Review: The Ethnic Restaurateur

Ray, Krishnendu. 2016. The Ethnic Restaurateur. London; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Reviewed by Rafi Grosglik
Department of Sociology, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, USA

When we sit in a restaurant and food is served to the table, most of us very often do not look properly at the waiter or the waitress. We pay a lot of attention to the dish that is put in front of us, while overlooking and not really acknowledging the person who serves us (not to mention the cooks in the kitchen, dishwashers, cleaning staff, suppliers and restaurateurs). Ordinarily, the food itself draws most of our attention. Thus, properly recognizing the people who prepared and served our food, and thanking them for doing that, is not done very often. This is one of the common practices that makes the food industry workers invisible. They do things for others—they cultivate, bake, prepare, cook, sell or serve foods—but they are not fully acknowledged. They are unrecognized.

Thinkers such as Nancy Fraser, Axel Honneth, Charles Taylor and others [1] stress that recognition is a basic need of any human beings and an essential process in the social nature of subjectivity and in social interaction. This non-recognition, or invisibility, of food producers can be attributed also to academic writing and to trends in food studies and in sociology and anthropology of food. These fields are saturated with studies focusing on foodstuffs and culinary artifacts, on the “social life” (Appadurai, 1986) [2] of certain foodstuffs or nutritional ingredients, on “food systems” and “foodscapes” or on representations of foods and dishes in popular media. As Krishnendu Ray argues in “The Ethnic Restaurateur”, contemporary theory of the social aspects of culinary culture and taste is strongly shaped by empirical work that examines food consumption and consumers. That includes theories on the opening up of the American palate and the growing popularity in Western cities of dishes and restaurants that are staged as “ethnic” and “authentic”. This scholarship is often done while not paying full attention to food producers and distributers, and thus adding to their non-recognition. Ray directs our attention to the people who produce and distribute so-called ethnic foods, and illuminates the labor  behind contemporary changes in the American palate. In “The Ethnic Restaurateur”, he addresses the paradox that although the foreign-born have numerically dominated the feeding occupations in American cities, their role in the culinary field and their own perspective on the transaction of taste are lacking in the literature that deals with taste and culture-making (p.1). In this respect, “The Ethnic Restaurateur” is an important and unique work that calls for recognition.

Centering on the visible different immigrants, those who look different, sound different and prepare different food (p.1), as well as looking at the urban culinary field from the perspective of the ethnic restaurateurs – Ray attempts to grasp both the subordination and the power of immigrant restaurateurs. He provides a voice to ethnic restaurateurs and describes what they have to say about the city, the consumers’ taste and making a living within the constraints of those constructions (p.24). Doing so, he contributes to their struggle for recognition, to their efforts to move from inferiority to equality and changing their visibility as Others to their visibility as Selves. In theorizing encounters between immigrants and natives—as it is manifested in shops and restaurants on the streets of New York City; in culinary teaching and training institution (Culinary Institute of America) and in restaurant evaluations and surveys—Ray offers both macro and micro levels of study of contemporary relationships between the non-ethnic center and the ethnic others. He provides an ethnographic description that demonstrates a double movement between discourse and practice. In his analysis, he pays attention both to the representations that produce certain contingent subject positions (ethnics, immigrants, Anglos, natives, etc.) or objects (ethnic food, Indian food, American cuisine, haute cuisine etc.) and to the physical, habitual and professional practices, which are more open to subtle possibilities than representations (p.22).

Contrary to previous studies on “ethnic cuisine” that point to cultural appropriation, culinary colonialism or culinary imperialism, Ray is reluctant to use those sorts of explanatory accounts. He emphasizes that ethnicity is not a thing and therefore it cannot be appropriated. According to his view, the openness to “ethnic” dishes and tastes are the outcome of a “relationship of domination” (p.194). For Ray, ethnic entrepreneurs should be perceived as important actors in the aesthetic transaction. Their bodily presence in metropolitan spaces; their pre-reflective knowledge of everyday practices (such as cooking) (p. 192) and their labor that shifts between taste and toil (p.17)—all of these aspects played an essential and constitutive role in urban American culture and changed the ways people eat and think about food (p.192).

