Cultural Diversity = Culinary Bliss
Lauren and I rolled into the wine country last month to a town called Yountville, to sneak into the opening of La Calenda, Thomas Keller’s new Oaxacan restaurant. The restaurant used to be called “Hurley’s,” and it’s at the corner of Washington and Yount.
I’d read up a little on La Calenda’s upcoming opening, and it took a bit of criticism, based on Thomas Keller’s heritage: he’s not Oaxacan or Mexican. It occurred to me how wrong these sentiments are and how right Keller is for opening this restaurant. Where does it say that a person from one culture can’t cook food from another? If one of the world’s great chefs wants to cook your culture’s food, you should be thrilled, for chrissakes. I mean, since when is it taboo to expose a wider swath of humanity to your culture’s treasures? Why not share the joy?
A buddy told me recently that a sushi restaurant he liked was “authentic” because it was run by a Japanese guy. What?! My eyes crossed when I heard that. What – just because you cook your own culture’s food, it automatically makes it good? Fuck that shit! I have buddies who can’t boil water, but if they opened a hot dog stand in another country, just because they grew up in the U.S., that’s supposed to automatically make their food good and representative of a quality, well-made hot dog? No fucking way!
When it’s done right, expressing a love and understanding of a culture’s food is a flat-out good thing. If a person of any race wants to cook your culture’s food and they’re doing it with focused and educated intent, it should be celebrated. Food is supposed to connect us, not divide us.
In La Calenda’s case, what’s really interesting is that we’re not talking about some Bozo who doesn’t know a soufflé from a frying pan. Thomas Keller has two Michelin 3-Starred French restaurants under his belt (and he’s not even French!): Per Se in New York and the French Laundry in Yountville. In fact, he’s the only person on the planet with two 3-Star restaurants.
Culinary authenticity doesn’t necessarily require heritage, but it does require knowledge. This bears repeating: Culinary authenticity doesn’t necessarily require heritage, but it does require knowledge. And those who acquire that knowledge, respect the culture, and make a quality attempt should be celebrated.
Culinary traditions and history should be available to everybody. Culinary traditions have never been fixed. We’ve been evolving culturally ever since we started venturing out from our own remote corner of the world. You think the Italians invented spaghetti? Guess again: Marco Polo brought it back from China in the thirteenth century. (Also, Pizza – check out my story – Marco Polo Taiwanese Pizza)
When I hear the words “American food,” I scratch my head. WTF is American food? As Americans, we’re defined by our cultural – and culinary – diversity. Pepperoni Pizza, Barrio Tacos and Kung Pao Chicken are as American as hot dogs and hamburgers – which, by the way, was invented by people in Hamburg, Germany – aka, Hamburgers – not McDonald’s.
Cooking another culture’s food to the best of your ability is to respect that culture, and maybe put a slightly different twist on it in the process. Food is one of the gateways to understanding cultures other than your own. One of the great things about food is that it can be devoid of politics and religion, both of which have done more to divide us than bring us together.
I can’t tell you how many great Uber rides I’ve had with people from different cultures. My first two questions are, where are you from and tell me what and how you eat.
Here’s a short list of Michelin Stared, James Beard-award-winning Chefs who are making food from cultures not their own.
Andy Ricker of Pok Pok – a white guy from the U.S. and James Beard-award-winning chef who cooks Thai food.
Ivan Orken of Ivan Ramen – a Jewish guy from New York who lived in Japan and became a world-renowned Ramen Chef.
Edward Lee, a Korean who runs 610 Magnolia and Milkwood in Kentucky and cooks southern food. Edward Lee Restaurants
Sean Brock, of Husk, a white guy in Charleston and Nashville who cooks traditional African-American southern food.
When you think about it, why would cultural background create a barrier to culinary creativity? Why can’t people put their own spin on another culture’s food as they see fit and be accepted?
Getting back to La Calenda, as we entered the restaurant after waiting outside for an hour with our beers (in a paper sack), the line was still growing and growing. As the restaurant filled up, I said to myself, I hope these guys are ready for this.
We were the second couple in line and were greeted by Keller as we walked in and walked straight to the bar. (Our favorite place to eat because I like having a trapped server within a few feet at all times) And as we sat at La Calenda’s bar, I was overcome with excitement because the opening had been so secretive. I started ordering … Chicken Mole Negra, Tacos Al Pastor … and the food was good! The staff was also a group of seasoned veterans and they didn’t miss a beat.
To my surprise, a man approached us and introduced himself as the Chef De Cuisine – Kaelin Ulrich Trillin. He told us about growing up in Oaxaca, where his mother ran a cooking school, @seasonsofmyheart, about his days in a high chair covered in mole, about how he traveled with his mother and ate all over Mexico. It was a great story, but hold the phone – Thomas Keller wasn’t cooking?
Umm, WTF was I just ranting about? Bartender, gimme another mescal! Apparently Trillin works for Keller as the managing chef of La Calenda. OK, whatever; the food was so damn good, what did it matter?
Some people get hung up on names – “Oh, I ate at Chez Panisse last week and Alice Waters was in the kitchen!” – while others are just looking for great eating experiences. If you’re like me, there’s no doubt which category you fall under. Listen to your Uncle Jim, fellow gourmands, and embrace culinary innovation. And next time you visit wine country, check out La Calenda!
If you enjoyed that story check out one I wrote on Chez Panisse and Alice Waters