foundation's annual day of enhanced donation. There are a ton of worthy organizations to support—The Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project and Crosscut come to mind—but one I'm particularly interested in as a food writer: The Ethnic Business Coalition (EBC). Why?
Simply put, because I'm so tired of hearing people bitch pointlessly about cultural appropriation. Complaining that white chefs shouldn't ever cook pho or tacos or pad Thai misses the point by so many miles, and does little to address the actual issues of inequality at play in the restaurant business. As Edouardo Jordan recently pointed out, it's doesn't matter so much what white people are cooking as what they're being compensated for doing it. Is it vastly more than the immigrant family down the street, even though it's the same food served in about the same environs at about the same level of service? Now that's some bullshit.
However, if a white dude makes the same food as the guy in the taco truck down the street, but does it in the context of a "fine casual concept," it kind of makes sense to me why he gets to charge double: We're suckers for table service and reclaimed wood.
That said, there's no reason chefs of color can't do the same—the first person to break the $10 pho barrier was, after all, was Eric Banh at Monsoon—but, as they say, it takes money to make money. Banh was canny enough to take simple Vietnamese food, execute it really well, pair it with fancy wine, and do it all in the sort of setting that made people feel comfortable dropping $200-$300 on a dinner for four. But he also had investors to help him create that setting, and he immigrated from Canada, where he was an accountant. I'm guessing that helped more than a little bit with understanding how to operate a successful business in a Western country.
There are certainly elements of the classic Seattle brand of passive racism at play in the restaurant world—like when people walk into Jordan's high end PNW/New American restaurant and ask him nicely who the chef is, because it can't be the black man they're talking to, or insist that a certain ethnic dish should never cost "more than $X"—but I think there's also a shitload of economic and structural racism at play here. Immigrant and minority communities are not rife with liquid assets, and there's also the issue of good old fashioned American bureaucracy, which has a bias towards college educated white folks pretty well baked into it.
"Small business owners who are non-native born are generally not good self-advocates, due to language or cultural barriers," the EBC's GiveBIG page notes. "Furthermore, immigrants and refugees from war-torn countries and autocratic societies have harder times to work with governments and bureaucratic authorities. This sentiment is understandably shared with native born POC and those who grew up in marginalized community."
Though it was created with a vaguely anti-$15 agenda back in 2014, which is a little awkward given how totally fine that's been for the restaurant industry, the actual things it does for immigrant and minority restauranteurs are super tangible and super awesome.
They've got a renovation grant that actually results in renovations, they do lobbying, they walk businesses through complex permitting processes, they offer financial literacy assistance. Hell, they even do hood cleaning.
Perhaps most importantly, given how closely linked what we will pay for food is with how it's marketed to us, they help aggressively market and promote those businesses via Ethnic Seattle, a local blog (edited by the wonderful Rosin Saez, who knows a thing or two about food writing) dedicated to immigrant/POC-owned businesses. As their PR person put it, "Ethnic Seattle shines a light on what EBC does, from combatting the 'Cheap Eats' labels of ethnic restaurateurs to strengthening Little Saigon’s community, and more."
I donated $15, which is about what I'd spend on my typical 3pm, "holy shit I forgot to eat again" Feed Co. order, and I'd urge anyone else bothered by the racial disparities of the restaurant industry to do the same. They've got up to $25,000 in matching funds available, so hopefully a lot of you packed a sandwich today.