Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Authentic Cuisine Debate is Dead--Long Live the Authentic Cuisine Debate in 2013!

Claudio Azevedo of Escola da Samba Vai Vai with the drum line, São Paulo, Brasil

There is a reluctance out there to discuss authentic cuisine--mostly out of self-interest. Many thriving restaurateurs that want to capitalize on the rise of Latin-American and Asian cuisines want to throw a wrench into the engine of debate to insulate themselves from this discussion. Lazy journalists, too--I'm talking the whole lot: bloggers, writers, or whatever they prefer to call themselves. Titles don't matter, it's what you know. I learned this as a young musician coming to L.A.--it doesn't matter who you've played with when the band leader kicks off Cherokee, or All The Things You Are, or even Pick up the Pieces. You stand on your abilities in the world of music, and you will be judged, by critics, by the audience, and mostly by other musicians--it's an extreme form of social criticism. It's this type of criticism that keeps even the best tenor men from recording Coletrane's, A Love Supreme--you just don't do that.

Even big name writers out there play the "oh what's authentic anyway", again just to cover up their own inexperience. I do support what Eddie Huang is saying--even if it's from the perspective of 30-somethings that grew up on Jackass, base hip-hop culture, and hyper-exposure to porn--that only people from within the culture should be the voices of that cuisine, or tradition--or they should have at least been out in the field. Eddie is an authentic voice. Andrew Zimmern is about the most credible individual I know, who has put a tremendous amount of time on the ground, and truly wants to get to the essence of a people. His knowledge and experience are unrivaled--right behind him is Anthony Bourdain. I would listen to either of these guys talk about Latin America. There is such thing as authentic cuisine, as there is authentic jazz--Kenny G is not jazz--or authentic samba.

While visiting Brasil this week--I'm writing this from my hotel in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais--I heard samba drums outside my windows. I thought it was some event leading up to New Year's Eve festivities over on Av. Paulista, but after procrastinating a bit, I thought I should go see what it was--I mean--I've heard samba a million times--but maybe I should take a look. I followed the sound to the bottom of the hill where my hotel was located and rounded the corner--when I looked up I read the name of one of Sao Paulo's most prestigious samba schools: Escola da Samba Vai Vai, and then saw the drum line, samba dancers, food stands, and a ticket box. This is it--what I've been dreaming of doing--attending a samba school rehearsal. I couldn't believe it--whatever I had planned for the evening was instantly forgotten, nor has there been a moment of thought trying to recall. There was just me--and Vai Vai--and all the community, friends, and family that came out to dance along, sing along, and drink buckets of Brahma(One of Vai Vai's sponsors).

I've seen samba groups with dancers, samba troupes, pagode(a style of samba) shows with sambistas(samba dancers) here in town--Brazil Day L.A. parades--none of this has even come close. There was more than just dancing, there was a tradition of celebration, a pride representing your 'hood, of helping Vai Vai prepare for Carnaval de São Paulo 2013 this coming February. The thunder that rose from the surdo(samba drum), and bodies of the sambistas, and the booming voices of the chorus--it was a group of people committed to samba school, neighborhood, and country, and every bead of sweat from ebony, Brazilian skin fell for a cause. This was like no band practice I've ever seen or been part of--it was a complete surrender to music and dance.

I was overwhelmed, and even became a bit misty eyed--I had to take a caustic shot of Ypioca cachaça, straight--I couldn't just randomly cry in the middle of a bunch of strangers! Now I was crying from the nasty Ypioca--fine in caipirinhas--but it's a back-hand from a 400-pound bouncer, when taken neat.

Samba dancers are everywhere but samba is in Brazil--it is performed by Brazilians. This is authentic samba.

You want to make it in jazz--prove your worth?--well, New York is still the place to be a jazz musician. Bird and Miles talked about ex-pats living in Europe to escape racism in America--but, Miles and Bird stayed to endure the ugliness--because the music suffered abroad. Europe had some good players, but they never had a jazz scene like New York, or even Chicago. There is a place where an authentic experience happens.

For me, authentic cuisine has never been about race, or blood, but formative experiences. Mexico is multi-cultural, the cooks and chefs have blood from all over the world. Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, etc. are all multi-cultural. There's an understanding of food through every day meals, birthdays, celebrations, rituals, and repetition that become part of the DNA.

