In this year’s final nine elimination challenge on MasterChef, contestants were tasked with cooking Chinese, Indian, Mexican or Lebanese street food, under the guidance of a white chef. Charlie Carrington, of Atlas in Melbourne, revamps his menu every four months to feature a new cuisine he has encountered on his travels.
In the second round, contestants chose a country and turned its street food into a ‘fine dining’ dish. Judge Jock Zonfrillo lamented that while French cuisine might lend itself well to the challenge, Asian cuisines may not; Carrington added that the French ‘influence’ on Vietnamese cuisine – referring to Vietnam’s colonial past as French Indochina – might help. Khanh Ong, a first-generation refugee from Vietnam, was eliminated after the judges thought his gà kho gừng, typically a Vietnamese ‘peasant dish’, lacked finesse. All the safe contestants chose France for the challenge.
MasterChef has undoubtedly been a positive force for representation on Australian TV. It’s introduced Australians to different food cultures and shaped our palates to become more adventurous. It presents a diverse cast as the norm, reflective of multicultural Australia, and it frequently casts people of colour as protagonists, whose heritage provides a source of pride, but does not solely define their character. The show in 2020 has pushed representation even further; it has appointed Melissa Leong as its first female judge of colour, showcased stories of refugees and immigrants, and aired an immunity challenge where all contenders were Asian-Australians.
But MasterChef occasionally stumbles in moments like the street food challenge; or, more generally, when non-white cooks are told to ‘elevate’ dishes to a ‘MasterChef-worthy’ standard. In reality, that means more than just increasing the skill level involved in making the dish (and it implicitly ignores the skilfulness of non-European cuisines). Elevating a dish implies a certain transformation of the original recipe; tidying-up presentation and toning-down ‘challenging’ flavours to suit a white, mainstream palate. In other words, it involves the gentrification of non-European food.
The show certainly celebrates non-white cooks for presenting authentic flavours. However, it still demonstrates an expectation to follow fine dining conventions, especially in the final weeks of the competition when contestants are expected to have ‘refined’ their cooking. This is despite the fact that MasterChef’s alumni go on to launch varied careers that might not involve working in high-end commercial kitchens.
The problem with cooking to fine dining conventions is that when high-class cuisine has historically been a white and wealthy domain, non-white chefs might be disadvantaged for cooking food from their cultures, the way that they want to cook it. And it’s not MasterChef’s fault, but it is a symptom of how non-whiteness is viewed in the fine dining world.
Fine dining restaurants have a particular conceptualisation of food – clean, sparse and immaculate, not a drop of sauce out of place. Food is treated essentially and elementally, as individual components which can be broken down into flavour profiles and textures. Techniques originally stem from French haute cuisine (literally, ‘high cooking’) in the 1600s, which catered to privileged clientele by emphasising high-quality unconventional ingredients, difficult cooking methods and rich, opulent tastes.
This way of preparing and thinking about food is rooted in Eurocentrism. In the Good Food Guide’s 2020 Awards, French and Italian restaurants abound, as well as ‘modern Australian’, which seems like an amalgamation of classical French techniques and structures with Asian-inspired flavours and ingredients. But Asian cuisines are less represented, except for perhaps Japanese, and upscale African or Latin American restaurants are few and far between.
It’s not because non-European cuisines are less complicated. As Adam Liaw, former MasterChef winner, tweeted after the street food challenge, Asian cultures are full of elaborate culinary traditions and complex techniques. Thai food, for example, relies on a delicate balance of sweet-sour-spicy-umami flavours, and Japanese kaiseki dining is renowned for its meticulousness. Yet, you’re more likely to find a plate of pasta than a plate of noodles in expensive restaurants. Non-European foods are viewed as inferior, requiring elevation through a European lens, and need a leg-up from European ‘influences’, a term which often hides devastating processes of colonisation or cultural erosion, or the label of ‘modern’ or ‘fusion’ cuisine, to pass the threshold from cheap takeaway into haute cuisine. (Of course, it’s possible to innovate and consciously modernise a dish while respecting its cultural roots, but the problem here is calling something modern to make it seem appealing or less foreign.)
Fine dining’s cultural hierarchy excludes cuisines for not conforming to Eurocentric standards. In many Asian cuisines, for example, flavour comes from infusing or mixing several things together – think of Indian curries, Malaysian hawker noodles or Chinese soups and stews. The idea of treating food precisely, as separate components of a dish is not present.
