Strange Encounters of the Food Kind: White Male Chefs Fetishizing “Ethnic” Cuisines

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Julia Milani

As conversations about cultural appropriation become increasingly common, critics are calling out celebrity chefs who regularly cook food of an ethnicity other than their own. This article deconstructs power in the culinary world through a postcolonial analysis of three white chefs famous for cooking “ethnic” cuisines: Rick Bayless, Andy Ricker, and Ivan Orkin. In cookbooks, interviews, and documentaries, these chefs deliver complimentary remarks to demonstrate reverence of and love for Mexican, Thai, and Japanese cultures, as well as an intimacy with each culture in attempts to avoid accusations of appropriation. Based on an analysis of the three chefs’ media footprints through the lens of stranger fetishism, a postcolonial framework, this paper reveals that they “other” the cultures of the ethnic cuisines they cook; they fetishize and feminize each of these cultures and fail to recognize the historical power imbalances that favor them as white men. I argue that through their fetishization of each culture, the chefs perpetuate inequalities and reduce the other cultures and people to two-dimensional entities. Ultimately, this case study reveals that postcolonial theories demonstrate how white male chefs can reduce the agency and authority of people of color in the culinary world, an act that can be remedied through restorative justice frameworks.

Aperitif: An Introduction

“I know that there have been a number of people out there that criticized me only — only — because of my race. [They say that] because I’m white, I can’t do anything with Mexican food.”[i]

– Rick Bayless

The culinary industry’s upper echelons are dominated by white men, but this does not stop them from opening restaurants featuring cuisines from ethnic groups they do not belong to.[ii] As conversations about cultural appropriation grow more common in a variety of industries, members of the food world are calling out such restaurants and their chefs’ as perpetrators.[iii] Writers such as Francis Lam and Luke Tsai directly asked various white chefs to justify their “ethnic” restaurants.[iv] Other writers like Gustavo Arellano critiqued these chefs for maintaining an air of “messianic genius.”[v] However, some members of the culinary world defend these chefs or dismiss some of these criticisms. For instance, Krishnendu Ray lauds these chefs for bringing these cuisines to a broader audience.[vi] Lee A. McBride claims that it is inappropriate to withhold ability to create “authentic” ethnic dishes to only people of that heritage. McBridge argues that there is hypocrisy if the concept were flipped (e.g. gatekeeping French cuisine from Black Americans).[vii]

            Although many scholars have analyzed various arenas of cultural appropriation, such as music, literature, and fashion, few have applied academic theories of cultural appropriation to individual actors in the culinary world.[viii] Leer and Kjaer (2015) examined white celebrity chefs who temporarily cook “ethnic” cuisines for their travel-food shows to highlight criticism on general trends regarding ethnic cuisines.[ix] Celebrity chefs who have made a name for themselves cooking food of an ethnicity other than their own, however, have received little attention. To analyze this population, this paper uses three chefs who have made their careers cooking cuisines not of their heritage as case studies: Rick Bayless, Andy Ricker, and Ivan Orkin. Rick Bayless, a white man from Oklahoma, is a world-renowned chef best known for his Mexican cuisine. Andy Ricker, a white man from Portland, is the reigning aficionado of Thai food in America.[x] Ivan Orkin, a white man from Long Island, is considered the “Ramen King” in the United States.[xi] Given the complicated nature of individual white male chefs cooking “ethnic” cuisines, this paper addresses the following questions: How have these chefs positioned themselves with respect to these cuisines? Can theories of “othering” be utilized to analyze cultural appropriation more thoroughly? In what ways can the chefs remedy the injustices they perpetuate?

            To answer these questions and critically analyze cultural appropriation, this paper utilizes Sara Ahmed’s concept of stranger fetishism, a theory that describes the process in which people separate those that they deem as “strange” or “other” from their personal and cultural histories.[xii] This paper uses stranger fetishism as a tool to analyze accusations of continued and persistent cultural appropriation against celebrity chefs that rose to fame cooking cuisines from cultures different from their own.

            To unpack the relationship between Bayless, Ricker, and Orkin with their respective adoptive cultures, it is important to recognize that race and ethnicity are layered in nuanced ways in America.[xiii] Certain ethnicities or nationalities of origin, like Mexican, Thai, and Japanese, become racialized, but never consistently across time or space. These three ethnicities are not equivalent to each other and have their own histories of discrimination in the United States. This paper does not aim to unpack how these ethnicities have been racialized or how people of these communities have been discriminated against in the past. I will instead attend to the dynamics between whiteness and these other nationalities or ethnicities that are racialized and marginalized in the culinary world as demonstrated by the actions, words, or lack thereof of three famous chefs.