Chef Rick Bayless doesn't cook, prepare menus, plate, nor season like a Mexican chef--his formative experiences are American. Chef Drew Deckman, who's spent more than a decade living in Mexico wouldn't dare call his food Mexican, yet his non-Mexican cuisine has a natural bond with traditional Mexican food preparation that his American contemporaries will never have--unless they made his level of commitment.  I say he is a Mexican chef, or a Chef with a seamless Mexican style of cooking. Jimmy Shaw is white, but he was born and raised in Mexico--at least he spent most of his youth over there--Jimmy cooks and thinks like a Mexico City chef. He's a Mexican--it's not the blood! L.A.'s Chef Laurent Quenioux loves Mexican ingredients, but never would try to duplicate Mexican cuisine--he uses the ingredients to cook in his own style. Respect.

There is a natural type of racism, or maybe it's disrespect of Latinos that seems to be allowed in America--a country that has legislated acts against Mexicans tantamount to the awful prohibitions against Chinese one -hundred years ago--especially in Arizona. So, no one even bats an eye when some non-Latino chef claims to be cooking authentic Mexican cuisine without showing respect to that community. Chef Drew Deckman is a bad ass, and has done the Michelin Star thing, yet he entered Mexico with his head bowed. Respect.

I was surprised when talking to a Kansas City-based, star-chef fucker, blogger of his support for people like Rick Bayless, and Alex Stupak. I asked if he'd sit at a sushi bar and order sushi from a Jamaican sushi master,or a Dominicano sushi master, and he said, "no way", laughing." But you'll get tacos from Alex Stupak", I responded? He waded around in a murky, hypocritical soup for a moment--I should say a velouté de poisson in his case--and had no good answer even after I grilled him about this inconsistency. It's a bias--respect for Japanese culture is widely understood, but respect for an an equivalent Mexican tradition is dismissed by low intellects like this shallow blogger. Mexico, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Brazil, Colombia--they all deserve the same regard and esteem granted to Japan, France, Italy, Spain. There are no superior cuisines, there are just authentic, and inauthentic cuisines. Inauthentic can be great, too.        

I believe this year--with the help of people like Eddie Huang, Gustavo Arellano, and others--will see a rise in the authentic cuisine debate. Latin and Asian cuisines will be the top world food cultures in the coming years, usurping the position held by European traditions for centuries. History marches on--things change--always. That shouldn't upset anyone--are the Portuguese upset that they're no longer an empire? No, they do just fine.                    
What is authentic cuisine?

Authentic cuisine is not static--it is a living body of work. It's a snapshot in time of what the people of a country, region, state or province, town, and even neighborhood are cooking and eating today, yesterday, and tomorrow, as I witnessed this past November in Mexico City's Tepito neighborhood--they had dishes that only were found within a square mile. It will look different in the future, on a superficial level, but always will remain the same. There will be dishes that will stay rooted in a culture for eternity like barbacoa, lechona tolimense, choripan, pho, tonkotsu ramen, Neopolitan pizza, fufu, feijoada, boil-up, bouillaibaisse,etc.

Authentic cuisine has a local presentation, local ingredients, ancestral preparations, a time and place, and a set of mannerisms. If you don't know how to recognize this, it's because you've not seen it with your own eyes. The world is too small now for us not to travel, and not to know--world citizens learn these things when we travel, out of respect, for all cultures.

Authentic cuisine isn't influenced by conquerors--it remains true to its traditions. Ingredients and techniques are universal--just because we all benefit from the Chinese invention of washable dishware, that doesn't make all food Chinese food. Mexican barbacoa has been unchanged since pre-hispanic times--a lamb in the pit instead of some other protein doesn't change the ritual, cooking style, or its importance to that community. French technique was influenced by Italian royal courts, but ultimately was created by a handful of chefs--it's a set of practices--technique isn't cuisine--it belongs to the world, just like washable dishes, the fork, or the immersion circulator. I say washable dishes are more important than French technique--Europeans were dying from unsanitary food service until Chinaware arrived.

