Angela Hui’s disparaging review of Gordon Ramsay’s Lucky Cat pop-up has opened up a debate for restaurateurs when it comes to a white chef cooking the cuisine of another culture or country. Andy Lynes investigates
Gordon Ramsay is in hot water, again. If you’ve followed his career over the past quarter of a century, this will come as no surprise. You might be tempted to dismiss the latest controversy as just another in a long line of storms in teacups, that have included using Granny Smith apples at a demo to promote Bramleys and swearing too much on the telly. This time, however, Ramsay has become a lightning rod for something far more serious: the debate around cultural appropriation, an issue, it is becoming increasingly clear, that every chef and restaurateur needs to understand.
Although cultural appropriation is rooted in academic postcolonial studies, stemming from cultural critic Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism, in recent years the subject has gone mainstream. It’s a complex and nuanced concept that’s often addressed by the media in a sensationalist tabloid manner, where ‘political correctness gone mad’ headlines are whipped up over things like British students wearing Native American headdresses at festivals. The term can be simply defined as the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand and respect that culture.
Now, the launch of Ramsay’s Lucky Cat restaurant, which will open on the site of Maze in Grosvenor Square in June, and which he has called “a vibrant Asian eating house inspired by 1930s Tokyo” has brought the issue into sharp focus. What should have been something of a glorious homecoming for Ramsay, who hasn’t opened a new UK restaurant since Heddon Street Kitchen in 2014, has turned into a PR disaster.
In a report for the Eater London website, food writer Angela Hui described a preview pop-up dinner held at an events space in London’s Soho in early April as “a real-life Ramsay kitchen nightmare”. Hui said the best part of the meal was the wine, claimed that she was “the only east Asian person in a room full of 30-40 journalists and chefs” and also published a number of critical Instagram posts, including one which said: “Japanese, Chinese? It’s all Asian, who cares?”
Hui’s obvious indignation at Ramsay’s broad-brush approach to the restaurant’s concept, co-opting an entire continent’s cuisine in dishes such as Orkney scallop, yuzu and sweetcorn hot sauce, wasabi leaf and finger lime, was picked up across the media, even making the BBC’s Six O’Clock News and ITV’s Good Morning Britain, where chefs Neil Rankin and Aldo Zilli debated the prevalence of cultural appropriation in food.
Ramsay is far from the first hospitality figure to be embroiled in this type of row. Last year Jamie Oliver’s microwaveable Punchy Jerk Rice, a product sold in supermarkets, was hauled over the coals by MP Dawn Butler, who describes herself as African-Caribbean and who tweeted: “Your jerk rice is not OK. This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop.”
In New York, white chef Arielle Haspel courted controversy when she described the American-Chinese food at her Greenwich Village restaurant Lucky Lee’s as “clean”, while portraying traditional Chinese dishes as swimming in “globs of processed butter”, sodium and MSG. In an apologetic interview with The New York Times, Haspel said: “We were never trying to do something against the Chinese community.
We thought we were complementing an incredibly important cuisine in a way that would cater to people that had certain dietary requirements. Shame on us for not being smarter about cultural sensitivities.”
When white American TV personality and chef Andrew Zimmern opened Lucky Cricket, a Chinese restaurant in a mall in a Minneapolis suburb last year, he announced: “I think I’m saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horseshit restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest”. He then claimed that he had to introduce customers in the region to “hot chilli oil, and introduce them to a hand-cut noodle, and introduce them to a real roast duck”. In the face of accusations of cultural appropriation, Zimmern issued an apology on his Facebook page, stating: “It was never my intention to set myself up as the arbiter of quality Chinese or Chinese-American food or culture.”
What these examples make clear (apart from possibly avoiding the use of the word ‘Lucky’ in the name of your restaurant) is that in 2019 it is increasingly unacceptable for chefs and restaurateurs to play fast and loose with influences from cultures that are not their own.
“There’s a real power dynamic in this that can’t be ignored,” says food writer, academic and hospitality consultant Anna Sulan Masing. “Gordon Ramsay is an incredibly powerful person and there’s a complete lack of care and an arrogance to come in and say because I’m a big shot I can do this and no one is going to care.”