            The most visible layer of Bayless’s, Ricker’s, and Orkin’s relationships to Mexican, Thai, and Japanese cultures, respectively, is their conscious attempts to dissuade accusations of cultural appropriation. These chefs deliver complimentary remarks to demonstrate reverence and love for each culture, as well as their intimacy with each culture, which are meant to serve as proof of their legitimacy to cook their cuisines. They also highlight their outsider status so that they do not appear to take ownership of the dishes upon which their food is based. Despite these displays, analyzing their media footprints through the lens of stranger fetishism reveals that all three chefs “other” each culture. In order to avoid completely fetishizing the other culture, they would need to acknowledge their position of privilege, including verbal acknowledgement as well as actions reflective of their understanding of their privilege. Bayless, Ricker, and Orkin do not recognize this historical power imbalances that favor them as white males. In refusing to acknowledge their privilege, they separate these people from their histories of determination, both personal and cultural, consequently perpetuating historic inequalities. Further, they each fetishize and feminize the “otherness” of each culture. They claim to have fallen in love with the culture for its “otherness,” thus turning these cultures into passive objects of attraction. They ultimately represent a spectrum of behavior, highlighting how different actors cause different levels of harm. Ultimately, analysis of these three chefs reveals the harm these chefs cause to Mexican, Thai, and Japanese cultures. Chefs like Bayless, Ricker, and Orkin have input in what foods get produced or marketed as well as who gets to profit. Without acknowledging their privilege and making active choices to share their success to those less fortunate, they continue the colonial tradition of extracting value from previously colonized countries without giving anything back. Analyzing these chefs through the lens of stranger fetishism demonstrates how postcolonial theories can reveal appropriative and exploitative behavior that more mainstream analyses might miss.

            First, this paper reviews discussions on how postcolonial studies and its associated theories apply to the culinary world. Next, this paper explores the power dynamics in the culinary world and analyzes the ways that the three chefs actively attempt to avoid accusations of cultural appropriation. I conduct close readings of various sources that reflect each chef’s viewpoint. These materials include cookbooks they published, documentaries about them, interviews they did, and other instances of public speech like advertisements. Utilizing the theory of stranger fetishism, I then use the same sources to discuss their tendencies to reduce Mexican, Thai, and Japanese people and their culture. This paper concludes with a discussion of a restorative-justice framework that offers these chefs an opportunity to counter their past and current relationships to Mexican, Thai, and Japanese cultures respectively.

Establishing the “Other”: Exploring Postcolonial Theories and Cultural Appropriation

            The frameworks of cultural appropriation and postcolonial theories of identity formation and “othering” are useful to examine these chefs and their relationship to the cultures from which they are borrowing for their restaurants. Scholars have utilized many different concepts of othering to analyze cultural appropriation, both within the culinary world and in other fields. This paper adds stranger fetishism to the list of applicable theories for analysis of cultural appropriation.

            Many scholars, including Ahmed, have moved away from strict Orientalism to a more nuanced understanding of “othering” people in the pursuit of identity formation. “Othering” deems unfamiliar people or things opposite to one’s identity. To fix one’s identity, one must fix the meaning of the Other, turning them into one-dimensional objects rather than multi-dimensional, ever-changing entities.[xiv] This process does not take place strictly in contexts of East versus West as suggested by Orientalism.[xv] For example, while the geographic orientation of Orientalism does not apply to Mexican culture, the creation of an American identity juxtaposed against Mexican people does. In American Encounters, José Limón argues that white American identity developed with both Black and Mexican people in mind. As white Americans ventured into traditionally Mexican lands, they formed their identity in opposition to what they perceived to be a subordinate and erotic society.[xvi]

            The eroticism mentioned by Limón is important in understanding the role of gender in othering, especially in the case of male subjects. In Said’s original theory, much of Western identity formation comes from deeming that which is strange in the East as morally depraved, barbaric, and, importantly, promiscuous.[xvii] Within not just the West but within the globalized patriarchal society, men maintain power over women through the sexualization of women. This sexualization is a way of turning the object of one’s affection into, as the phrase suggests, an object that does not hold their own desire, nor do they act but to please the subject, often the man. [xviii] Because fetishization is so frequently a method of objectification, people who are othered are often immediately sexualized or eroticized.[xix] Such sexualization not only strips the object of agency but, due to the stigma of sexuality in Western culture, dismisses peoples and cultures as depraved. That being said, these fetishized peoples and cultures can be seen as exciting things to interact with.[xx] Although the term “fetishism” in “stranger fetishism” comes from Marx’s commodity fetishism and not sexual fetishes, sexualization as a method of othering proves possible in stranger fetishism, as I show in my analysis of the chefs examined by this paper.

            Stranger fetishism itself describes the process in which people separate those that they deem as “strange” or “other” from their histories of determination.[xxi] Utilizing Marx’s commodity fetishism and Said’s Orientalism, this theory analyzes people who have othered people as fetishized objects; in this process, these people made passive are disconnected from their broader historical and cultural context as well as their own personal history. In order to engage in stranger fetishism, one must have a direct interaction with another; although types of “othering” allow for distance between the two parties, stranger fetishism requires actual direct interaction between two entities.[xxii] All three chefs examined in this article have had direct interactions with the cultures whose food they cook, each having travelled extensively or even lived in Mexico, Thailand, and Japan respectively.[xxiii] 

