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Whose food is it, anyway? How chefs can approach ‘ethnic’ cuisine respectfully

TORONTO

Whose food is it, anyway?

Can a white chef authentically sell goat curry? And, even if they can, should they? Ann Hui investigates what it means to be a 'culture vulture' and how to approach 'ethnic' cuisine respectfully

Albert Wiggan speaks with a customer in his restaurant, Albert’s Real Jamaican Foods, on Thursday.

Over the past few months, construction teams have been working in the heart of the King West restaurant district to transform a 127-year-old row house into a new restaurant, scheduled to open this fall, called Chubby's Jamaican Kitchen.

The restaurateur behind the splashy space is industry powerhouse Janet Zuccarini and her Gusto 54 group, best known for Yorkville's Trattoria Nervosa and Gusto 101 on Portland Street. When Chubby's opens, Ms. Zuccarini has promised, it will be "like no other Jamaican restaurant the city has ever seen."

The launch of yet another buzzy venue in the King West area would normally attract little notice. Seemingly every week, a handful of new "restaurant concepts" open and close in the area. But even before it opened its doors, the restaurant has sparked rumblings in the food world, especially after Ms. Zuccarini issued a news release announcing the new venture.

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"I love Jamaican food," Ms. Zuccarini said in the announcement, "and always thought we needed an amazing Jamaican restaurant in Toronto."

It was the latter part of the comment that rubbed many people the wrong way: Black Foodie blogger Eden Hagos quickly corrected Ms. Zuccarini's seemingly cavalier assessment of the city's restaurant scene: "There are great Jamaican restaurants in Toronto already," Ms. Hagos said in an interview. "A lot." Others called the comment disrespectful, especially given that Ms. Zuccarini is Canadian-born and white, as is the executive chef of her restaurant group, Elio Zannoni.

"It's a fuzzy line," said Dan Bender, a food historian at the University of Toronto. "But that [comment] is so far over the line."

And Albert Wiggan, the 62-year-old restaurateur who has quietly run Albert's Real Jamaican for the past 33 years, had a simple response.

"Toronto already has an amazing Jamaican restaurant," he said, from his popular takeout spot at Bathurst and St. Clair West. "It's called Albert's."

Despite the seemingly never-ending lineups at his counter, Mr. Wiggan is careful never to call his food or his place the best in town – only one of many great Jamaican restaurants. But he's aware that unassuming venues such as his rarely receive the sort of attention that Ms. Zuccarini's restaurant has – a fact that others have commented on, expressing long-standing frustrations over the way "ethnic" food is perceived and treated by the food world.

"There are amazing Jamaican restaurants in this town, but they're not recognized until someone with this fancy tag decides to 'bring Jamaican food to the people,'" said Joshna Maharaj, a chef and activist. "It's ridiculous."

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Janet Zuccarini is the force behind such Toronto locales as Trattoria Nervosa and Gusto 101, which is seen above.

For her part, Ms. Zuccarini says she meant no offence and took pains to clarify her earlier statement.

"There's a lot of Jamaican restaurants here where the food might be amazing," she said, "but the decor does not match the food."

But others had another way to describe the source of their irritation: Cultural appropriation.

"It happens all the time. They say 'We're elevating it,'" Vanessa Yu said. "To say that is to embed it with the assumption that it needs to be elevated." Ms. Yu is a food advocate who runs caterToronto, which connects newcomers from diverse communities with opportunities in the food business.

Over and over, she said, immigrant cuisines are "repackaged and remarketed" – but rarely in a way that rewards or benefits those same groups.

Ms. Yu, as well as every other person interviewed by The Globe and Mail, made clear that she believes everyone should be able to cook and enjoy everyone else's food. But, she said, there's a key difference between sharing and appropriating.

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"People say, 'How do I not culturally appropriate?' The easiest thing is just to be respectful," she said.

"Are you respecting people from the past who have done this before, and are currently still doing it?"

Chubby's is just the latest example in a growing, messy debate with many different opinions but few clear answers. Earlier this year, even poutine – the beloved national symbol – was pulled into the debate, with a Montreal researcher claiming the dish had been stolen from Quebec. As the conversation around cultural appropriation continues to spread – from music and literature to the arts and, now, to food – chefs are increasingly finding themselves faced with uncomfortable questions about their own power, race and privilege.

Some of those questions include: When it comes to other culture's food, who gets to profit and who gets to take credit? And, in a world with as many blurred boundaries as food: Where is the line between "ambassadorship" and appropriation?


"Should white chefs sell burritos?"