I'm tired of non-Latino writers talking about Latin-American foods from this Euro-centric perspective, or with this Al-Andalusian nonsense. Why don't we do that with French, or Italian cuisine?--I doubt Italians could call their cuisine their own if we played by those rules. All cuisines have techniques, recipes, and ingredients from earlier cultures, but French cuisine, and Italian cuisine belong to the French and Italians respectively. Why don't we diminish the cuisines of China, Thailand, India, and every other cuisine in the world that relies heavily on chiles from the Americas? When we think of Thai and Indian cuisines, and certain regions of China, the first thing that comes to mind is, heat! That wouldn't be fair either--these cultures already cooked this way--they just found a better substitution. Ingredients are unbiased--they're promiscuous.    

It's time to define Latin-American and Asian cuisines on their own right, it's time for a guide book that skews in our favor, it's the time for Latinos and Asians to write about their own food. It's time for Mexican chefs to dominate Mexican cuisine in America, instead of this minstrel show.

Does this mean it's exclusive?--no. I've had mole made by a freckled-face white-as-snow house-wife from West Hills who had just studied for a few weeks in Oaxaca that was leagues ahead of anything I've from non-Latino L.A. chefs, or Mexican-American joints around town. Anybody can cook this food, or start a business--I look forward to all the new Latin-American restaurants regardless of their background, as long as they take the time and care to respect the cuisine.

I love what Chefs Mary Sue Millikin and Sue Feniger have done for Latin-American cuisines, and I'm a huge supporter. But in the coming years, there should be no place for chefs like Rick Bayless that try to patent, or co-opt a culture that's not their own, or Alex Stupak, who resembles the arrogance and ignorance of today's young celebrity chef culture. If this were a bandstand, Stupak would get a cymbal upside his head-sit down!

Authentic cuisine is where you'll find the best cooking, whether it's from a pueblo in Mexico, a stand on the streets of Thailand, a bistro in the south of France, an outpost of California cuisine in Berkeley, CA, a yakitori joint in Tokyo, or in a Hamer village in Ethiopia. It's the sambista dancing for her neighborhood that burns with a fire, craft, and beauty that can't be replicated by any entrepreneur or hustler.  


As for me it has been an amazing year of travel through Brazil and Mexico, I did appear on several shows including a 2nd appearance on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern (a 3rd show with Andrew is in the can); I curated Mexican chefs and traditional cooks from Baja California, Estado de Mexico, and Mexico City for the L.A. Street Food Fest, Test Kitchen, and Playa's Baja chef series; became a restaurant and chef consultant,  became a contributor to OC Weekly's Tijuana Si! column, I became a regular at Los Angeles Magazine, I saw the publication of my Belizean cuisine article in the L.A. Times(a real L.A. gem of a community), and I taped a segment as host of a new Travel Show that will come out in February.

For those that check in from time to time, I thank you for being around for this unexpected ride. I apologize for the low output this year--my responsibilities have increased, and I've had to be prudent in writing about "finds", now that I work with many forms of media seeking original, or exclusive content. You can still count on the best finds in Los Angeles like the Mercado Olympic, here on the blog--have you been?--it's the greatest show in town. Sometimes I will publish somewhere else--I usually link so you can easily access the article--again--I don't want to make anyone click all over the net trying to find a damn taco, but, just trying to continue this ride the best I can. So glad to meet so many of you this year, and thanks to my friends, family, and beautiful wife for breaking bread in 2012.  Happy New Year, 2013 from Rio De Janeiro, Brasil!!!  


mattatouille said...

Cheers Bill. Really love your treatise here. I agree than authenticity is something hard to define but also something you need to strive for. Perhaps it takes an immigrant to really understand the depths of culture in the context of America - a melting pot. I was having dinner with some friends at a Korean restaurant - and being the only Korean (American) there - I honestly felt glad to share a pinnacle of my culture's cuisine. Because I knew this particular restaurant was authentic, I knew I was communicating and sharing a real part of my parents' homeland, not some shadow.

streetgourmetla said...

Thanks, Mattatouille!I think it's easy to define. Kind of like when I took my wife years ago to Cafe Brazil--she knew right away it was adulterated, but Brazilians are just fine with Pampas--it's recognizable.

Your trip to Korea was proof to that--it made you look back on the places that had it right, and changed the way you saw the places that were inauthentic.That's what it's all about--sharing our parents homeland, my brother, and enjoying it ourselves.