On the Politics of the Cultural Food Appropriation

Chef Marcus Samuelsson talks about the responsibilities of cooking other cultures' foods.

June 29, 2017 11:01 am
Marcus Samuelsson on the Politics of the Food Business
Marcus Samuelsson attends Build Presents The Harlem EatUp! Festival at Build Studio on May 15, 2017 in New York City. (Robin Marchant/Getty Images)

Last month, a now-closed Portland, Oregon–based burrito shop, Kook’s Burritos, unwittingly started a furor and sparked a national conversation: Was cultural appropriation a plague on the food industry?

At the center of the controversy was the two owners—a pair of white women—who were selling their burritos as authentic Mexican cuisine. They admitted having reverse engineered the burrito recipe from locals during a recent trip to Mexico.

To comment on the cultural appropriation debate, Esquire tracked down chef Marcus Samuelsson (of Red Rooster fame), who was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, and now lives in America.

Weighing in on the issue Samuelsson says, “I think we learn about other cultures mainly through a couple of ways: food, music, and travel….Without immigrant culture and becoming American through food, [New York City] would look very different.” He notes that there’s history involved, too; that this was how the United States was created.

Samuelsson also delves into the struggles of being an immigrant—but the light at the end of the tunnel that is food. “It wasn’t easy for me to come to America, it’s not easy for refugees to come to America. As an immigrant, you’re always leaving something else behind. But the way you can express yourself is through food. And it’s such a great window for another person to learn about another culture.”

The real kicker, though, is when he talks about the responsibility a chef has in cooking foods from other cultures—in other words, what got the Kook’s owners in trouble. “In anything we do, we wanna be thoughtful,” says Samuelsson. “It doesn’t mean we’re gonna be right about everything, but we wanna be thoughtful. You wanna do your homework, pay homage to the people that were there before you or where you got the resource from.”



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