So does awareness of the issues around cultural appropriation mean that chefs in the 21st century are now required to call a halt to the magpie practices that have characterised modern British cooking? In particular those that, over the past 40 years or so (and, in fact, stretching back centuries to the emergence of the spice routes), have led to many European-style kitchens integrating things like dashi into their mise en place?
For Masing, it’s not what a chef cooks, but how they place themselves in the narrative of a particular dish or cuisine: “It’s completely OK to say: ‘I went to this place once and tried this amazing flavour and, for me, it was a revelation’,” she says. “But you also need to acknowledge that other people have been using it for a long time and ensure that there’s no language around the discovery, such as, ‘I’m introducing London or the UK to this flavour’.
“Explain that ‘it made me think of X and I’m pairing it with Y’, so that you are mapping out the connections in the narrative – you’re not making a sweeping statement. You can then have a discussion and it’s not negative because you’ve placed yourself within the story.”
London restaurant PR Hugh Richard Wright, whose clients include Korean street food restaurant On the Bab and Catalan restaurant Rambla, was ahead of the cultural appropriation curve when he published a blog post in January 2018 entitled: ‘For want of a nail…’. He described the backlash surrounding the opening of a nameless restaurant by “a group of chaps” offering “a particular cuisine in an area of London that is known for being home to some of the best places serving that particular cuisine, cooked by people from the countries whence it originated, to a local clientele who are fiercely loyal to them”.
He continued to say that they made “at best hubristic, at worst implicitly racist claims as to the quality of their food relative to that prepared by the [I paraphrase] savages serving up slop in the area to gullible fools who’d yet to try this premium product from people who knew better.”
Wright explains: “No one anywhere is saying that just because you’re not from a particular country or region or culture that you’re not allowed to cook that food. What people are saying is that if you going to do that, you need to research it, understand it and respect it.”
A little respect
One chef who has successfully served food from outside their own heritage is Brighton-based Alun Sperring, who has recently opened a second branch of his decade-old Indian brasserie the Chilli Pickle in Guildford. He admits that although he was criticised when he opened, he’s now earned respect “in the Indian world” as “this white English man, who is renowned for knowing his onions as far as Indian cuisine is concerned”. However, although he makes regular research trips to the subcontinent, he says authenticity is not necessarily the be-all and end-all.
“If we weren’t able to progress, we’d all be clubbing boar and cooking it over a bonfire,” he says. “I think one of the bonuses of not being from the land in question is you’ve got the opportunity to have a little bit of a freer way of thinking. I always wanted to have a nod to tradition but, for me, nothing is set in stone. Even with a classic dish that has its roots in a certain area and a certain village, you’ll find different interpretations from one house to the next.”
It seems that cultural appropriation controversies in hospitality are more likely to occur around the cuisines of east Asia, India and the Caribbean, while a chef like Theo Randall, for example, a British chef cooking Italian food, is unlikely to be criticised.
“Theo Randall making Italian food doesn’t change the narrative that Italians cook great, high-end Italian food,” says Masing. “Italian is very specific: he’s done his research and training and everyone knows that. If a European white dude cooks Asian food, it reiterates this idea that only white men can make Asian food at a high level; that the food from the continent of Asia is not good enough if it’s made by the local people. Asia is a massive continent and, with Lucky Cat, that interrogation of that culture and that understanding hasn’t happened.”
The issue is unquestionably a knotty one, but according to Masing, it doesn’t need to be daunting for chefs and restaurateurs. “You can research dishes and part of that research should be its cultural place; its space in the world. There is quite a lot of literature out there already and it’s predominately from the US. I’d recommend anything by Soleil Ho, who is a chef first and foremost but also a restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.”
Wright sees the Lucky Cat controversy as a tipping point in the cultural appropriation debate, but one that can be positive for the industry. “It’s very healthy, because the more discussion we have about our food culture history and heritage, the more we can all learn about different culture and foods and the importance of them and the traditions behind them, and it helps keep them alive. It’s oral history.”
The right way to cook another culture’s cuisine
What to consider when launching a restaurant reflecting a culture that is different to your own
Hugh Richard Wright, restaurant PR
• Whatever the cuisine is, you need to do your homework about what the cultural sensitivities are around the food.
• Make sure that the people cooking it and serving it, or at least a substantial percentage of them, are of that culture or of that country.
• If you’re really certain that what you are serving is “authentic”, then you can say it is, but if you’re not, then it’s a word to be avoided.
