Portland has found itself at the center of a national controversy after the recent closure of a two-day-a-week burrito pop-up accused of cultural appropriation — wantonly cooking the food of other countries, arguably at the expense of people from those very cultures. Judging from the furor kicked up, the cultural appropriation debate around Portland food won’t be going away anytime soon. Some of Portland’s most successful restaurants are run by white chefs: Pok Pok, Bollywood Theater and Por Que No, each serving other cultures’ foods. And every third new Portland restaurant opening would seem to fit the cultural appropriation definition. Now that some of the initial outrage has moved into deeper discussions, we talked to four Portland chefs and the community coordinator at the Portland Mercado about their thoughts and experiences.
Carlo Lamagna is a Filipino-American chef who came to Portland from Chicago and took over the kitchen at downtown Portland’s Clyde Common. Later this year, he will launch Magna, a brick-and-mortar restaurant based off his long-running Twisted Filipino pop-ups.
What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation with restaurants? For me, at the core of it all, it’s food. I remember meeting this Australian guy in the Philippines who loved the culture and knew more about it than I did. I grew up in Detroit. Who’s right in this situation where he knows more about the culture and more detailed nuances of everything versus me at the time? I felt alienated in both the city I grew up in and the country I’m from. I was a brown kid in Midwest, White America and I was an American kid in the middle of a foreign country, where do I fall in?
The U.S. is a giant platform to live the American Dream. It’s all about how you do it, the story behind it and paying proper respect to where you’re coming from. You don’t go out there and say, ‘I traveled two weeks in Bali, I’m going to open a restaurant.’ That to me is bull—-. But if you do your due diligence, live in a place and immerse yourself in a culture, it doesn’t give you the right, but it gives you the right reasons to do it.
Where do we go from here? If we continue on the path we’re going, we’re closing everything, we’re becoming honestly part of the problem, because all the gateways that have opened the opportunities that my parents, that any child that’s first- or second-generation, you’re closing off the pathways that brought you here in the first place. My parents moved here for a better life. The moment I start spouting, ‘I’m the authority and no one else should be cooking or doing this except me,’ then you’re being an asshole. That’s the whole point. I want to see Filipino food soar.
Food gives me a sneak peek into other people’s culture if it’s done right. There are people who are amazing experts in a different cuisine and guess what, they are going to make money because they need to to survive. It’s not their fault that they became passionate about something that’s on the other side of the world. To the people that travel for a week and decide they’re going to open a shop? Yeah, you may want to rethink that. Respect the process, respect history.
Ryan Roadhouse is a chef of Hispanic descent and the owner of Nodoguro, a multi-course Japanese restaurant in Southeast Portland. Recently, his restaurant appeared on a controversial list of (Alternatives To) White-Owned Appropriative Restaurants in Portland.
What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation with restaurants? When you get into the mob mentality, everyone needs to figure out what it is that you’re defining. If you’re exploiting something about a culture, for value or profit, that’s when you have to sit back and make judgment calls, but you have to sit back and figure out how to apply that to everyday life.
I worked as an apprentice for Japanese chefs, here and in Japan. In terms of my Japanese cultural thing, I see it as a chef’s craftsmanship. I’m part of a lineage, my race was never a factor for the chefs I worked for. There’s an issue with celebrating DNA. If someone is Japanese then they’re born this natural Japanese chef and you’re taking the racial aspect of it and making it a craft. But really anyone of any race, if you want to become a high level chef, takes training and practice.
Where do we go from here? Figure out what you think cultural appropriation is. If you can really figure out what that means, then be smart, make your choices and everything will be fine. Doing a pop-up like Kooks? You can’t make money doing that. If the issue is about profits, what kind of scale do you need to have to even be in that category?
Anh Luu is the chef/owner at Tapalaya, a contemporary Cajun/Creole restaurant in Northeast Portland where she combines the flavors of her Vietnamese heritage with recipes drawn from her hometown of New Orleans.
What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation with restaurants? It’s all so blurry because all foods have kind of the same thing in different ways. You can’t really say, ‘I stole this recipe from someone’ because chances are that person borrowed it from someone else or mixed someone else’s recipe with their own. It’s hard to say what is actually cultural appropriation and what’s not. You’re literally not allowed to tell anybody what they can and can’t cook. It’s ridiculous, it’s asinine.
