"I just think," another friend quips, "that you're ashamed of your culture."
Take Susie Jimenez, the Mexican-born runner-up of Season 7 who declared early on, after being asked about her heritage, that she did not want her food and brand to be limited by her race. She said to the Food Network’s VP of Marketing, “I’m Mexican, but I also like sushi, and I like crepes, and I like risotto”, only to be immediately accused of being “embarrassed” by her culture. Or take Malcolm Mitchell, a black chef who tried in vain to explain to a group of confused judges that he didn't actually want to make soul food all the time.
Susie Jimenez caught on; she started cooking Mexican-style dishes to beaming praise from the judges/cultural authenticity experts, who told her she was finally “being herself”. Susie eventually lost to Jeff Mauro, a likable, every-man’s-man who branded himself as the “Sandwich King”. It’s interesting to note that, despite Jeff’s Italian heritage, the judges apparently had no issues with the lack of “authentic” Italian finesse in his food.
The Food Network recently –and rightfully – fired celebrity chef Paula Deen, emphasizing that they do “not tolerate any form of discrimination.” But when the network tells aspiring chefs on national television that they must emulate outdated race and gender norms to succeed, isn't that perpetuating a particularly insidious form of discrimination? Why is it okay for white male contestants to cook with whatever P.O.V.s they wish to adopt, while other contestants are maligned for not adopting limited, predictable personas? There is nothing wrong with cooking food with grounding in your heritage, or even with embracing traditional gender roles, but there is certainly something wrong with being told that doing anything otherwise calls into question your “relatability” or “cultural authenticity”.
I get it--the Food Network needs to market their TV personalities. And as anyone with a rudimentary grasp of race and gender will tell you, race and gender are constructed lenses through which we all learn to quickly categorize others and judge what they’re capable of. Maybe Food Network executives think that their target audiences won't “relate” to a celebrity chef with a multi-faceted identity.
I'm not so sure, however, that American audiences won’t happily welcome less formulaic characters on the Food Network. As gender boundaries are blurred and several generations of immigrants come to terms with their own dynamic understandings of their identities, the Food Network will have to follow suit. How refreshing would it be to see a chef unapologetically embrace a multi-faceted identity rather than a caricature of ethnicity? Give Paula Deen’s airtime to a young black chef who, after learning to cook in a shared kitchen space at a college dorm, dedicates a show to creating quick gourmet meals in a limited, tiny kitchen. Or a stay-at-home dad who can teach me how to make easy, cheap, and flavorful dinners for a family of fussy children. Or maybe a Korean chef with a restaurant in Kentucky who can teach me how to make the perfect side of collards-and-kimchi. You’d never know it from watching The Next Food Network Star, but these kinds of narratives are relatable, and not at all difficult to discover.
I love watching the Food Network. But it’s clearly time for them to see their audience a bit differently, and to stop packaging their chefs into neat little boxes fringed with outdated norms. Paula Deen may be gone, but discrimination doesn't end just because you've removed the most visible pillar of bigotry from the room. The Food Network still has a lot of work to do.
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