This paper uses stranger fetishism as a tool to analyze accusations of persistent cultural appropriation within the culinary world. Considering the global prevalence of fusion foods and culinary tourism, which treats foodstuffs and foodways as avenues for tourism, many food studies scholars have engaged with ethnicity, authenticity, and cultural appropriation in their work.[xxiv] Stranger fetishism, however, has only been used to unpack cultural appropriation twice before, and only once by food scholars. Anu Lakkuanen used stranger fetishism to interrogate “Oriental dance” in Finland as a potential instance of cultural appropriation.[xxv] Jonatan Leer and Katrine Meldgaard Kjær brought stranger fetishism into the food studies world. In their article, they examined how Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver engaged in stranger fetishism in their respective travelogue cooking shows. Both chefs traveled with the expectation of encountering “authentic” foods in India and Italy respectively. Because they harbored preconceived notions of authenticity and maintained an attitude of superiority to the “natives,” they reduced the “natives” or “others” to objects for their viewing pleasure.[xxvi] Their work, while important in bringing this theory into food studies scholarship, focuses on singular instances, when Ramsey and Oliver stepped outside of their everyday lives and normal routines as they othered Indian and Italian cultures respectively. Seemingly one-off occurrences are not to be ignored, but their scholarship does not broach repeated and resolute instances or accusations of cultural appropriation. The culinary world is full of people who make their living through endeavors that walk the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation.[xxvii] Bayless, Ricker, and Orkin have built their entire career by cooking and representing ethnic foods to an American audience and have been leading voices in portraying and defining those foods. In order to address power dynamics in the culinary industry, these continued instances of appropriation need to be addressed. This paper utilizes stranger fetishism to analyze new subjects to understand the complex nature of appropriation to provide a more nuanced framework for future scholars to tackle similar issues.

It’s A White Man’s World

To analyze these chefs’ conceptions of power, it is important to acknowledge not only the historical legacies that benefit them but also how the American culinary world is tailored to ensure their success. In the same way that white men have had the privilege of writing the history of the East through an Oriental lens, they have had the privilege of determining culinary trends and customs, particularly in America. America’s first restaurants, which catered to the upper class, looked towards Europe, particularly France, as the guiding light in fine dining. When looking to “slum it” or engage in less refined practices, upper class whites would head to Chinese restaurants or other “exotic” restaurants.[xxviii] In a 2007 article, Krishnendu Ray provides a historical example of the importance of white taste; he states that cuisines such as German and Italian became widely accepted in America once those immigrant populations were able to join the “white” population and consciousness.[xxix] In other words, these cuisines were accepted by mainstream America only after these populations became “white” and their food opinions and traditions mattered. This legacy continues to place European or white foods and chefs above the rest.[xxx] The global culinary world reinforces this phenomenon; in his latest book The Ethnic Restauranteur,Krishnendu Ray how global trends exclude non-white chefs and cuisines from haute cuisine.[xxxi] Published lists of the best chefs or the best restaurants regularly feature European and American chefs and establishments, but rarely African, Asian, Indian, or South American people and cuisines.[xxxii] The greater culinary world reinforces the idea that European or white cuisines, chefs, and traditions are deserving of greater importance and reverence.

            Although white people as a whole benefit from this legacy, it is white men that dominate the culinary world. Despite prejudices that relegate domestic cooking to women, cooking as a profession is often reserved for men. Soleil Ho, a chef and podcast co-founder, wrote a 2016 article that analyzed the demographics of James Beard Award nominees. Ho found 80% of all nominees have been white and that 69% of all nominees have been white males.[xxxiii] These statistics are representative of the power dynamics in the food industry. Ho mentions that a study done in 2015 found that despite large numbers of minorities working in the industry, most are kept in low-paying jobs, typically working in the kitchen.[xxxiv] White men, on the other hand, are allowed to easily rise through the ranks.[xxxv] Further, white male chefs tend to receive more money from investors and more press than women or minorities do, especially if they are up for an award.[xxxvi] Accordingly, white men dominate the global haute cuisine scene, often receiving awards and accolades that women and people of color rarely have the opportunity to achieve.[xxxvii]

With regards to “ethnic” cuisines, white people determine which “ethnic” foods are acceptable in the mainstream consciousness. Often, “ethnic” food is viewed by white people through the lens of culinary tourism, a way to explore another culture whether in its native context or in one’s home city.[xxxviii] In a 2015 article, Ruth Tam argues that white people often selectively choose what “ethnic” foods are trendy and acceptable in the mainstream as well as when these foods can become mainstream.[xxxix] The importance of white taste is only emphasized by the overwhelming whiteness of the food criticism world; white critics write for white audiences about restaurants owned by white people.[xl] Thus, white male chefs, even if they cook “ethnic cuisine,” receive funding, praise, and credibility.

Ultimately, all three chefs I analyze benefit from this legacy and food culture.  Bayless, Ricker, and Orkin learned their respective cuisines from native people in that country but successfully brought the cuisine to prominence in the United States because they had credibility.[xli] This credibility comes not only through their previous training in American restaurants, but also their whiteness, which confers clout and trust from the white culinary world.[xlii] Their success has led to their large media footprints; they have each opened many new restaurants and published multiple cookbooks each.[xliii] With each new cookbook and restaurant opening, they receive press, major opportunities to tell their stories and shape how people view Mexican, Thai, and Japanese cuisines and cultures.

            This paper contributes to the conversation about power in the culinary world by showing how postcolonial theories can be used to examine supposed instances of cultural appropriation by analyzing a case study of three white chefs who are famous for cooking “ethnic” cuisines: Rick Bayless, Andy Ricker, and Ivan Orkin. Leer and Kjaer’s work offers a useful framework through which to filter the words and actions of celebrity chefs. Using Sara Ahmed’s stranger fetishism, they successfully analyze the othering within the travel-food shows of Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver.[xliv] I similarly use “stranger fetishism” as my framework for unpacking the behavior of white male chefs who cook “ethnic” cuisines for a living. The analysis of this paper builds on Leer and Kjaer’s work by demonstrating how the theory of stranger fetishism can be used to examine not only singular instances of fetishization, but also systemic appropriation as demonstrated by figures whose entire livelihoods are criticized as appropriative. While Bayless, Ricker, and Orkin are not the only chefs cooking “ethnic” food, they serve as compelling case studies. They have large media footprints that lend themselves to analyses of their perspectives. Each has published several highly regarded cookbooks that feature not only their recipes but also stories about their relationships to each culture and respective cuisine. In addition to these publications, they have each participated in podcast and television interviews and been featured in documentaries about their lives. By drawing on comments from the chefs and reading them against the grain, I unpack the thought processes behind their relationship to each respective cuisine. The implications of this study go beyond demonstrating the applicability of post-colonial theory in analyzing cultural appropriation. Given the fame and authority of these chefs, their thoughts have the capacity to impact who has their stories heard as well as who profits from these growing “ethnic” cuisine markets.[xlv]