To talk about theft when it comes to food seems, at first, absurd. Culinary traditions around the world have always relied on sharing and borrowing other people's ideas. For a while, it was called "fusion." Other times, it's described as "innovation."

Meanwhile, there's a long tradition of chefs who have made names for themselves by cooking other cultures' foods. Many of the world's most famous French or Italian chefs are in fact neither. Julia Child was beloved for introducing middle America to French food.

And one of the most famous ramen cooks anywhere is Ivan Orkin, who is white, Jewish and from New York.

But somewhere down that road, the idea of "sharing" gets complicated.

Earlier this year, two white women in Portland, Ore., shut down their burrito cart after controversy erupted over comments they made to a local newspaper. In an interview with Willamette Week, they bragged about how they had grilled "every tortilla lady" in Mexico for recipes, "peeking into the windows of every kitchen" whenever one refused to divulge her secrets.

And in Toronto, a white woman sparked outrage for selling $20-pots of organic, " artisanal" ghee, a type of clarified butter used in South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines, she learned to make from unnamed "elderly Indian women on a farm in Northern India." For her photograph in the Toronto Star, she posed wearing a sari.

Albert Wiggan is photographed in his Toronto restaurant.

Each of those incidents sparked accusations of cultural appropriation – concerns that privileged white cooks were getting credit for exploiting the work of other people and their food. In each of those incidents, the accusations weren't simply about the act of borrowing, but rather, the approach to borrowing – taking without asking, and not giving credit.

The offence seemed greater because the "borrowing" came from marginalized or economically-disadvantaged communities.

Bon Appétit magazine, meanwhile, raised ire when it posted a video of a white chef with the headline: "PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho." In this case, the anger was at the idea of a white cook being treated as a "pioneer" or authority on Vietnamese cuisine.

But with each of these examples, the backlash inspired even more backlash. Many confused or conflated the issues, as if the cultural-appropriation debate was simply about whether white people could continue to eat sushi burritos.

Others questioned the very idea of appropriation – whether food or culture really "belongs" to anyone. They asked whether "ambassadorship" was being mistaken for exploitation.

To Ms. Zuccarini, that's the very idea behind Chubby's. "I'm coming from loving a culture and loving a cuisine and wanting to share in it," she said.

Albert Wiggan speaks with his customer Leslyn Simpson.

"Everything from having this affinity towards Jamaica and the food and the culture to also loving reggae music. Whenever I hear reggae music, I feel very transported – I feel like I'm on vacation, and I'm thinking it'd be this great idea to create this transporting experience here in Toronto."

She's made efforts to ensure Jamaican input is included in the project, such as hiring a Jamaican-born chef de cuisine, Donavon Campbell. She also sent a sous chef on a three-week trip to tour the Caribbean island. And one of the leaders on the project is of Jamaican descent.

Ms. Zuccarini also says she plans to look for ways to give back to Jamaican communities through her restaurant's charity projects.

When asked about accusations of appropriation, she sounded horrified. "I don't even know what that means," she said. "I don't see culture or colour or religion. I just don't."

Another Toronto restaurateur, Andrew Richmond, who runs the enormously popular La Carnita "Mexican Street Cuisine" chain, had a similar response. "We just cook good food, and we love Mexican food," he said. "I don't really see race. It's not really something that we think about."

But to critics, that's exactly the point.

Anthony Bonnuck and Courtney Brown chop up ox tail at Albert’s Real Jamaican Foods.


"I don't get to take off my brown skin"

If the block around Bathurst and St. Clair is its own small town, Mr. Wiggan could very well be mayor.

For decades, his restaurant has been known as the go-to spot for some of the best oxtail or curry goat in the city. And on any given day, Mr. Wiggan can be found shaking hands and greeting customers – the vast majority of whom he seems to know by name.

The door at Albert's is almost always open, an endless stream of customers filing in and walking out with styrofoam takeout containers. The walls are covered with certificates for the work Mr. Wiggan does in the community – as a business owner, but also as an advocate for people with learning disabilities (he was diagnosed with dyslexia in his 20s).

The casual spot is clearly a success, but Mr. Wiggan, who moved from Jamaica to Canada in 1977, has also dreamed of doing exactly what Ms. Zuccarini is doing now: opening a fancy restaurant downtown. He pictures it in his mind, a grin spreading across his face.

"There would be a waterfall," he says. Nice furniture. Waiters and real china.

But it's never been possible. A big reason, he says, is the perception of ethnic food, and especially, ethnic food cooked by "ethnic" cooks: In the minds of most Toronto diners, it needs to be cheap and cheerful.

