Pedestrians walk past the Lucky Lee's restaurant in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York. Photo: AP

New York Chinese eatery heats up cultural appropriation debate


A New York City restaurant owner who touted her "clean" American-Chinese cuisine and derided Chinese dishes as swimming in "globs of processed butter," sodium and MSG is renewing the long-simmering debate about stereotyping and cultural appropriation in the restaurant world.

Arielle Haspel, who is white and a certified health coach, told the dining website Eater that she wanted to offer modified, "clean" versions of typical Chinese menu items. In a now deleted Instagram post, Haspel said that a Chinese noodle dish, lo mein, can make people feel "bloated and icky."

Online critics pounced, including New York Baohaus restaurateur and author Eddie Huang who dismissed Lucky Lee's as "the Fyre Fest of food & 'wellness,'" on the restaurant's Instagram page.

Haspel has since apologized, but her comments are the latest misstep in a succession of restaurateurs and TV chefs who have been criticized for insensitivity when dealing with food from a culture that's not their own.

Robert Ku, a professor of Asian American studies and food studies at Binghamton University, New York, said Haspel came off as relying on age-old stereotypes of Chinese food being unsanitary or grotesque. It was especially tone-deaf in New York City where most locals regularly eat Chinese food, he added.

"These are long-standing tropes that have followed specifically Chinese food more than any other cuisine," said Ku, who has written about the cultural politics of Asian food in the U.S. "What she's focused on is health and being clean, which implies the others were not."

He also said it's a myth that Chinese-American restaurants use MSG. Most cut it out of their kitchens in the 1970s because it was so unpopular, making Haspel's reference problematic, Ku said.

Haspel was apologetic in an interview Friday with the New York Times .

"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," she said. "Shame on us for not being smarter about cultural sensitivities.

She previously acknowledged the uproar via Instagram and promised to listen and reflect on people's comments.

She did not return messages from the AP seeking comment.

White TV chefs like Andrew Zimmern and Gordon Ramsay have been skewered for their respective Asian restaurants (both of which also use the adjective "lucky" in their name).

Zimmern last year said in an interview that his Lucky Cricket restaurant in Minnesota was saving the souls of people who dine at "(expletive) restaurants masquerading as Chinese food" in the Midwest. The "Bizarre Foods" host later apologized.

Ramsay, who is British, is opening the Japanese-inspired Lucky Cat restaurant in London this summer. In a press release in February, the "Kitchen Nightmares" star promised a restaurant that would be "revolutionary" and "authentic," but many noted the lack of Asians in key executive positions.

On the flipside, there are chefs who have earned reputations as visionaries for mixing cuisines. Chef Roy Choi elevated the food truck when his Kogi BBQ hit the streets of Los Angeles in 2008. Choi combined his Korean roots with tortillas and came up with mouthwatering munchies like Korean short rib tacos.

Being against cultural appropriation doesn't necessarily mean being against anyone cooking outside of their own ethnicity or culture, said Ku, the professor. It's the line between appropriation and appreciation where things can get tenuous.

"What people are reacting to is saying 'For generations, Chinese in America were doing stuff but they did it horribly. As a white person, I can do it better,'" Ku said.

New York restaurateur Stratis Morfogen, who is of Greek descent, doesn't worry about the cultural appropriation accusations against his steakhouse for its Chinese-inspired items.

Brooklyn Chop House, which opened last fall, offers cheeseburgers, pastrami and French onion soup encapsulated in Chinese-dumpling form. Morfogen is collaborating with singer Patti LaBelle to bring the dumplings to frozen food aisles later this year, packaged in reusable bamboo steamers.

"If people didn't move forward or innovate or create and fuse different cultures together, the culinary landscape would be pretty boring," Morfogen said.

Morfogen employs more than 15 chefs from China across his restaurants and a Chinese chef is also one of his partners. He thinks restaurant owners worried about inadvertently stereotyping just need to think twice before they speak.

"I really believe that those words are insensitive and it hurts people," Morfogen said. "I don't think that is what food is meant to be. I think food is meant to bring all the cultures together and respect each other."

© Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

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People used to say that they were "influenced" by other cultures, and other cultures would take pride in how they influenced the world. Now they are accused of "cultural appropriation". I guess we Japanese should go back to wearing kimonos and being samurai. Or were they "appropriated" too? OK, Jomon culture it is!

3 ( +3 / -0 )

This story reminds me of the report of Chinese students at Duke University who were threatened with academic penalties if they spoke Chinese loudly in the common rooms. The Chinese are here in the world to stay! They are not some cute ethnicity that needs to measure up to American norms. The decades and centuries ahead will be very different.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

The whole idea of whining about cultural appropriation is stupid. The entirety of humanity has been about "appropriation" of things we like from other cultures. If I want to grow dreads, because I think they look cool, that's not stealing someone's culture, that's paying respect through imitation.

Anyone who has a problem with that is a complete and utter moron.

I've eaten food that is Japanese influenced (aka appropriated), that I couldn't find in Japan, that has been delicious. Sure, it's not traditional, but that doesn't mean that there is anything wrong with it.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Online critics pounced, including New York Baohaus restaurateur and author Eddie Huang who dismissed Lucky Lee's as "the Fyre Fest of food & 'wellness,'" on the restaurant's Instagram page.

Now what's Mr. Huang doing with a name like Baohaus for his Chinese restaurant? Is he culturally appropriating the Bauhaus art movement of the 1920s, which of course was German and not Chinese? Does he serve knödel and bratwurst there? Shame on him for his lack of cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Honestly, I thought the world of restaurants and the people who work in them was better than this malarkey. Truly is it said that some people are just looking to be offended.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

To be honest I don’t really understand the furore over ‘cultural appropriation’. I mean, if someone wants to look/dance/dress/cook etc like that from another culture then what’s the big deal if it is done in a respectful manner?

Look at the fashion now, very Western-inspired isn’t it? Knives, forks, lifestyles...I’d like to think we have all borrowed from each other!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

The food in question is not Chinese food anyway. It's chinese-American. People in china don't order lo mein for delivery that shows up in a white box and fortune cookie. All those foods coming out of NYC are a great example of how immigrants contribute to American culture. Chow mein in a white box, egg rolls, and fortune cookie are totally American. What is being appropriated is the victimhood that was once the province of African Americans. But now since "people of color" has been raised from the dead, everyone not white is a victim. Asian Americans, the wealthiest demographic in America, are now POC and suffer oppression; and by extension, cultural oppression.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

This happens all the time. Recently a Canadian book was published on the phenomenon/adaptation of "Chinese" food in restaurants across Canada.

If we're going after the "perps" does anyone want to take on the number of so-called sushi restaurants abroad owned by Koreans?

It's part of history and the evolution of food culture. Italians would not have spaghetti otherwise. Just sayin'...

1 ( +1 / -0 )

"What people are reacting to is saying 'For generations, Chinese in America were doing stuff but they did it horribly. As a white person, I can do it better,'" Ku said.

The woman in question never actually said "as a white person", but these kinds of interpretations show up all the time in articles like this. Can we say that it's yet another racial "trope?" Or are tropes only things that white people are able to think exactly because they are white and somehow unique?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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