We probably should have seen Kooks coming.
But we really didn't anticipate that a short and positive review of a weekends-only breakfast burrito pop-up a couple of weeks ago would ignite an international incident—a rage-filled conversation about cultural appropriation that led to opinion pieces in the London Daily Mail and The Washington Post and on Fox News, not to mention on Mexican social media. It was a perfect storm.
The photograph that ran with our May 17 review of Kooks depicted two young, middle-class-looking women triumphantly holding burritos up in the air. Our article described how the two women "lost their minds" over handmade flour tortillas on an impromptu getaway to Puerto Nuevo, Mexico.
"I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did," Kooks co-owner Liz Connelly told WW. "They told us the basic ingredients, and we saw them moving and stretching the dough similar to how pizza makers do before rolling it out with rolling pins. They wouldn't tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn't quite that easy."
We've told similar stories about food inspiration many times in the past—two Portlanders who'd taken a motorcycle surfing trip to Mexico, fallen in love with grilled chicken and brought the recipe back home to their food cart; or Andy Ricker's trips to Thailand, on breaks from being a house painter, which led to Pok Pok and his celebrity status across the United States and in Thailand.
But this time, the story about Kooks provided tinder for a cultural inferno.
More than 1,500 comments were posted, with still thousands more on Facebook—some defending, others attacking the Kooks owners, who were derided as white "Beckys" even though one of the two Kooks owners is a quarter Chinese.
"This article is a clear example of how media perpetuates and reinforces racism and white supremacy, brandishing it as 'fun' and 'innovative,'" read one comment. Another demanded that the two women send remunerations back to Mexico for the cultural theft of tortilla recipes. Others defended the women's right to make burritos.
After the review was published, Kristin Goodman, co-founder of feminist workspace Broadspace, circulated what she called a "shit list" of "white-owned, appropriative restaurants." [Update: As of 11 am on June 7, the document has been deleted or made private.] The list names more than 60 restaurants that serve ethnic cuisine but are owned by a white person.
"White business owners wield economic and 'cultural capital' advantages over POC (people of color" business owners, so they are 'punching down' by appropriating cuisines from people who are disadvantaged in comparison," the list says.
The list identifies Pok Pok (Thai), Voodoo Doughnut (religious appropriation) and the Alibi (Polynesian), with suggestions of POC-owned businesses that readers of the list should frequent instead. The Portland Mercury decried the "pattern of appropriation" Kooks represented and linked to the list, calling it a "who's who of culinary white supremacy." Nine days later, the Mercury pulled the Kooks story from its website and issued a retraction.
Goodman is not the original author of the list. The Google Document's history shows the file was created on May 18 by Portland vegan activist Alex Felsinger. Felsinger says that the list was part of a private conversation among activists, but that he had no part in sharing the list publicly.
Meanwhile, the owners of Kooks received so many threats—at least 10 of which were death threats, they told WW— that two days after our review appeared, they closed their business because they felt unsafe.
In all of this, one group seemed conspicuously absent from the fervent dialogue: chefs in Portland, both those who make food from other cultures, and immigrants who brought their cuisine with them.
Last week, we invited several chefs to speak their mind in an open conversation. The chefs all sat down at Old Town restaurant Mi Mero Mole, for a meal of breakfast burritos.
Here's the conversation that ensued—which has been edited and condensed for clarity:
On the outrage over Kooks Burritos…
Akkapong "Earl" Ninsom, owner of Thai restaurants Hat Yai and PaaDee: Honestly, I thought it was funny. [Non-Mexican] people have been making Mexican food for a long time, and it never became a story. It was never a problem. Why? If it was true they went to just stay [in Mexico] for a day and see what was going on, understand exactly how they do it, keep doing it and execute and perfect the recipe, then I was supportive.
Han Ly Hwang, owner of Korean restaurant Kim Jong Grillin': I know these two women; I don't think there was any malicious intent. However, if you're gonna do a quote-unquote "appropriated" business, it's all about the approach. I think the whole story would have been different if they came and said, "You know what? We were there forever. I blew through my whole savings account to learn how to make tortillas, and here I am."
Anh Luu, owner of Vietnamese-Cajun restaurant Tapalaya: Why is it these girls, right now? Lots of people of different races have been opening up restaurants that are not of their own race. That's how it is—it's a restaurant. I feel like the article that was written wasn't quite fair to them. I don't think they knew what they were getting ready to talk about. "I'm peeking into windows," is kind of just a phrase. I'm not sure if they actually did that. I want to highlight the fact that they are women, too. I feel like if two white dudes had opened a burrito truck saying, "We spent a few months in Mexico speaking broken Spanish," people would be like, "Oh, cool, brah! That's awesome!"
Hwang: If two white dudes went and caught all the best waves and came back with a burrito pop-up, unfortunately, I think I agree with you, I don't think it'd be that bad. I think it'd be almost a romantic story.
Nick Zukin, owner of Mexican restaurant Mi Mero Mole: There's a dismissiveness [to the reaction to the review]. Everybody is like, "Oh, these girls, they're just a couple sorority girls."
