Concerns about writers and artists appropriating a culture other than their own have recently made headlines in Canada.
But what happens when a chef cooks food that doesn’t match their own heritage?
A prominent local restaurateur says he’s simply trying to show appreciation for those dishes, with one food culture expert saying it can be a means of showcasing less dominant cultures.
George Nicholas, a professor, and chair of the department of archaeology at Simon Fraser University defines cultural appropriation as “using some aspect of someone else's heritage without permission [in] an inappropriate or unwelcome way, and that in doing so this causes some type of cultural or economic or spiritual harm.”
That kind of appropriation has been a concern in the entertainment industry. Among the more prominent examples in Canada, Hal Niedzviecki, the previous editor of the Canadian literary magazine Write, offered an “appropriation prize”.
According to The Economist, Niedzviecki was defending cultural appropriation by giving artists and writers’ support to take ideas from other cultures.
But chefs have been cooking food from other people’s culture for centuries – a trend that’s recently continued in Calgary. For example, new restaurants like Two Penny Chinese, Calcutta Cricket Club, and Gringo Street opened in 2017, with their themes being culturally specific food.
Among those restaurateurs is Darren Maclean, the chef and owner of Shokunin. He became interested in Japanese food as a result of the flavour profile of Asian cuisine. As a result, his restaurant serves Japanese-style small sharing plates, focusing on that culture’s concept of using local ingredients.
“It's not like I set out to be a Japanese chef. Or set out to be a Chinese chef or Indian chef, I set out to be just a great chef. So there was no mind but great chefs follow what tastes great and you develop a personal style using things that you enjoy,” Maclean said.
Maclean learned these techniques during his travels to Japan, but doesn’t claim his restaurant is 100 percent authentic since it doesn’t reside within the nation.
“We try to honour the traditions, but we are a very innovative restaurant that seeks to do things that make sense to my style and my culinary palate, granted [that] Japan is a huge inspiration but so is everything that exists around me as a Canadian as well,” he said.
One experience that resonated with Maclean was when he met the owner of a small tea plantation in Japan.
“Really interesting guy. He refused to use any machinery. He did everything by hand and his tea was amazing. I've never had tea that had tasted like asparagus or had grassy notes.”
Maclean brought that tea back to Canada and featured it on Shokunin’s menu.
“We may apply Japanese techniques and thought processes to the food that we serve. But at the end of the day, we're using Canadian product and that's a huge hallmark of Japanese cuisine is using things that are very close to home.”
Maclean’s menu items aim to shine a new light on Japanese cuisine and provide a different experience than the usual sushi and ramen that are most commonly known.
“I want to say look, this is a Japanese technique. I never sit here and say I'm a genius,” said Maclean. ”We use this charcoal from Japan. We're using fresh, real, grated wasabi. You know we committed to that to use some certain ingredients that would just highlight things about Japan that are amazing and incredible.”“It's not like I set out to be a Japanese chef. Or set out to be a Chinese chef or Indian chef, I set out to be just a great chef.” - Darren Maclean.
Not that Maclean has entirely avoided skepticism about making Japanese food. He has been questioned about his foods’ authenticity.
“Japanese people don't trust the restaurant to be any good or they find it quite expensive compared to Japan. And so I have to be able to back up what I say with a certain level of knowledge and care for the culture,” said Maclean. “They don't trust that a white guy could make Japanese food, which is fine you know.”
However, the idea of being told what is appropriate for chefs to cook in order to avoid appropriation doesn’t sit well with Maclean.
“So as soon as you try to limit and put the cuisine in a box and say only Italians could make Italian food and only Chinese people can make Chinese food and only Americans can make burgers and fries. I believe you create more division as opposed to you can create a box in which everyone must stay.”
Moreover, he says, “If you go far enough back, most people think the Italians took noodle-making from the Chinese. I just kind of find it intriguing that we feel that there would be any controversy over a white person doing Japanese food any more than there would be a Chinese person doing Japanese food.”
Nicolas Fabien-Oulette, a Quebec academic who studies food culture, agrees that “heritage-fusion and adaptation has happened for millions of years throughout history.”
Fabien-Oulette – who wrote his thesis on the mislabelling of poutine as a Canadian dish, something that happened when it was served at the White House when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited President Barack Obama – said, “I'm not saying that people should not do it and I'm not saying this is cultural appropriation. Actually, I'm saying that serve it as you want, but if you want to apply cultural ownership to the dish, the only legitimate one is the Quebecois one."
In fact, he says, it’s a way of showing respect for “minority cultures or less dominant culture in Canada.”
Nicholas says, “I think ultimately comes down to can one identify harm in the instance and if we are seeing a clear harm to someone because of the appropriation of some aspect of their culture, whether we're seeing a threat to authenticity or loss of livelihood or others will those yes can be seen as appropriations, that are harmful in some manner.”
As for whether or not cooking culturally specific foods is cultural appropriation, Nicholas said there is no simple answer. Instead, it might be considered cultural borrowing, something that’s been practiced for millions of years.
“I think that anyone who thinks that chefs are culturally appropriating, I think that's a very foolish statement,” said Maclean.
- By Casey Richardson