Countering Appropriation Accusations

            Bayless, Ricker, and Orkin work to maintain control of the narrative around their  relationships to the ethnic cuisines they specialize in. Their stories are ones of admiration and understanding, but still feature acknowledgments of the chefs’ outsider statuses. These narratives and the language used throughout serve to counter any accusations of cultural appropriation.

            Firstly, these chefs consistently profess love and respect for the culture they borrow from. In his first cookbook entitled Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, which contained a collection of specialty dishes from throughout Mexico, Bayless concludes his introduction by proclaiming his appreciation for Mexican food’s “beautiful ingenuity and brilliant flavor and texture.”[xlvi] By using the adjectives like “beautiful” and “brilliant,” Bayless demonstrates that he views Mexican food as being endowed with greatness. In a documentary entitled “Farang,” or “foreigner” in Thai, made about his life, Ricker declares his respect for Thai cuisine by asking people not to credit him. Rather, he points his customers to recognize the Thai people and Thai culture which he feels have given him so much.[xlvii] In asking such of his customers, Ricker attempts to shift focus from him to the people whom he respects so highly as to give them credit for his success. Finally, Orkin, when describing his experience with Japan for an advertisement on CNN’s website, states that he fell in love with the kindness and helpfulness Japanese people showed him.[xlviii] Orkin demonstrates his respect and love for Japanese people by attributing them great virtues. To further his claims of respect, he discussed in interviews how he has attempted to show Japanese people reverence by giving gifts to the locals near his first ramen shop.[xlix] All three chefs, by proclaiming their deep admiration of these other cultures, focus on the greatness of various aspects of that culture.

            While these complimentary remarks demonstrate reverence and love for each culture, they also serve a marketing purpose: to demonstrate these chefs’ intimacy with each culture, thus legitimizing their ability to cook their cuisine of choice. All of these chefs understand that people will ask them why they feel like they can cook this food. They understand that they cannot use their heritage as outright justification. Instead, they must utilize other marketing techniques to establish their credibility. Each of the statements given above lend the chefs credibility because they imply a close relationship with that culture. Bayless’s cookbook comes only “after many years,” implying that he took the time to get to know Mexican food.[l] Ricker, by crediting the Thai people with teaching him everything he knows, suggests that he was incredibly close with Thai people. Orkin, by appearing in an advertisement to entice people to Japan, is portrayed as someone incredibly knowledgeable about the country. These implications of intimacy with Mexican, Thai, and Japanese cultures respectively aid the chefs in establishing their credibility beyond just the quality of their food.

            More importantly, these declarations of love stave off accusations of cultural appropriation. One way to appropriate culture is to adopt an aspect of another’s culture without acknowledging the original source. These chefs aim to avoid such practices by spending time praising those from whom they are borrowing. This praise is the opposite of appropriation; they give all credit to the other culture, the original source of the food.

            Although these chefs demonstrate their familiarity with and love for each culture, they emphasize that they are not full members of the community, still somewhat outsiders. In an article examining why white chefs who cook “ethnic” cuisines become famous, Bayless discusses the advantages of being from a different culture. He states that because he does not have a Mexican grandmother, he can look at the cuisine from a different vantage point.[li] Even though he is allowing himself an advantage because of his heritage, he still distinguishes himself as an outsider to the cuisine. Ricker does not necessarily consider himself at an advantage in the same way Bayless does, but he still emphasizes that he is a foreigner. The documentary about him is entitled “Farang” or “Foreigner” in Thai, indicating that he sees that title, having been given to him by Thai people, as accurately describing him.[lii] Orkin also accepts the outsider label given to him. Originally called a “gaijin” or “foreigner” by Japanese people when he first moved to Japan, he now wears the title proudly.[liii] In 2019, Orkin published a cookbook entitled The Gaijin Cookbook: Japanese Recipes from a Chef, Father, Eater, and Lifelong Outsider.[liv] While the chefs might actually feel like outsiders, it serves a purpose to market themselves as such; again, they are less likely to be accused of appropriation. By acknowledging their place outside the culture, they do not appear to take ownership of these ethnic dishes. Thus, they do not appear to improperly assume these dishes into their own culture, which is the foundation of the current definition of cultural appropriation. Ultimately, these chefs strive to tell a story of appreciation rather than appropriation in their narratives.

Having Their Cake and Eating It Too: Stranger Fetishism

            While all three chefs actively position themselves to avoid implications of cultural appropriation, they all engage in stranger fetishism. Their stranger fetishism fits Ahmed’s theory: they fell in love with the culture for its “otherness,” and then refuse to acknowledge the power dynamics that accompany their relationships to each culture. Ultimately, the standard or mainstream methods for unpacking cultural appropriation, which, as explored in the previous section, the chefs aim to counter, do not fully reveal the ways in which people can other and exploit others.

