When the U.S. borders swung open to millions of diverse new migrants beginning in 1965, Americans probably couldn't have guessed that there would be a culinary upshot. But within a decade, they were chewing on the most varied cuisines the country had ever seen.
These days, American diners are expert in devouring kebabs, pho and pupusas at the plastic-tablecloth-covered tables of suburban strip-mall eateries. And New York University food studies associate professor Krishnendu Ray has been poking around in the back of the house, probing for a deeper understanding of the hopes and experiences of the cooks and owners behind those immigrant-run restaurants.
"We're interested in the food, and that's great," says Ray, a former associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America and current chairman of NYU's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies. "But let's also be interested in the lives of the people who are doing this cooking."
Having attacked the notion of "ethnic food" vs. American food in an article last year, I was intrigued by the premise of Ray's new academic tome, "The Ethnic Restaurateur," which looks at how the very cuisines some of us are quick to cast as "ethnic" and the people who make them are changing the American foodscape.
What Ray has found is that immigrants hold the vast majority of the jobs in what he calls the "feeding occupations," as grocers, farmworkers and restaurant cooks - though we'd both say it's a very steep climb for immigrants to be crowned with the title "chef."
I spoke with Ray about what diners don't know about the people who make their food, how the very idea of the chef might be overrated, and what our current food-centric culture really values in the food it fetishizes. Excerpts from our conversation follow:
Q. How did it happen that so much of our food system is dominated by immigrants, but we don't know anything about their perspectives?
A. We're paying so much attention to the food that we forget the people who produce it.
In a consumer society, in a society based on endless celebration of consumption, we can end up in a place where I can argue about and discuss all the nuances of every regional cuisine of China, and every slice of pizza you can find in New York City, but the labor that is behind it remains completely invisible. It's completely unrelated to the aesthetic.
Q. But we worry about the chef in a restaurant that's "chef-driven."
A. Which is, in fact, curating work. Which is "lord of kitchen," finishing work, polishing work.
It's as if we're waiting for Picasso to sign a painting, and the painting itself has been done in a workshop by six Mexicans, one Salvadoran and one Bangladeshi guy.
Q. I think we're at a moment of profound change in the way we eat. What effect are immigrant chefs having on our food culture?
A. The basic frame of what is American food is falling apart right now. It's a great creative moment.
The basic frame was Northern European/Germanic food - basically the places where the first 20 million or so immigrants came from. The first major jolt to that happens between 1880 and 1920, where you have Italians and Eastern European Jews beginning to break that mold. In breaking that mold, they gave us what Americans would come to see as the first "ethnic" foods. Italian food used to be "ethnic." Greek food used to be "ethnic."
We're going through the third phase, with Asian, Chinese and Central American inflections. There's a shift in tastes, a dramatic shift in tastes. You can see that on the upper end of things, in David Chang's Momofuku. You can see that in the increasing emergence of Central and South American ingredients and techniques.
The story of food has been dominated especially by the French model, the idea that it's about territory, it's about terroir, good, solid things that never change. I think Americans - especially American elites - need to stop being defensive about their food culture. What is attractive about it is precisely this flow and reconfiguration of American cuisine.
Q. There are some who think that incorporating the foods of immigrants - and deeming them "exotic" or "adventurous" - is a kind of "culinary colonialism." But when you consider the perspective of the immigrant restaurateur, you see the exchange as much more nuanced. Can you elaborate?
A. If you pay attention to the food and to the language and to their lives, that is not a colonizing act. I, in general, do not think appropriation is a bad thing. There's all this discussion about cultural appropriation. Should we all be imprisoned in our little holes, with our cultural walls, completely closed off to others? If you are eating another's food, engaging with their lives, engaging with their ways of conceiving the world, that is a welcome engagement. That is how newness enters the world.
Q. There's an underlying theme in your book about how we rarely attribute taste to the so-called ethnic restaurateur. What does taste mean today, and do we still do this?
A. Take [Le Chef's ranking of] the world's top 100 chefs. Just count: Where are they from? They all tend to be European, or American, or Canadian. There will be no one from China - China, a billion people and terrific cooks! - and not one Chinese chef cooking Chinese food and not playing with Western haute cuisine ever gets attention. If you're not playing with Western models of haute cuisine, you don't count in that field.
We don't pay attention to these kinds of foods because they're interesting, or even good. We pay attention to it because there's a particular kind of cooking, writing and photographing around that food.
We've developed this hyper-attention to loud food, to food that preens, like a model on a runway.
Q. That seems to lend itself to the thinking that people who produce that kind of food are better.
A. Exactly. Better people with better skills and better taste - not true.