In addition, fine dining conventions reveal a specifically European perspective on sophistication and elegance in food, achieved through small portions over several courses. Many non-European feasts, however, are about abundance and communal dining – maximalist Cantonese banquets, Middle Eastern mezzes or kamayan in the Philippines, lavish spreads eaten with one’s hands. It’s also not a coincidence that regular fine dining patrons tend to be white and wealthy, and that restaurants, to stay afloat, will cater to their taste.
This leads to a problem, for non-white chefs, of trying to cook authentic cuisine in a historically white institution, tied up with facets of class, wealth and status. Notably, aside from modifying dishes to make them palatable to the fine dining crowd, chefs will likely not mention the original ethnic names of dishes on their menus, lest they be viewed as too unorthodox. It’s a subtle way of reinforcing the status quo and shutting non-white chefs out.
Recently, Sohla El-Waylly, assistant food editor at Bon Appetit, exposed pay disparities and racist leadership at the company; and Alison Roman, a contributor to NYT Cooking, was accused of appropriating ethnic dishes without crediting their cultural origins, and disparaging Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo, two women of colour, for ‘selling out’ by releasing cookware lines.
These scandals have blown open the question of who gets to present themselves as experts in food. As it stands, white chefs, mostly male, hold much of the agency, power and mobility: Michelin stars heavily favour European restaurants, and in Le Chef’s 2020 list of the 100 best chefs in the world, 86 were white, 83 ran restaurants in Europe, North America or Australia, and 97 were male. And it is relatively common for white chefs to cook non-white cuisines (Carrington at Atlas, Neil Perry at Spice Temple, Benjamin Cooper at Chin Chin and David Thompson at Long Chim): in the Good Food Guide’s 2018 Awards, 48% of Asian restaurants had a white head chef, and 60% had white owners.
But non-white head chefs are relatively uncommon, suggesting that people of colour have to work harder to prove themselves, and even harder to serve authentic cuisine. As well, non-white chefs are rarely viewed as experts in white food, or are heavily expected to bring an ‘ethnic’ spin, but cannot simply draw from or replicate cuisines other than their own. There’s also the fact that the majority of underpaid and exploited workers are non-white, partly because employers believe that many people of colour who are migrants, visa-holders or otherwise economically and socially vulnerable, won’t pursue claims of wage theft.
To be clear, the point is not that white chefs can’t be skilled in cooking non-white food. But white chefs are easily viewed as experts on non-white food, especially when some have only temporarily travelled through a country. There is a real danger of white chefs extracting or appropriating aspects of a culture, making them trendy for a predominantly white audience (using the language and imagery of faux ‘authenticity’ as a selling point), and profiting off of it. It’s even more concerning when white chefs don’t credit or tangibly support the communities they are influenced by, or when non-white chefs don’t have the same opportunity to cook that same food in a fine dining context.
Empowering non-white chefs as key voices in food is key. It involves pressuring food media to centre the voices of people of colour to progress the way it talks about non-European food. It also requires encouraging consumers to be conscious of food’s political and cultural aspects, and industry reforms such as training programs for non-white chefs and overhauling Eurocentric award systems.
Importantly, fine dining will not become less white or egalitarian overnight. It’s still prohibitively expensive for most people, and comprehensive structural reform is needed to address wage theft and broader issues of socio-economic status. But food still captures the interest and imagination of many Australians, thanks to shows like MasterChef. We cannot abandon representation in fine dining altogether, because then it will remain as white and exclusionary as it did before. White male chefs will go on to receive accolades (including, one assumes, screen time on MasterChef to promote their restaurant), which will bring them greater critical and financial success, and so on it goes.
Having more restaurants led by people of colour also helps normalise non-European cuisines, which could be people’s first exposure to new flavours and ingredients. It’s important because it makes fine dining slightly less Eurocentric, makes frequent fine diners more receptive to non-European flavours, and empowers prospective chefs of colour to pursue food as a viable career – and it has happened before, with chefs like Luke Nguyen, Kylie Kwong and Paul Carmichael. Representation of non-white chefs and non-white cuisines are interlinked, and are greatly important.
Despite its exclusivity, fine dining still has an important role to push culinary boundaries and encourage creativity, as any other art form does. It’s just that chefs and diners of colour should be able to enter that space too.