Thoughts on authenticity in food

And some snippet updates

Unfortunately, I read all the Yelp and Google reviews we receive across all our restaurants. I often see folks cite the food as not being “authentic” enough as the reason for their disdain, which seems to imply one universal truth for how food should be. This assertiveness between right and wrong in taste feels rather strict for something that is, in reality, subjective, and cannot be commanded by a single arbiter.

What forms this purported authority on authenticity? It seems, to me, that it is based on a set of stringent beliefs—ones that are, more often than not, informed solely by personal experiences. This strong and rigid commitment that some people have to authenticity is due to, what I surmise as, a strong commitment to the personal as truth. In turn, objecting against what constitutes as authentic is akin to confronting the idea that the individual’s past does not serve as universal fact.

Drawing on a recent example, there was a Yelp review that I read a few weeks ago where the reviewer cited having lived in southern China for years and therefore perceived themself as an authority on what was authentic dim sum. Their point of reference situated themselves not only in a specific geographic setting, but also within a certain period, which precisely echoes what Clarissa mentioned in her tweet above of this very notion of authenticity tying itself to an arbitrary time and place.

To get at these ideas of what I’ve found people have come to expect out of certain culinary experiences vs. what we are seeing now, I’d like for us to consider sociologist Erving Goffman’s concept of dramaturgy.

The world is literally a stage

One of the first texts that I had to read in university was Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, wherein he explains his concepts by using the imagery of theatre to illustrate the nuances of social existence and interaction.

At the core of each interaction is the actor—the central individual—and the audience. The latter is comprised of other individuals who observe the negotiations between identity and space, as well as react to the actor’s performances.

And within this ecosystem, we are presented with two settings: the front stage and backstage. The front stage is where the audience observes the actor’s performance. Aware that they are being watched, the actor performs their part, while adhering to the agreed-upon social conventions. But it is when the actor retreats backstage that they are able to shed the accepted guise and relax as their true self.

Specific to the front stage is the actor’s deployment of “impression management”. In order to influence the perception of their performance, the actor both consciously and subconsciously self-regulates and -controls what is shared and observed with the audience.

If the above sounds familiar, it’s because we all have been making some effort at self-presentation throughout our lives. There are numerous “front stages” on which we perform, such as our workplace with our coworkers or at a bar with a first date. And when we retire for the day, backstage can constitute as our own apartment or an unfiltered group chat with close friends.

Applying dramaturgy to “authenticity”

Coming back to the topic on-hand, I’d venture to say that the very idea of authenticity, as we refer to it, is rooted in: a) the actor catering to the audience’s expectations; b) the audience’s values of what ought to be being informed through these and other personal experiences; and c) continued reinforcement of a through b and vice versa.

Where Chinese food has been ever-so present in North America for the last two centuries in both urban and rural spaces, its identity, as portrayed by various actors, has been continually reinforced by the audience’s expectation of what it has been and assumption how it should continue to exist as such. But these expectations and assumptions aren’t homogeneous in the least. As we can see in Ann Hui’s Chop Suey Nation, for instance, what constitutes as Chinese food in Canada varies across provinces with regional dishes (such as “Newfoundland chow mien” and Alberta’s “Chinese pierogies”).

This existence of multiple performances and audiences particularly come to light as cross-cultural exchanges have made themselves more readily available with tourism (barring the pandemic's effect in halting on travel). Going beyond the regional influences within North American Chinese food, there is a bevy of differences in experiences when it comes to Chinese food around the globe. And so the chef as actor comes to perform on a front stage that is now host to a wider variety of audiences and expectations. In which case, there is no level of impression management that will satisfy everyone.

In addition to the performance for others, we must also keep in mind the experiences that inform the tastes of second- and third-generation chefs are so vastly different from those of the first generation. No longer is the backstage informed solely by a monolithic background, but rather, it is instead a confluence of the immigrant household and the Western experience outside of the home.

As an example of this evolving backstage, when we opened the Nolita storefront, I described the menu to friends as the dishes that we grew up eating but adding the toppings that our parents told us weren’t “traditional”. We were being naughty, as I’d like to joke. To add a condiment that blended bacon and X.O. sauce to dumplings was very true to an upbringing where my family would store bacon in the same fridge that housed bittermelon. It is to say that just because my experience with food is different than someone else’s, it doesn’t mean that mine is any less authentic. It’s simply different.

This fixation on a cultural food cannon is unnecessarily rigid. Instead of obsessing over how the food “ought to be”, go along for the ride. Think of any dining experience like a book—you’re never going to get into it if you expect the plot to always follow a certain prescription. Part of going out to eat at a restaurant is to see someone else’s point of view; sure, they are still putting on a performance but isn’t it time that they should be able to share a part of themselves with you without pre-conceived opinions?

In other news…

  • Fee caps on third-party delivery platforms in NYC are now law (Pix 11)

  • Congress introduced the ENTRÉE Act to add $60B to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (Nation’s Restaurant News); per Section 2(b), this bill seeks to provide relief for the Fund without the obligations of fulfilling Priority Groups

  • Excluded Workers Fund applications are expected to open this month; however, the DOL’s requirements are looking fairly restrictive (NY1)

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