The fallout over Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurant — described by his company as a “vibrant Asian eating house” — continued over the weekend following online criticism and an account of a preview dinner hosted by Ramsay and his head chef Ben Orpwood in London last Wednesday.
Food writer Angela Hui, who in a piece for Eater London, said that she was the only east Asian person at the event and described the proceedings as “a real life kitchen nightmare” drew a public reaction from Ramsay on Friday evening.
The chef and restaurateur took exception to Hui’s comments posted in her Instagram stories that Orpwood’s justification for the Ramsay venture was in part because his wife is Burmese. Although Ramsay sought to emphasise his ability to take criticism, he said he “had to call out,” by name, to a combined audience — across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter — of 21.4 million, the “offensive” remarks made by Hui. Ramsay suggested he took particular exception to Hui’s alleged reference to Orpwood’s “token Asian wife.”
Hui has yet to respond to the comments made by Ramsay, despite an intense media interest in the story over the weekend. It is understood that Hui used the reference to emphasise her own objection at the event’s apparent lack of understanding of east Asian culture. Hui also pointed out Orpwood was positioned as an authority by Ramsay because he had spent six months in south Asia. There was also some confusion over the chosen identity of Lucky Cat; a number of its most prominent references indicate that it is Japanese-inspired, where there are others which point to China. Hui suggested that this lack of specificity was careless.
The public conversation and dispute surrounding cultural appropriation has increased in the U.K. in the last twelve months. Last August, TV chef Jamie Oliver was accused of cultural appropriation by the MP Dawn Butler when he launched a “jerk rice” product, which bore no resemblance to Jamaican cooking preparation and spice blend known as jerk. At the time, James Hansen framed the issue as one of a power struggle. He wrote that the mechanism of cultural appropriation exists “[when] dominant cultures [profit] from the preparations and traditions of other cultures while those cultures are unable to do the same.”
The arguments from those who defended Hui — and indeed her own right to comment — stressed that the issue related not to Ramsay’s right to cook Japanese or Chinese food, but that to call it an authentic and vibrant Asian eating house, apparently without platforming one person from those cultures, leaves the venture open to criticism.
Here’s how the internet reacted this weekend.
Academic Krishnendu Ray who writes about food society said that the “quarrel over cultural appropriation is a sign of the entry of a professional middle class of color that has the capacity to talk back to traditional gourmandism”:
To develop the argument: The quarrel over cultural appropriation is a sign of the entry of a professional middle class of color that has the capacity to talk back to traditional gourmandism. Social media reduces the cost and broadens the opportunity for talking back. https://t.co/ocm9cALIwg— Krishnendu Ray (@Raykris1) April 13, 2019
Eater London contributor Emma Hughes said that Hui’s argument that the restaurant and its concept made her — as a minority east Asian woman at the event — uncomfortable had been erased by “one of the world’s most famous chefs.”
I hope we can all agree that if you are one of the world's most famous chefs, going on Instagram and attacking (by name) a young east Asian writer who expressed the real discomfort she felt at your preview, knowing an army of trolls will most likely swamp her feeds, is shameful— Emma Hughes (@emmahdhughes) April 12, 2019
It was interpreted by some as a “dignified way” to respond.
Anything but a tantrum I’d say. This whole affair is an absolute disgrace. Eater London has hit a new low in food journalism. Much respect for @GordonRamsay for calling this out in such a dignified way. https://t.co/UBABbWhRPF— Elizabeth Auerbach (@ElizabethOnFood) April 13, 2019
Chef Ken Hom told the Guardian: “I wish Gordon the best and wish him much success. Perhaps I can be of help as consultant? I do have 59 years of experience in Asian cuisine.”
It does, however remain an issue that many in the industry believe is blown out of proportion. Many commentators continue to believe that protestations about cultural appropriation relate merely to a chef’s right to cook a cuisine which is not their own.
What on earth is cultural appropriation meant to be? This whole idea is totally beserk Seriously if only those who are pure blood are allowed or able to cook a particular cuisine we would not be able to eat much.— Fred Sirieix (@fredsirieix1) April 15, 2019
And yet, as George Chen, points out, it is much more nuanced than this:
Is the famous Chef going to curse at his white cooks in Asian or what? Every chef has a right to interpret another cuisine but the integrity and culture (read authenticity-albeit I hate that term) needs to be studied in depth and not WHITEwashed for marketing purposes!— george chen (@ChinaLiveGChen) April 12, 2019
MiMi Aye said Ramsay ought to reconsider naming Hui to his millions of followers, emphasising the risk that posed to the journalist:
What she said about his wife is not defensible. I’ve been referred to similarly (I’m also Burmese married to a white man) and understand your shock. Ask for an apology, but please delete this.— MiMi Aye (@meemalee) April 12, 2019
You have 7M followers - some are abusing Ms Hui. Don’t endanger her safety. Thank you.
The journalist Helier Cheung indicated surprise at Ramsay’s sensitivity:
No views on Gordon Ramsay's restaurant. But if I bothered to call out every time someone's criticised my work (or me personally-I've been called 'stupid' 'ugly' and racist stuff before - and I get far less abuse than others), I'd never get anything done... https://t.co/5R95XSt2Jv— Helier Cheung (@HelierCheung) April 15, 2019
Writer Cathy Erway drew comparisons between Ramsay’s venture and two similarly named, equally criticised Asian restaurants operated by non-Asians in America:
Lucky has become code for something awful.— Cathy Erway (@cathyerway) April 9, 2019
Lucky Cricket: Andrew Zimmern's new Chinese restaurant (dragged by @hooleil)
Lucky Cat: Gordon Ramsay's upcoming "authentic Asian" restaurant, with no Asian chef
Lucky Lee's: nutritionist Arielle Haspel's "clean" Chinese restaurant https://t.co/McAqc6BTAu
Chef Preeti Mistry outlined the potential for misinterpretation when using the word “Asian”:
Continued #LuckyWhitePeopleAsianRestaurant news...and WTF is "Asian"???? Cuz my mom has NO IDEA what to do w soy or tofu, and I'm pretty sure Japanese kids didn't grow up eating dal every night ♂️ ♂️ ♂️https://t.co/Q4BvZqDJOw— Preeti Mistry (@chefpmistry) April 11, 2019
Finally, the episode was the subject of a debate between two London-based chefs on ITV’s Good Morning Britain today. Scottish chef Neil Rankin of Temper (which across its group, serves tacos and pizza) and Italian restaurateur Aldo Zilli, patron of the San Carlo group (which serves a version of Italian food) joined host Richard Madely and Kate Garraway. Somewhat predictably, nuance’s invite was lost in the post.
Gordon Ramsay is the latest chef to be accused of cultural appropriation after the opening of his Asian restaurant.— Good Morning Britain (@GMB) April 15, 2019
Is it cultural appropriation if a chef cooks food from a different country? pic.twitter.com/mkXiLWRx4L
Gordon Ramsay Restaurant Group did not immediately respond to Eater’s request for further comment on the accusations against the restaurant.
More soon as this story develops.