            As explored in the previous section through the lens of cultural appropriation, Bayless, Ricker, and Orkin all claim that they fell in love with each culture; they frame the differences between Mexican, Thai, and Japanese cultures and American culture as exciting and beautiful, ultimately fetishizing and reducing the respective cultures. In the introduction for his first cookbook, Bayless explains that he was captivated by the “foreign ways” that he experienced in Mexico.[lv] Ricker echoes this sentiment in his documentary “Farang,” describing Thai culture as “unlike anything [he’d] ever seen before.”[lvi] Orkin is perhaps most explicit, stating that he “fell in love with this different world.”[lvii] By using adjectives like “different” and “foreign,” all of the chefs highlight the difference between their world and this new culture. This emphasis on the difference adheres to the first part of Ahmed’s definition of stranger fetishism: defining the other as “other.” Further, their statements turn these cultures into passive objects of beauty. All of the chefs describe falling in love with this different and exotic culture as if it were a woman. Such a metaphor implies that there is something sensual about the cultures. This subconscious association of an “ethnic” culture with sensuality reflects a sexualization mindset; the chefs find this unknown quality of the culture to be enticing, in the same way that Westerners found tales of Oriental belly dancers to be intriguing. Ultimately, the language of these chefs indicates that while they label themselves the outsider, in their mind, it is the other culture that is the exotic and sensual “other,” a reflection of their internalized othering.

            These chefs fulfill the second aspect of stranger fetishism in their lack of acknowledgement of their privilege as white men and refusal to do so when pushed. The second aspect of Ahmed’s theory is the dissociation of the stranger from their history of determination. This history of determination includes not only agency in their own life, but the historical legacy of inequalities that have impacted these people and their culture. These chefs, as white men, occupy positions of power in the culinary world. Further, because they are white Americans, they hold positions of power over “ethnic” cultures in the American mainstream. In order to avoid completely fetishizing the other culture, they would need to acknowledge their position of privilege. Otherwise, they risk both reducing the other culture and people to two-dimensional entities as well as perpetuating inequalities. Bayless, Ricker, and Orkin are not successful at this last step.

Bayless refuses to acknowledge his privilege as a white male in the culinary world. In his interview with the podcast “Sporkful,” he was asked if he ever felt that it was to his advantage to be white. He responded that he had never thought about it. He followed up by saying that perhaps his ability to connect with customers benefited him.[lviii] Bayless never mentions that as a white male, he was likely taken more seriously than minority chefs, including and especially Mexican chefs. Further, he does not acknowledge that Mexicans make up the majority of workers in the food industry, and yet, are relegated to back of house jobs almost exclusively.[lix] By not acknowledging these factors, I argue that Bayless allows the exploitation of Mexican workers to go unnoticed while he profits off of their culture. Thus, these people, the “other” as already designated by Bayless, are reduced to the workers in the back of the kitchen instead of the multidimensional individuals that they are. Bayless has been accused of similar practices in the past. Holzman’s article about Bayless as a cultural vampire comes to a similar conclusion concerning Bayless’s relationship to Mexico. While his analysis looks at the representation of Mexican food as opposed to Mexican people in Bayless’s TV show “Mexico: One Plate at A Time,” Holzman concludes that Bayless strips the foods of their local importance.[lx] Ultimately, this disconnection between the food and its history allows the relationship between the United States and Mexico to become “invisible.”[lxi] Because this relationship is not an equal one, Bayless’ “vampirism” diminishes the reality of Mexican people, and thus diminishes Mexican people themselves. This trend cannot be coincidence; Bayless, whether consciously or not, appears to continually strip Mexican foods and peoples of their complexity.

For his part, Ricker refuses to acknowledge a different aspect of his white male privilege: the superiority of white taste in America. In his documentary “Farang,” Ricker acknowledges that people should ask whether a white man should be making money off cooking South East Asian food. He then says that this is an important question to ask as long as people also “ask about the American guy who’s doing Spanish food or the American guy who’s doing Italian food…”[lxii] Ultimately, he is comparing himself to American chefs cooking Spanish and Italian food. In making this comparison, he ignores the power imbalance between American culture, European cultures, and Thai culture. Southeast Asian cultures including Thai culture still face frequent racism and stereotyping in the United States.[lxiii] Further, Southeast Asian cuisines receive nowhere near as much respect as European cuisines, like Italian and Spanish, do in America.[lxiv] Therefore, by ignoring these power imbalances that place Thai people at a disadvantage, Ricker disconnects Thai people from the history that makes them who they are.

