Wednesday, February 8, 2023

On the Coffee Table: Krishnendu Ray

Title: The Ethnic Restaurateur
Author: Krishnendu Ray

via Amazon

Krishnendu Ray, an Indian-born professor of Food Studies at NYU, presents an exploration of the American restaurant industry and the role of the the non-Anglo, non-white, typically foreign-born business owner within that industry.  "Ethnic restaurants" cover a broad range.  What might have been considered foreign in the 19th century - German food, for instance - has been so thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream as to be indistinguishable from its roots.  What might be considered relatively exotic to the middle-class white consumer - soul food, for example - isn't remotely foreign-born.  Most of what Ray examines, however, from the 21st century perspective are the cuisines of Asia, Africa and Latin America which, despite various levels of popularity, still remain at the periphery of the culinary profession.

The book is fascinating, more academic in language and approach than I usually tackle but beautifully written and accessible nonetheless.  Ray's study reveals a great deal about white America's patronizing attitude towards the other.  The author moves beyond the ground-level business experience of the restaurant owner to the world of the professional chef, most intimately the training at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) where anything beyond the traditional French techniques struggle to gain a foothold.  Ray draws a sharp line between the pro and the ethnic chef, defined by wildly different career paths.

I now see the restaurant experience - any restaurant experience - differently.  Who is the chef and how is s/he trying to reach me as the more or less typical white American diner?  A fusion menu projects a different signal than one I (probably mistakenly) perceive as more culturally authentic.  How much of my reaction to the food is shaped by the desire for something new?  How much is it shaped by what I expect, especially from a culture - Thailand, let's say - with which I have no direct personal experience?  

Reasonably if predictably, Ray questions the very authenticity we perceive.  What passes for Indian cuisine in the United States, for instance, typically represents only a narrow band of the broad cultural diversity of India.  In truth, all cuisine, even the holiest of holy French cuisine, is regional, not national.  But as a typical white diner, I know what I expect from the Chicken Tikka Masala I order in London and will be deeply disappointed if I don't get it, regardless of whether or not the dish reflects anything I could actually eat in India.

So yes, I recommend the book.  It will change the way you look at the industry and perhaps how you look at American society in general.  For the better.

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