The first empirical chapter of the book, Dreams of Pakistani Grill and Vada Pao[3] in Manhattan: Immigrant Restaurateurs in a Global City, revolves around the story of two separate immigrants who tried to establish restaurants in New York City. It details their practices, their “being in the city”, and the ways they learned to deploy [their] hands and tongues (both for talk and taste) […as well as the ways they] brought their memories of things [they] had eaten (p.53). These practices are entwined with their education, economic capital, morals and motivation. Altogether, they form the basis for the design of their restaurants and their actions, and comprise their agency in the construction of an urban-cosmopolitan gastronomic discourse.

In chapter 3, Hierarchy of Taste and Ethnic Difference: American Gustatory imagination in Globalizing World, Ray steps out of the perspectives of the restaurateurs and points to the ways in which different kinds of restaurants and cuisines have been historically evaluated by American taste-makers. He describes how journalists and restaurant critics constructed certain “ethnic cuisines” in the lower stages of a hierarchical system of symbolic values and meanings. Within this system, the aesthetic values produced by immigrant restauranteurs have become invisible (to use again the terms of Axel Honneth[4]) and their product of labor and knowledge are discussed as a matter of necessity and toil. By contrast, those very taste-makers attributed high-status to other foreign foods, initially Continental and French cuisine and later Italian and Japanese. Ray exemplifies the formation of hierarchies of tastes and provides a convincing explanation to the question: Why aren’t Western consumers willing to pay the same prices they pay in Italian or French restaurants when they consume, say, dishes that are cast as Chinese, Vietnamese, or Indian?

In chapter 4, Extending Expertise: Men in White at the Culinary Institute of America, the author continues to discuss the reconfiguration of the American palate, as it is manifested in American haute cuisine. Based on ethnographic work in the premier cooking school in the United States, he portrays the strife between chefs (which are associated with characteristics of whiteness, masculinity and professionalism) and the ethnic restaurateurs (who are conceived as associated with otherness, femininity, toil and domestic skills).

In the last empirical chapter, Ray points to the tension between the categories of “chef” and “ethnic”, as indicated from his interviews with immigrant restaurateurs-chefs and his examination of the ways their experiences are reflected in restaurant criticism and cookbooks. Ray points to the barriers that ethnic cooks aspiring to be professional chefs face, and to their struggles when they already achieve this status, as they were required time and again to turn back to their heritage, to their allegedly authentic and natural skills (as subjects that were born to the category of ethnicity) – notwithstanding their professional skills. The chapter illuminates the boundary between ethnicity and expertise, but also suggests that the twining of ethnicity and expertise is actually “central to the fabrication of contemporary identities in urban settings such as Manhattan” (p. 183).

Ray contends that, on the one hand, public culinary culture in American cities is a domain of the social field where old elites (American native-born consumers, chefs and taste-makers) abject foreign-born cooks and restaurateurs (p. 190); but on the other hand, immigrants have the resources to turn the table on the dominant culture of taste (p.194). The latter statement is a derivative of his argument that the aesthetics of the dominant classes is no longer the dominant aesthetic in urban food consumption (as evident, for example, in the fact that a wide range of classes can afford non-expansive “ethnic” dishes) (p.189). However, in my view, the former statement—about the subordination of immigrants and their produce in the culinary field (which resonates a form of racial or ethnic hierarchy in American society in general) — is much more convincing, considering the empirical data presented thorough the book.

This book combines meticulous ethnographic descriptions with refined theoretical analysis of the social aspects of taste, culture and power relations. It provides an original thesis about the connection between food and ethnicity and between commerce and culture. It will be of great interest to scholars of food studies, sociology and anthropology of food, culture, taste and consumption; but also to anybody concerned with ethnicity, immigration and diasporic studies, urban studies and sociology and anthropology of the body.

[1] Fraser, N., & Honneth, A. (2003). Redistribution or recognition?: A political-philosophical exchange. Verso. ; Taylor, C. (1992). Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition. Princeton, NJ; Princeton University Press.; Honneth, A. (1995). The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[2] Appadurai, A. (1986). The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Deep fried potato patty served in a bread bun.

[4] Honneth, A. (2001). Recognition: Invisibility: On the Epistemology of “Recognition”. Aristotelian Society Supplementary,75: 111–126.

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