Many of the ingredients on Mr. Wiggan's menu are imported and costly. Others, such as oxtail, have suddenly become trendy, meaning the price has quadrupled in recent years from about 90 cents a pound to $4.50.

Yet people still expect to leave his restaurant spending less than $20.

"People think 'West Indian food, why's it expensive?'" he said.

With Chubby's, Ms. Zuccarini said she hopes to open doors for other Caribbean restaurants. But some say high-end venues such as hers can have the opposite effect.

"They reinforce a sense of hierarchy, reinforce a sense of class and … that notion that some people are cooks and others 'rare chefs,'" said Prof. Bender, the historian.

"That actually has real ramifications for other Jamaican restaurants in the city, that they can't climb beyond a certain price point."

Advocates say there's a long list of other barriers faced by newcomers and non-white food workers, too – everything from language and technology, to access to training and the ability to get funding.

"Are African-Caribbean restaurant owners able to get loans at the same rate as other people? Do they have mentors in the industry? What are the perceptions of their cuisines, and does that limit them or their pricing? Those are things that should be included in the conversation when talking about these issues," Ms. Hagos, the blogger, said.

It's those inequities that are key to understanding the difference between appreciation and appropriation, Ms. Maharaj said. Instead of pretending that cultural and racial differences don't exist, she said chefs need to be aware of them, and acknowledge them.

"At the end of the day, I don't get to take off my brown skin and become a white person and enjoy all this nice privilege in the world," she said.

"I think we're in a position now where those who come from traditions that have had power need to understand that they have to wear that, too," she said.

Joshna Maharaj is a chef and activist.


"When you do goat, it's 'ethnic'"

About 10 years ago, Bashir Munye was cooking at a high-profile fundraising event when he was asked to choose from a variety of meats to cook with. His immediate instinct was to reach for the goat. But his friend stopped him. "You can't do goat," his friend, who was white, told him.

"When I do goat, it's 'exotic.' When you do goat, it's 'ethnic.'"

Over time, Mr. Munye has grown increasingly frustrated by these prejudices. "Half of the world's population – from the Mediterranean, throughout Asia, South and Central America – consumes goat," he said. He let out a small laugh. "But it's ethnic."

As a Somali-born, Italian-raised chef who has spent most of his early career working in European-focused restaurants in Toronto, Mr. Munye's palate is informed by flavours from around the world. But as a young culinary student here, and throughout his early years of cooking, he was constantly told that the French way was the right way, and that everything he'd grown up learning was less worthy.

He was told the spices and seasonings he loved were not "refined." He avoided many of the ingredients he loved.

Evidence of these same prejudices can be seen at every turn in the food world: On San Pellegrino's World's Top Restaurant list this year, only three of the top 10 entries focus on cuisine from outside of Europe or North America. Otherwise progressive food writers and TV personalities think nothing of using words such as "exotic," "bizarre," or "cheap eats" to describe other cultures' foods. NYU professor Krishnendu Ray's study measuring Americans' willingness to pay for certain ethnicities' cuisine over time (the most for French food, and much less for Chinese, Vietnamese, or Indian) found those answers were also deeply intertwined with perceptions of race, class and social status.

This feeling of being made to feel ashamed of his own culture's food is what makes it especially disappointing for Mr. Munye to see white restaurateurs now cashing in on those very same foods, or describing them as a "hot new trend." He calls them "culture vultures."

Mr. Munye now teaches in the George Brown culinary program and also runs the Nomadic Dinner series, which showcases different varieties of African cuisine while weaving in all of the different cultures that he loves.

What separates him from "culture vultures," he said, is his approach to these cultures' foods: educating himself on the customs and traditions, and not trying to be the "spokesperson" for others.

"Nobody wants to deny someone the privilege of cooking, learning, sharing," Mr. Munye said.

"But when you don't have any knowledge or relationship with that community, except that you want to do the next new, cool thing – then you should think about that community's struggle, and your own personal privilege."

Back at Albert's Real Jamaican, Mr. Wiggan's attention turned to the parking lot outside his restaurant. He spotted a car parked out front, and had an idea.

"When Hyundais first came out," he said, glancing over at the car, "nobody wanted to buy them. But now look at them. They're all fancy." The Hyundai, for him, was a metaphor for Jamaican cuisine.

"If someone wants to do something and do their own spin on it and they're successful, then more power to them," he said. He paused, then added a caveat.

"But just remember where it came from."

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