PictureMy quiche! I'm clearly embarrassed to be Korean
Picture this: After consulting with everyone you know who owns a spatula, you prepare for your friends the best 3-course meal of sweet potato mash, steak, and spinach salad you've ever cooked in your entire life. Now imagine that, as you nervously watch people pick at your beloved culinary creations, a friend turns to you and says, "Listen, everything is great. But this salad has Italian dressing, the potatoes are from Ireland, and the wine is from Spain. This isn't an authentic representation of your unique ethnic roots."

"I just think," another friend quips, "that you're ashamed of your culture."

These types of bizarre comments are heard all too often from the judges on The Next Food Network Star, a televised culinary competition in which several ambitious chefs compete to become the next Giada de Laurentiis or Bobby Flay. It seems that, to do well, non-white contestants must limit themselves to the stereotypical culinary sensibilities of their racial backgrounds, or at least stick to formulaic gender norms. Contestants who play with flavors and culinary “P.O.V”s (“point of views”) that stray too far from "home" risk being called out by the judges as disingenuous. As an Asian-American woman, I can't help but wonder: If, in some wildly fortunate parallel universe, I was selected to be on the show, would I have to stick with soy-sauce-based reductions and incorporate sesame seeds into every dish to earn the Food Network's approval? If I know how to make a killer mousse au chocolat, would I need to hide that knowledge and pretend in public that everything I cook has a slight “Asian flair"? Would my future Korean children need to run into my TV kitchen on cue and gobble up my fried wontons to reassure my audience that my food is real, authentic Asian cuisine that real, authentic Asian people eat?

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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Lindsey Yoo is a Korean-American social media aficionado interested in racial justice, community engagement, pop culture, and all things Asian-American.  She coordinates social media for The Filthy Freedom Project, where she dishes about culture, religion and sexuality every other week.

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Gary
8/27/2013 03:51:20

Excellent article! It's so obnoxious to me not only that every chef needs a ridiculous shtick, but that if they're not white, the ridiculous shtick is their race...? Why is the food industry still so intense about stereotyping?

On a side note, the potatoes probably aren't from Ireland unless you live in Ireland, almost all of their potatoes are sold domestically.

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Lindsey Yoo
8/27/2013 10:59:32

Thanks, Gary! Yeah... Keeping my fingers crossed and hoping my beloved Food Network takes a turn for the better. And thanks for that side note, too! I learn something new everyday... :)

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Thieu
11/19/2013 23:07:37

I totally disagree with you, I think we should push for more racial stereotypes and force all American chefs to use ketchup and hamburger helper and force all English chefs to make different variations of fish and chips. The funniest fact that is missed by anyone that watches the Food Network is that the potato plant was introduced to the old world from America so the only thing Ireland is known for should be drunk Irish and really gross, bland food. I'd love to see the Food Network force all Irish chefs to get drunk before they screw up a dish. I was born and raised in Vietnam but my favorite food is Italian and French and I could eat pizza and tacos every day of the week and not get bored, but that is because I'm an American.

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