While the previous two chefs have been pushed on topics of privilege, Orkin has not been. He has discussed that he does not believe he appropriates Japanese culture because he has “never pretended to be anything” other than himself.[lxv] While this comment demonstrates that he does not understand the actual meaning of cultural appropriation, it also skirts the issue of privilege. Not only does Orkin not broach his privilege; the topic of his privilege in the American market never comes up. There are three possible explanations for this omission. Firstly, Orkin rose to fame in Japan, the home of ramen. Instead of bringing ramen from Japan to America, he wanted to open a ramen shop in Japan.[lxvi] Because he, the “gaijin,” was accepted by the Japanese for his superb skills, it is likely no one felt the need to ask him these questions, nor did he feel the need the bring the topic up. It was assumed that he was at a disadvantage as a foreigner, as opposed to Bayless and Ricker who are assumed to be at an advantage starting restaurants in their home country. Secondly, Orkin could be avoiding the topic all together. As discussions of appropriation become more and more mainstream, he might consciously keep a distance from the topic in order to avoid bad press. Finally, this dearth could reflect Orkin’s own belief that he was truly at a disadvantage, and therefore never felt the need to acknowledge any advantages. Whether or not he was truly at a disadvantage in Japan, he seems to take for granted his ability to expand his business to the United States successfully. As an American, he is better able to communicate with his customers than a foreign-born chef is.[lxvii] This advantage affords him the ability to successfully translate his menu for a different clientele, New Yorkers in particular. In fact, he was praised for bridging the gap between traditional ramen and the more radical Japanese-inspired dishes being made in New York at the time.[lxviii] Like Andy Ricker, by not acknowledging this privilege he is afforded, Orkin downplays the fact that Asian people including Japanese people still face prejudice in the United States.[lxix] Thus, Orkin ignores the history of discrimination and disenfranchisement of Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants in America, most clearly represented by their internment during WWII and the rise in Asian violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.[lxx]

The Digestif

Ultimately, Rick Bayless, Andy Ricker, and Ivan Orkin engage in stranger fetishism because they do not acknowledge the power imbalance that favors them over the culture that they borrow from, which they have eroticized and distanced themselves from. At first glance, these chefs appear to emphasize their respect for the culture as well as their outsider status, both of which my analysis suggests could be marketing tactics meant to curb appropriation accusations. Comments about their relationship to the other culture, however, reveal their subconscious fetishization of the “other” culture. They first create distance between themselves and the “ethnic” culture, in turn labeling the “ethnic” culture as the “other.” They also treat the culture as an object of desire, indicating a subconscious subscription to sexualizing tendencies. They then diminish the value of each culture through their inability to recognize the histories that have disenfranchised Mexican, Thai, and Japanese people and have empowered white males like themselves. Each chef grapples with questions of privilege and appropriation differently, but in the end, they all subscribe to stranger fetishism. This case reveals how postcolonial analysis can lay bare appropriative behavior that conventional methods of unpacking cultural appropriation might miss.

These findings help make clear the harm these chefs can cause. As explored by other food studies scholars, this appropriation can happen when white or American chefs claim authority over the authenticity of other cultures’ food.[lxxi] Beyond stifling claims over authenticity, chefs like Bayless, Ricker, and Orkin hold great influence over what foods get produced or marketed as well as who profits. Without acknowledging their privilege and making active choices to share their success with those less fortunate, they continue the colonial tradition of profiting from communities perceived of as exotic.

This article only addresses the work of three chefs. Their beliefs and attitudes cannot stand to represent an entire industry. That being said, the actions of successful chefs set precedents for the culture of the culinary and restaurant world. As mentioned earlier, there are multiple famous white chefs that cook “ethnic” cuisines; this phenomenon, however, goes deeper than just the upper crust of famous chefs. White chefs across the United States frequently open restaurants that “pay homage” to another culture. Across the country you can find, for example, Mexican inspired eateries owned by white people.[lxxii] Analysis of these three chefs provides us a framework for further academic discourse around food appropriation. As topics like “the global pantry” enter the mainstream and chefs like Alison Roman, a white former New York Times food author who criticized celebrities of color while espousing the benefits of “ethnic” ingredients, come under fire, it is imperative that we conduct critical discussions of a variety of manifestations of appropriation.[lxxiii]

As the conversation around cultural appropriation continues, it is important to offer ways to redeem transgressions. I propose a model based on restorative justice that involves chefs working with the community from which they are borrowing in order to raise them up. Guided by the framework of restorative justice, chefs would look to repair any harm already done. This would require these chefs to do more than just acknowledge their privilege. While still important, acknowledgment does not remedy the structures that disenfranchise “ethnic” cultures. Instead, these chefs would work to help the community they borrow from and impact most directly, immigrants and first-generation people of Mexican, Thai, and Japanese descendent living in the United States. This work would require a conversation with that community about what they feel they need and how the chefs can help. These actions help to counter the harmful effects of their comments (or lack of commentary). While such actions cannot dismantle centuries-long systems of oppression alone, it can establish a precedent for creating a mutually beneficial relationship between chefs and the culture they borrow from.

Certain chefs similar to Bayless, Ricker, and Orkin are already doing work like this. Jay Porter of the “Half Orange” in Oakland, California is such an example. The “Half Orange” is “a sausage and burger restaurant in Oakland’s Fruitvale District, whose menu dabbles in Korean and Mexican flavors.”[lxxiv] The Fruitvale District is also home to many Mexican restaurants, most of which are run by Mexican immigrants or Mexican-Americans. Porter, who is relatively famous locally, uses his social media to highlight these restaurants that are arguably his competition. He reasons that everyone, including our influences and neighbors, ought to share in success and popularity.[lxxv] While he does not necessarily highlight the conversations he is having with his Mexican neighbors, Porter is raising them up in the face of discriminatory spending practices, helping them break out of various cycles of poverty.

Ultimately, the analysis of Bayless, Ricker, and Orkin demonstrates the applicability of stranger fetishism to dissect complicated cases of repeated cultural appropriation. These chefs are denying their privilege and stranger fetishism helps explicate the hurt that is caused. As the world and the food studies community looks to make strides towards equity and inclusivity, the use of stranger fetishism as an analysis tool along with the restorative justice framework suggested above help move our food practices closer to equity. 