There’s an approach if you’re trying to present a business about it. I think it’s all about the time you invest. You have to immerse your whole self into it to find out if you love it and what you hate. People who go and open a food cart because they took a trip this one time, one trip is not going to do your food justice. It needs to be many trips, you need to learn the language. How much time you invest will show itself in what you do.
Where do we go from here? I feel like this is something so ridiculous that we should easily be able to overcome it. The only way to battle it is to keep supporting the restaurants and food that you love.
Jasper Shen is a Chinese-American chef who moved to Portland in 2010 and opened Northeast Alberta’s Aviary restaurant. Shen left the restaurant in 2014 and opened XLB, a “straight-up Chinese” and soup dumpling restaurant on North Williams Avenue, earlier this year.
What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation with restaurants? Coming up as a cook, I cooked everything. I worked at Aquavit, a Scandinavian restaurant. I’ve worked at Thai, French restaurants, local seasonal American restaurants. I’ve gone through the whole gambit and I’ve never thought, ‘oh I shouldn’t be cooking this or learning about this because I’m not from this culture.’
As chefs and cooks, you’re constantly trying to learn from people. That’s the whole point of working in restaurants. I’ve had tons of guys who have never cooked Chinese food before and came to me to learn that. If someone opened a Chinese restaurant one day, I wouldn’t think they would be stealing from me. Doing this Chinese thing, there’s curry powder that’s found in China but is obviously based out of the Middle East and India. China is such a big place, influenced by so many people over so many generations, trade routes, colonialism, where can someone say, ‘oh that’s not part of who you are?’
My two biggest things are: are you making good food and are you treating your staff well? If you’re not doing one of those things, I probably won’t support you because that’s what I can control.
Where do we go from here? The overall diversity of restaurants is getting much better. The quality of restaurants is getting much better. When I first moved here, there were less cultural, less ethnic options. I still wish there were more options than we have now, but we’re slowly getting there. I think sometimes these concerns of who is opening what is counterproductive because before Troy (MacLarty, chef/owner at Bollywood Theater), the only Indian restaurants in town were the Indian buffets. He opened a new door to introduce this cuisine to a large mass. Whether people think it’s traditional, he’s still exposing all these flavors to a large public. More things are opening, especially from people of color from different cultures and cuisines. It just needs to keep on going that way.
Shea Flaherty Betin is the community coordinator at the Portland Mercado, a hub for Latino culture in Portland. Born and raised in Cartagena, Colombia, Flaherty Betin coordinates events, media and meetings between Mercado vendors and the community.
What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation with restaurants? One thing that we focus on is business gentrification — businesses that have barriers to entry or access in that they would get displaced either due to changing culture, rent or maybe changing access by folks that have more privilege that are creating competing businesses. When we talk about appropriation, yes it’s culture, but privilege really plays a big role. People who can speak to their privilege. Ninety percent of our business are immigrant-owned. More than half the businesses in our incubation program and kitchen are owned by people of color. We try to infuse this sense of cultural ownership at the Mercado. We recognize injustices or issues of privileges and how that affects people we know, but our immediate response is to mobilize and create actionable communities. We try to go to from a positive mindset.
Where do we go from here? We can follow the existing trends and not dissect privilege and maintain the status quo, or we can really look and support culturally authentic businesses and show that it’s a culturally inclusive city. This is not a new issue to the businesses at the Mercado. This is something we’ve all known for a long time. It was kind of like, ‘oh this is business as usual in the city of Portland.’ We’ve already made that step to turn it into actionable items and programs that will do something to support our communities.
What I would really love to see in the city of Portland is people getting to know the immigrant businesses, culturally specific, people-of-color-owned businesses and knowing that there are so many options out there in so many parts of the city and just because they’re not the ones you read about, there’s amazing authentic flavors all over the city. Do your part to support them and give them the same recognition that our top billed or heavy hitters in the food industry get and recognize that there’s a wealth of flavors, knowledge and experience.
— Samantha Bakall