Hwang: It's super-sexist.
Hwang: I think the authenticity thing comes up a lot. For me it's like, this is what I grew up eating, and I happen to be Korean, and this is what I'm selling. But there were so many days when I had to wonder, am I Korean enough to make this food? If a Korean person comes by my food truck, are they going to say to me, "This is the worst thing ever. Close, go hang yourself"?
Zukin: But you say "a Korean," as if it's one thing. Even people of color do this—they try to lump together all Koreans as if they're the same. I get this because I'm white making Mexican food, so there's a certain suspicion level with some people that it's not going to be authentic. I'll have one person come in and say, "This is amazing, it's exactly how my grandmother makes it." And then the next week someone will say, "This isn't even mole."
Luu: If you're cooking Thai food outside of Thailand—even in Myanmar or China—it's not gonna be authentic. All food travels around the world, and every culture has their own version. It's all getting blown way out of proportion, and people are taking it too seriously. It's food. If it's good, eat it.
Hwang: One thing I want to touch on: Our business [Korean-American barbecue fusion spot Kim Jong Smokehouse, in which Nimson is also a partner], we have a business together, and one of the partners is BJ Smith. He's a white hipster chef, a lot of tattoos, funny guy. But if he did it alone, it'd be curtains for him. But because we are the validators of the Korean aspect, or the Thai aspect, now he's validated. Nobody gives him any crap.
Luu: I did a phorrito [pho and burrito fusion] pop-up that was all the rage, and not one time did I ever receive any criticism that I was appropriating Mexican cuisine. Is that fair? If I was a white woman, they would have totally been like, "What are you doing?" [But] I'm a chef, and I'm Vietnamese.
Hwang: [Minorities] have a bigger privilege of being able to play with that. I look at Bo Kwon [of Koi Fusion], great example. He's a baller, but he has a food that's not Korean, and it's not really Mexican, it's his own thing. I haven't seen any white-appropriated Korean places, but if there were, I would go in and be like, "Alright, I'm going to hold you to the highest standard I possibly can. You better be able to speak Korean better than I do. It better be one of those Mowgli, Koreans-adopted-you situations."
Zukin: There's a colonialist history between Japan and Korea: Would you be OK with a Japanese place doing Korean barbecue?
Hwang: That's a really good question. In my generation, Koreans like myself are trying to erase that separation between Korea and Japan.
Hwang: [Ricker] is a very unique case. He went above and beyond, and really researched. The gentrification and appropriation thing doesn't stop with him—he's still making money off somebody else's culture—but he's also doing something really important. He's educating. He's teaching people, this is why these fish sauce wings are like this. We don't have chopsticks for this, there are forks for that. He's good with educating.
Ninsom: I couldn't [serve unfamiliar Thai food] at first—because I didn't know you could before. It was too much risk. You didn't want to put all your effort into something that would die.
Luu: Ricker is doing his part to educate people about the culture, but in these times, you will always have the person that's going to be on the opposite side of that page. He would be heavily scrutinized.
Zukin: There definitely would be more pushback now. The people who organize these sorts of [social media protests] are much more mainstream than they were 10 years ago. It's the norm now.
On the list of white-owned, appropriative restaurants…
Luu: It's hard to believe that the person or people who wrote this list can't see that this list is racist in itself. I just don't see how they don't see it. And that's why they're being cowardly, and won't fess up about who wrote the list. I don't think the culturally "ethnic" people on the list feel represented by it. I wouldn't if I were on the list—on that side of the list. And what the hell? Voodoo Doughnut? Like, "religious appropriation"? What the actual fuck? I'm from New Orleans, where voodoo is actually around! Voodoo Doughnut being religious appropriation is ridiculous.
Hwang: I don't think [this list] helps. What's it going to achieve? It's not like any of those business owners are peering behind a white curtain, thinking, "I hope they don't find out." It's openly out there. Ten years ago in Portland, the color spectrum was very, very slim. It's getting better. And we're finally a real city. How many Beard [Awards] do we have now? How many nationally talked-about restaurants? This means there's more money for us now. There are more ways to make a living, and we don't have to work for other people. It think that the list is counterproductive. And I agree with Anh Luu, I think it's kind of racist.
Luu: Calling out only white people? There are plenty of non-white people appropriating other people's cultures, too!
Hwang: Careful. That phorrito might come back and catch you!
Luu: If I were white, they'd be like, "You're appropriating two cultures!" The list is completely unfair, because it's out of context. Not everyone knows everything about all the businesses and all the people listed. You just can't judge a book by its cover. It's unfair that those girls had their business shut down.
On the free flow of food culture…
Zukin: Honestly, I don't worry about cultural appropriation. I worry about people doing things that are racist, mocking or demeaning. The entire history of food is people appropriating, exchanging, influencing, borrowing, etc. I bet you can't imagine Korean food without chilies, and chilies are from Mexico.
Hwang: It happened in the 1500s, yeah.
Zukin: Is it the appropriation that bothers you, or is it the attitude, the approach?