[i] Dan Pashman, “Other People’s Food Pt. 1: White Chef, Mexican Food,” March 20, 2016, in The Sporkful, produced by Stitcher, podcast, MP3 audio, 30:00,

[ii] Soleil Ho, “The Restaurant Industry Is Very Diverse—But It’s White Chefs Who Win Most of the Awards,” Bitch Media, March 15, 2016,—-its-white-chefs-who-win-most-awards.

[iii] Jessica Andrews, “Dear White Women, We Need to Talk About Coachella,” Teen Vogue, April 13, 2018,; Ellie Bate, “Ariana Grande Has Responded To Accusations That She Appropriated Japanese Culture,” BuzzFeed, February 4, 2019,; Lindsay Peoples, “An Open Letter to My White Friends Who Love the Kardashians,” The Cut, July 20, 2015,; Chelsea Stone, “People Are DRAGGING Miley Cyrus Over Her Latest Comments About Hip-Hop,” Teen Vogue, May 5, 2017,

[iv] Francis Lam, “Masters of a Cuisine by Calling, Not Roots,” The New York Times, May 29, 2012, sec. Dining & Wine,; Luke Tsai, “Cooking Other People’s Food: How Chefs Appropriate Bay Area ‘Ethnic’ Cuisine,” East Bay Express, August 23, 2016,

[v] Gustavo Arellano, “The Problem Isn’t Rick Bayless Cooking Mexican Food—It’s That He’s a Thin-Skinned Diva,” OC Weekly, March 27, 2016,

[vi] Pashman, “Other People’s Food Pt. 1: White Chef, Mexican Food.”

[vii] Lee A. McBride, “Racial Imperialism and Food Traditions,” in The Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2018), 338-340.

[viii] Olufunmilayo B. Arewa, “Love, Hate, and Culture Wars,” Phi Kappa Phi Forum 97, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 26–29; George Lipsitz, “Strategic Anti-Essentialism in Popular Music,” in Dangerous Crossroads : Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place (London: Verso, 1994), 62–63; Minh-Ha T. Pham, “Racial Plagiarism and Fashion,” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 4, no. 3 (Fall 2017): 67–80.

[ix] Meredith E. Abarca, “Authentic or Not, It’s Original,” Food and Foodways 12, no. 1 (January 1, 2004): 1–25; Jonatan Leer and Katrine Meldgaard Kjær, “Strange Culinary Encounters,” Food, Culture & Society 18, no. 2 (April 1, 2015): 312; Lisa Heldke, Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer (Routledge, 2015).

[x] Andrew Knowlton, “#8: Pok Pok, Portland, OR and Brooklyn, NY,” Bon Appetit, February 2, 2013,

[xi] Chef’s Table: Ivan Orkin, directed by David Gelb (Netflix, 2017).

[xii] Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (Routledge, 2013), 5.

[xiii] Lisa Lowe, “The International within the National: American Studies and Asian American Critique,” Cultural Critique, no. 40 (1998): 29–47; Edward E. Telles and Vilma Ortiz, Generations of Exclusion: Mexican-Americans, Assimilation, and Race (Russell Sage Foundation, 2008); Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Duke University Press, 1996).

[xiv] Chen, “Speaking Nearby”; Stuart Hall, “The Spectacle of the ‘Other,’” in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. Stuart Hall, Jessica Evans, and Sean Nixon, 2nd Edition (SAGE Publications, 2013), 223–90.

[xv] Nancy N. Chen, “‘Speaking Nearby:’ A Conversation with Trinh T. Minh–Ha,” Visual Anthropology Review 8, no. 1 (1992): 87; Stuart Hall, “The West and the Rest : Discourse and Power,” in Essential Essays, Volume 2: Identity and Diaspora, ed. David Morley (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018); bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 22–31.

[xvi] José Eduardo Limón, American Encounters: Greater Mexico, the United States, and the Erotics of Culture (Beacon Press, 1999).

[xvii] Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 1st Vintage Books edition (New York: Vintage, 1979), 12.

[xviii] Hall, “The Spectacle of the ‘Other,’” 237.

[xix] hooks, “Eating the Other,” 368.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (Routledge, 2013), 5.

[xxii] Leer and Kjær, “Strange Culinary Encounters,” 312.

[xxiii] Rick Bayless, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, Anniversary edition (HarperCollins e-books, 2009); Gelb, Chef’s Table: Ivan Orkin; Farang: The Story of Andy Ricker, directed by Chris Grosso and Lauren Cynamon (Munchies, 2013).

[xxiv] Abarca, “Authentic or Not, It’s Original,” 1–25; Michael Dietler, “Culinary Encounters : Food, Identity, and Colonialism,” in The Archaeology of Food and Identity, by Katheryn C Twiss (Carbondale, Ill.: Center for Archaeological Investigations, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, 2007), 218–42; Anne E. Goldman, “‘I Yam What I Yam’: Cooking, Culture, and Colonialism in New Mexico,” In Take My Work: Autobiographical Innovations of Ethnic American Working Women, 4–31  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); Heldke, Exotic Appetites; Andrew Holzman, “Rick Bayless Como Vampiro Cultural En La Teleserie ‘Mexico: One Plate at a Time,’” Norteamérica 13, no. 2 (September 5, 2018); Jennie Molz, “Eating Difference: The Cosmopolitan Mobilities of Culinary Tourism,” Space and Culture 10, no. 1 (February 1, 2007): 77–93.

