While the new Netflix romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe is important for many reasons — shattering stereotypes, breaking the wall for Asian American actors and writers — there is one aspect of the film that may be easily overlooked by viewers.
In the film, Ali Wong’s character, an internationally acclaimed chef, faces criticism from her childhood friend and partner, played by Randall Park, for crafting upscale Asian cuisine. Park’s character is settled; between working for his dad’s company, playing occasional shows with his band, and taking trips to the weekly dim sum at the Chinese restaurant, he’s lived a safe and comfortable life. Wong is forced to choose between the food that’s made her a success and her relationship with Park.
In a movie built to break stereotypes, the script chose to reinforce the notion of “authentic” cuisine rather than take the chance to make new waves about what the term means.
Authenticity has long had a complicated relationship with dining, especially at ethnic restaurants, where there often is a preconceived idea of what is going to be part of a meal. If you go to a Mexican restaurant, there’s an expectation there will tacos, free chips with salsa, and loads of cheese. At the Chinese restaurant there will be any number of variations of fried rice along with egg rolls and wonton soup. And no matter what, it’s going to be cheap, or there will be questions.
That is the trap that authenticity has for what we consider to be ethnic food. Not only are there forced expectations of what “should” be at the restaurant, but also the cost of the food is supposed to be on the cheap end, regardless of complexity.
Take Menkoi Ramen House in the Vista. They may spend up to an entire day simmering and stewing their broths and preparing the components to each and every dish that goes out — blanching greens, boiling eggs, cooling and slicing pork, mixing components that make up their different styles of ramen. These are not things that an average consumer does at home on a daily basis. However, a bowl of ramen there costs as little as $7.50.
At nearby restaurants you’ll find deep fried food and fries that are cooked in minutes, yet can cost almost twice as much. It’s not that fried food shouldn’t cost more money, but there’s a belief that ramen would not be able to sell at a higher price point, even when it is deserved. Even $12 ramen is a hard concept to grasp — and understandably so, as many of us grew up on cheap ramen in some fashion. Ramen was our savior in school and in early adulthood when the checks were slow and the days were long. But if plates like a piece of fish and potatoes can go for $12 and up, why not something that took more planning and preparation?
Beyond cost, there are other expectations associated with “authenticity” when you enter certain restaurant settings.
It’s natural instinct: When you walk into a diner or fast food counter service like Rush’s, you might immediately look for a hamburger, sweet tea, or fried chicken, for example. It can be hard to keep an open mind.
But restaurants are a reflection of the owner’s and chef’s experiences — whether living where they are, where they came from, or even what they are inspired by. Though a restaurant may be something like Mexican at its core, it doesn’t have to fit into the stereotypes of a Mexican restaurant. The food they decide to serve may have bursts of Mexico and also influences based on their experiences in America and abroad.
One of the best examples in town of a restaurant that breaks the typical ethnic restaurant mold is 929 Kitchen in the Vista, a modern Korean restaurant. While they have more typical Korean fare like bibimbap and japchae, there are modern twists like the Korean philly with bulgogi beef, Korean fried chicken, and kimchi nachos that neatly mash American and Korean culture together. There’s a sophisticated bar program which blends Korean liquor and ingredients into classic American drinks.
It’s different, but it doesn’t change how authentic 929’s food is. It’s a completely honest way they are representing their own backgrounds to us. The food memories and thought process that go into the menu are all part of the experiences they had to build these dishes.
Even when you have traveled to a different cultural area than your own and have had extensive history within a culture, that should not dictate your experience in a restaurant. Restaurants are often very personal, which is why it is so fortunate that we have so many local choices that provide different perspectives. In Columbia we have beautiful restaurants like Asanka Kitchen, which feels so present, alive and “here” when you step in, sweeping you into the narrative of owner Elizabeth Darko’s Ghanaian cuisine.
Everyone’s life experiences are their own, and the way they decide to reflect that in a restaurant, both in terms of food and decoration, is something that we can all do a little better to understand the next time we sit down to eat.