• When I write a press release, I want to be as confident as I can that every single detail is backed up by demonstrable, fact, experience or knowledge.
• If people then call you out and say you are causing offence, don’t go on the defensive. You’ve got to listen to people. If people make their feelings known about something, they want to be heard.
Afroditi Krassa, interior designer of Lucky Cat and other London restaurants
• The story of the restaurant needs to be told three-dimensionally across every touchpoint – not just through interiors, but every element, including menu design, the food and drink presentation, the music, the atmosphere – all of it has to come together and really communicate the same story.
• Try to distil what the message of the restaurant is and the story you’re trying to tell and how it relates to something that is true and honest to that culture and not a preconceived idea.
• Work with people who are not from that culture and really look at it with a fresh pair of eyes to discover something new.
Anna Sulan Masing, food writer, academic and hospitality consultant
• When you research a dish, part of that research should be around its cultural place; its space in the world in general.
• It’s always about the specificity: really understand why you’re using an ingredient.
Lucky Cat: the online debate
“This sensitivity is new – or, to be more precise, the expression of it is new. I don’t think he or his chef or anyone involved saw it coming. They thought they were opening a restaurant, not a can of worms.”
Joe Warwick, food writer, on Twitter
“The quarrel over cultural appropriation is a sign of the entry of a professional middle-class of colour that has the capacity to talk back to traditional gourmandism. Social media reduces the cost and broadens the opportunity for talking back.”
Krishnendu Ray, author of The Ethnic Restaurateur, on Twitter
“Critics and reviewers have an important job to do, and it’s important that they are independent and have freedom of speech. However, the slew of derogatory and offensive social media posts that appeared on Angela Hui’s social channels were not professional. It is fine to not like my food, but prejudice and insults are not welcome, and Ms Hui’s comments around my executive chef and his wife, calling her a ‘token Asian wife’, were personal and hugely disrespectful.”
Gordon Ramsay on Instagram
“Anyone who is interested in food would love to see what a chef as talented as [Ramsay] could do in the framework of Chinese or Japanese food borne out of an interest and love of the cuisine. The problem happens when it’s this insincere, then it becomes obvious the endgame is to cynically appropriate a culture to make even more money that he doesn’t need. It’s just a bandwagon to him. That to me is the grating thing.”
Jonathan Nunn, food writer, on Twitter
“What on earth is cultural appropriation meant to be? This whole idea is totally berserk. Seriously, if only those who are pure blood are allowed or able to cook a particular cuisine, we would not be able to eat much.”
Fred Sirieix, maitre’d, Galvin at Windows, London, on Twitter
Dishoom: a success story in celebrating different cultures
Afroditi Krassa is Lucky’s Cat’s interior designer. Her past projects include Dishoom in Covent Garden, London, which is one of seven sites in the Indian-inspired portfolio. She explains how she did it. “Avoiding clichés and stereotypes is very important. You need to challenge certain things to move the market onwards and to progress and have innovation.
“For Dishoom we identified ‘category behaviour’ – the clichés and stereotypes associated with a category of Indian restaurant, such as flock wallpaper and decorative elements, very bright, vibrant colours and cheesy music. We said that Dishoom should not be colourful but quite monochromatic; it should not be decorative but quite classic, yet at the same time, it needs to feel Indian without becoming anonymous and unrecognisable as Indian.
“Dishoom is a contemporary version of a typical casual Indian restaurant, serving grilled fish and meat rather than curries. We went to Mumbai to do our research and looked at the typical Irani cafés that have been around for decades. They had a slight European feel with an Indian accent. It was a very unplanned end result because before we went, we didn’t know what we would come back with.
“The interiors of these cafés are a mix of the style of European grand cafés with their marble tabletops, classic woods like oak, and beautiful chandeliers. Over the years, the owning families would add things that are typically Indian: pictures on the wall of their fathers and mothers, their favourite football team and goddesses, garlands of flowers and fans because of the heat. A lot of it was done in an ad hoc way, which made them more relaxed spaces. Electricity came late in Mumbai compared to Europe, so the wires were not chased into the wall but left hanging – you would find sockets in the ceiling.
“Dishoom in Covent Garden featured a lot of these elements – we had an original clock from Victoria station in Mumbai, advertising from India, signs in Hindi and other Indian graphics to signify the simplicity and charm of these places.”