[xxv] Anu Laukkanen, “Stranger Fetishism and Cultural Responsibility in Transnational Dance Forms. Case: Oriental Dance in Finland” (Gender and Power in the New Europe, 5th European feminist research conference, Lund University, Sweden, 2003),

[xxvi] Leer and Kjær, “Strange Culinary Encounters,” 324.

[xxvii] Tasting Table, “A Portland Burrito Cart Shutters After Being Accused of Cultural Appropriation,” Huffington Post (blog), June 1, 2017,; Jean Trinh, “When White Guy Chefs Cook Ethnic Food, Results Will Vary,” L.A. Weekly, January 11, 2017,

[xxviii] Andrew P. Haley, Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books, 2011).

[xxix] Krishnendu Ray, “Ethnic Succession and The New American Restaurant Cuisine,” in The Restaurants Book – The Ethnographies of Where We Eat, ed. David Berris and David Sutton, 1st ed. (Oxford, New York: Berg, 2007), 108-109.

[xxx] Ray, “Ethnic Succession and The New American Restaurant Cuisine,” 113.

[xxxi] Krishnendu Ray, The Ethnic Restaurateur (London ; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 111-113.

[xxxii] Ray, The Ethnic Restaurateur, 111-113.

[xxxiii] Ho, “The Restaurant Industry is Very Diverse – But It’s White Chefs Who Win Most of the Awards.”

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Ray, The Ethnic Restaurateur, 111-113.

[xxxviii] Heldke, Exotic Appetites; Molz, “Eating Difference: The Cosmopolitan Mobilities of Culinary Tourism”.

[xxxix] Ruth Tam, “How It Feels When White People Shame Your Culture’s Food — Then Make It Trendy,” Washington Post, August 31, 2015,

[xl] Korsha Wilson, “Why Aren’t There More Restaurant Critics Who Look Like Me?,” Eater, February 20, 2019,

[xli] Gelb, Chef’s Table: Ivan Orkin; Glusker, “Rick Bayless Preaches the Gospel of Modern Mexican Cuisine”; Grosso et al., The Story of Andy Ricker.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] “Rick Bayless.” n.d. Frontera Grill. n.d.; Gelb, Chef’s Table: Ivan Orkin; Grosso, The Story of Andy Ricker.

[xliv] Leer and Kjær, “Strange Culinary Encounters,” 312.

[xlv] See Pilcher’s discussion of chili queens in San Antonio for an example of such harm: Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (OUP USA, 2012), 105-106.

[xlvi] Bayless, Authentic Mexican.

[xlvii] Grosso et al., The Story of Andy Ricker.

[xlviii] “A Taste Of Tokyo With Ivan Orkin,” CNN, n.d.,

[xlix] Ed Levine, “Ivan Orkin and Chris Ying on The Gaijin Cookbook,” Special Sauce, accessed March 4, 2021,

[l] Bayless, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico.

[li] Lam, “Masters of a Cuisine by Calling, Not Roots.”

[lii] Grosso et al., The Story of Andy Ricker.

[liii] Gelb, Chef’s Table: Ivan Orkin.

[liv] Ivan Orkin and Chris Ying, The Gaijin Cookbook: Japanese Recipes from a Chef, Father, Eater, and Lifelong Outsider (Boston: Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019).

[lv] Bayless, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico.

[lvi] Grosso et al., The Story of Andy Ricker.

[lvii] Gelb, Chef’s Table: Ivan Orkin.

[lviii] Pashman, “Other People’s Food Pt. 1: White Chef, Mexican Food.”

[lix] Bob Walsh, “Illegal Immigrants in the Restaurant Industry,” Houston Press, December 19, 2007,

[lx] Holzman, “Rick Bayless Como Vampiro Cultural En La Teleserie ‘Mexico: One Plate at a Time,’” 319.

[lxi] Ibid.

[lxii] Grosso et al., The Story of Andy Ricker.

[lxiii] Angelo N. Ancheta, Race, Rights, and the Asian American Experience (Rutgers University Press, 2006), xi.

[lxiv] Ray, “Ethnic Succession and The New American Restaurant Cuisine,” 113.

[lxv] Ed Levine, “Kenji on Competitive Cooking; Ivan Orkin and Chris Ying on Being Gaijin,” Special Sauce, accessed March 4, 2021,

[lxvi] Gelb, Chef’s Table: Ivan Orkin.

[lxvii] Lam, “Masters of a Cuisine by Calling, Not Roots.”

[lxviii] Ryan Sutton, “Ivan Ramen Is So Good It Will Make Your Eyes Explode,” Eater NY, June 24, 2014,

[lxix] Ancheta, Race, Rights, and the Asian American Experience, xi.

[lxx] Sam Cabral, “Covid ‘hate Crimes’ against Asian Americans on Rise,” BBC News, May 21, 2021, sec. US & Canada,

[lxxi] Goldman, “‘I Yam What I Yam,’” 5.

[lxxii] Tasting Table, “A Portland Burrito Cart Shutters After Being Accused of Cultural Appropriation”; Jean Trinh, “When White Guy Chefs Cook Ethnic Food, Results Will Vary”.

[lxxiii] Navneet Alang, “Alison Roman, Bon Appétit, and the ‘Global Pantry’ Problem,” Eater, May 20, 2020,

[lxxiv] Tsai, “Cooking Other People’s Food.”

[lxxv] Ibid.


Julia Milani (she/her) is studying History at Stanford University, class of 2023.