Updated: Aug 25, 2020
Since I moved back to America, I've been eating my way through as much of the work (think delicious foods) as I can from the kitchens of the 16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America. One of my first stops was Seattle, where I was blessed to try Salare, one of multiple Seattle ventures by chef and restaurateur Eduardo Jordan. There is truly no better way to re-integrate.
Sidenote, I got back to the states months ago. I know I'm a little late writing about my experience at Salare, but re-integrating takes work. I still have to remind myself that conceptions of time are very, very different in the States, that I can't go out to dinner and expect a feast for just $5, that I really really must live through this cold winter in DC. Today, our apartment no longer feels strange but little things here and there still strike me as foreign. In the midst of all the strange that comes with a big international move, contextualizing an experience like Salare is hard.
When I think of our dinner, the first word that comes to mind is: Excellence. Serious excellence. Plates carried a diverse array of textures and colors, in a kind of symphonic harmony that made each dish feel truly complete. The burrata and falafel with heirloom tomatoes were alternately so crispy and soft, herbaceous and fruity. After years of living in the Middle East, I was convinced that this rendition of falafel, so decidedly new and summery, might be the best I ever had. Each dish was equally impeccable, our service top-notch, even the ambiance carefully crafted.
It was exciting to experience such excellence from a Black restaurateur and chef in Seattle, one deservedly experiencing their moment of fame. But this experience, contrasted with the in your face whiteness of Seattle, the fifth whitest major city in America, is a startling one. One that, upon further reflection, prods me to consider what excellence in food has come to mean in modern-day America, and why such vibrant, large, described as liberal economic centers such as Seattle produce so few Black culinary stars, or Black titans in other industries? Moreover, in these centers, is there space for more than one type of Black or brown excellence?
Now I won't rant here about institutional discrimination, redlining, or the persistent racial wealth gap. Those issues are widespread and affect every part of the American economy. Coupled with gentrification, or what I prefer to call reverse white flight, these inescapable social forces offer an explanation as to why Seattle remains so white, despite the economic opportunities it offers. NOTE: If you need more background on those issues click on the links in this paragraph and read through before proceeding, as a general understanding is important here.
So that's our starting point. A "liberal", economically thriving, overwhelmingly white city struggling with gentrification and rising economic inequality, in a state that bans affirmative action. In that environment, what counts as "excellence," especially in the food industry? What is the type of food worth celebrating? Who rises to the top?
To be clear, as I ask these questions I must also say without a doubt that Salare was outstanding. Eduardo Jordan's food is truly excellent, by any standard or measure. But part of me wonders if others so readily recognize it's worth because it conforms to what western sensibilities have deemed to be highbrow cuisine?
The Salare menu drew on Italian and Mediterranean influences, long the accepted "international" cuisines we are willing to pay top dollar for. This is in stark contrast to other "ethnic" cuisines, which have an extremely low price ceiling and are often described in vaguely racist terms. Often, for "ethnic" cuisine like Mexican or Chinese to gain prestige, generate an Instagram buzz worthy of a modern food trend, or charge "international" food prices, it is packaged as "upgraded, elevated, artisanal, chef-driven" or "reinterpreted". Those descriptions suggest that something must have been inherently less or unworthy in the labor-intensive $1.50 tacos from the taco truck run by a Hispanic family. However, upon repackaging and "improving", often by white chefs, we become willing to pay $6 taco prices for the same food. If that isn't food gentrification, then I don't know what is.
In addition to being loaded with the type of foods deemed acceptably refined by our modern food system, Salare's farm to table emphasis was also apparent. I personally struggle with the modern farm to table concept, often associated with "chef-driven" and "artisanal" menus. Frankly, I love the idea of fresh, seasonal, food that draws on local ingredients and a chefs intimate knowledge of the ingredients to make a truly one of a kind food experience. However, these terms have also become trendy buzzwords common in today's top restaurants, terms that help justify their high prices.
Yet why is farm to table and its brethren so popular in expensive, three dollar sign restaurants ($$$), and not something associated with the small, "ethnic", mom and pop shop that typically charges a fraction of the cost? Why is Yemeni food not artisanal and why does farm to table not apply to Native American, Mexican, or Ethiopian food even if they are sourcing from local vendors? I've seen a small Yemeni restaurant receive delivery of a whole, freshly slaughtered lamb by way of a small local Halal meat shop, so I know I'm not wrong about that term applying to ethnic restaurants as well. If the French restaurant can make their pricey steak frites artisanal, then Tibs, Carne Asada, and Braised Bison can be too.
Eduardo Jordan himself seems to be aware of this problem. The chef is outspoken on social justice and equality issues and has spoken frankly in interviews about the role of bias and racism in the food industry, especially its impact on chefs. JuneBaby's website, Jordan's second restaurant, a soul food spot in Seattle very close to Salare, explicitly acknowledges the biases we hold regarding food.
JuneBaby's site notes,"Southern cuisine has always had and continues to have stereotypical connotations. Seen through the eyes of most Americans as inferior, unsophisticated, and unhealthy, Southern food reflects hard times and resourcefulness and is nothing short of beautiful. It is a cuisine to be respected and celebrated." The site even contains an encyclopedia of terms, an effort to educate diners on the rich history and influence of African American food traditions on what is now thought of as Southern cuisine.
JuneBaby is by all accounts as excellent as Salare, Jordan's first restaurant. In some ways, I view its success as a testament to the fact that good food can rise above our own worst impulses. JuneBaby was named the Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation in 2018 and the accolades Jordan received seem to suggest that finally a Black chef has gained his rightful place despite his "lowbrow" food and the fact that he's an outspoken minority in a predominantly White role. He is being celebrated. End of story right?
At the same time, another voice in my head wonders if the resurgent popularity of American Southern food is part of yet another wave of foodie gentrification. So many chefs (who are often White and with no hint of recognition of the heritage of the food on their menus) now adopt, "elevate", and artisinalize Southern cuisine. They are riding a modern trend in which Southern food has begun to represent American food more broadly, where New American cuisine often wins awards and draws straight from the cultural food heritage of the American South and oftentimes from slavery's own legacy. In that context, the move to "elevate" the longstanding food traditions of historically poor farming folk and Native Americans can be viewed as gentrification, not progress. True progress would mean that thousands more chefs like Jordan are given funding, training, and platforms. It would mean that New American restaurants explicitly acknowledge the food traditions they draw from, not just that they "elevate" local cuisine.
I can't and won't be entirely negative on this subject. Chefs around the country are doing the important work of excavating, highlighting, educating, and honoring the fact that so much of America's food culture is drawn from disenfranchised minority groups. As in American society more broadly, progress on social justice issues and equality has been made, even in the kitchen. Sometimes I just wish that more people who were celebrated, more chefs, more high ranking politicians and business people, more cultural commentators and influencers, looked like me. Or were non-binary, queer, brown, gay, from any disadvantaged group, anything. Representation is important, if only to make others in our (statistically) diverse society feel less alone.