Hwang: The appropriation is going to happen. It happens no matter what. With Kooks, if I want to be really racist and sexist about it, if I see two white girls making burritos, what do you think the avocado ratio is on that burrito? It must have been astronomical! It would have been awesome! And now we'll never know!
Luu: Every form of art has appropriation. That's what happens. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Unless you're trying to be like, "This is my idea now."
Hwang: I took my mom to Departure [whose chef is Gregory Gourdet, who is of Haitian descent], had her order the bibimbap, and asked her, "What do you think?" She said, "It's really good, it's vegetarian, it's awesome." And then I brought out Gregory, and she was like, "No way!" Her head exploded.
Zukin: I think one thing people don't realize is that when I go to Mexico, the older Mexicans that I'm usually working with and learning from, they're seeing their traditions being lost to younger generations who are more and more influenced by corporate foods and global foods. They're losing their traditions. They're super-excited to see anyone, of any nationality and any race, wanting to preserve and continue those traditions. That's what I see in Mexico.
On whether future chefs will be afraid to work with foods from other cultures…
Zukin: It actually already was a concern. I considered bringing in a partner who was Mexican or Latino to give [Mi Mero Mole] credibility, even if it was entirely dishonest. It's something people think about: You have to partner with somebody, even if they're not the one who's truly passionate about the food. I get attacked by Mexican Americans who grew up eating mac 'n' cheese and Taco Bell. I grew up eating this food three times a week, and I've studied it. I understand it's not my heritage's food, but why is it not my food? It's the same way a New Yorker will think pizza is their food, even if it's Italian.
Luu: The fact of the matter is, this situation will deter people from opening something that isn't of their own ethnicity. Which sucks, because then we're not going to have the future Andy Rickers. Food should just be judged by how good it is.
Hwang: Plain and simple. Thank you.
Luu: I don't care who's making it. Sure, I care about their story, if that's what they want to highlight about it. But if you eat something, and you think it's good, then support it. As a person of color who does get a lot of press myself, I don't feel that white people are infringing. There's no other Cajun place in Portland that's getting more press, and all the other Cajun places are owned by white people.
Zukin: One of the weird things is, the focus is on ethnicity and race, but I feel like the bigger issue is class. There's no acknowledgement of each of us as an individual—that we all have individual disadvantages and privileges in life, that some poor person from a methed-out mom in Kentucky can be worse off than a third-generation Indian whose parents are both obstetricians. And there's no acknowledgement: "You're brown? Oh, you're worse off." How is that not more prejudiced than a white person owning a Mexican restaurant—to reduce people just to their color and not their individual story, and what they've overcome? I don't get it.
Luu: Eat the food before you make a judgment.
Ninsom: Be crazy about the food, put all your thought into the food. Anybody could be the next famous person, but it's the food.
What this conversation will look like five years from now…
Zukin: In five years, we might be in the middle of a recession, and concerned about all the restaurants that are closed, and that none of the cooks have jobs anymore. Those are real issues. Cultural appropriation is an issue that you can talk about only when you have enough money and time and a good job to talk about it.
Hwang: Five years ago, we were still waking up from our hangover that was Old Portland. Now it's completely unrecognizable when you drive down Division. So in five years, do I think it'll be a little different? I think some other incident will happen that'll either push us in the right direction—like this conversation—or it'll push us in the wrong direction, so that now we're only making money and fighting over the color of our skin.
Han Ly Hwang, 37, first learned to cook Korean food from his mother in Fairfax, Va., before taking his first cooking jobs at Chili's and Applebee's. His Portland food cart, Kim Jong Grillin', was destroyed in a fire on the same night it was judged best food cart at WW cart festival Cart Mobile in 2011. He rebuilt it in 2014, and now also co-owns two locations of a Korean-American fusion concept called Kim Jong Smokehouse, with chefs BJ Smith and Earl Ninsom.
Nick Zukin, 44, grew up near Eugene, where he learned to fry his first tortilla at age 5 from Arizonan and Californian parents. He is co-founder of Kenny and Zuke's New York-style deli. After years of promoting Mexican-run businesses in Portland (including as an occasional contributor to WW) and studying Mexican food in Mexico, he started Mexican-restaurant Mi Mero Mole in 2012—which has placed him on the list of "white owned appropriative restaurants" circulated online.
Earl Ninsom, 38, was born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand, and began cooking with his parents and grandparents at a young age. He first helped his family start Thai restaurant Thai Cottage in 2008, and has since started or helped start restaurants Mee-Sen, Tarad Thai, PaaDee, nationally lauded pop-up Langbaan, Kim Jong Smokehouse and WW's 2016 Pop-In of the Year, fast-casual Southern Thai spot Hat Yai.
Anh Luu, 31, was born and raised in New Orleans, where she first learned cooking from her mother—although her first cooking job was at age 15, at a Mexican restaurant called Vaquero. After she moved to Portland in 2009, her first job was at Cajun restaurant Tapalaya, where she has slowly introduced Vietnamese influences to the food. Luu bought the restaurant this March.