Writing in colour

08 August, 2019 by
Melissa Leong

As a kid growing up in predominantly white suburban Sydney, I delighted in introducing friends to my Chinese-Singaporean culture, especially when it came to food.

I loved being the one who brought ‘weird’ lunches to school, in a time where sticky rice parcels and bento boxes would elicit a full playground audience. I loved seeing the sense of achievement cross someone’s face when they tried — and liked — something new.

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The joy of encouraging people to eat outside their comfort zone is one shared by all food writers. We are feeders by way of the word, and we bloody love it when people take our cues. But do they really?

Chef Joel Valvasori of Perth’s Lulu La Delizia isn’t convinced. “As an eater, no amount of someone telling me I should eat something will change my mind,” he says. “As a restaurateur, a media article might attract a couple of people, but I don’t think it really changes people’s behaviour.”

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Palisa Anderson of Chat Thai and Boon Luck Farm is a bit more diplomatic. “People are becoming more curious, and that can only be a good thing, whether that’s a function of media or just how we’re evolving,” she says

Speaking of evolution, it’s fair to say there’s a general dissatisfaction across the board when it comes to the current media state of play. Does it explain the amount of published pieces irately forwarded to me from chefs and restaurateurs, or why I sometimes feel a sense of cringe when I read a piece about the food I grew up with written by a writer who doesn’t quite seem to get it? Is it the overly knowing tone, a lack of diversity in voices and backgrounds or just terrible journalism that’s bothering us?

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“I’m sick of white people writing about Asian food like they know better than us,” says Melbourne chef Jerry Mai. “I find the writer and publication less credible [when that happens].”

It isn’t to say that one shouldn’t write about food outside their cultural experience for fear of reprisal. After all, it is a writer’s job to eat and educate ourselves broadly and encourage others to do so, too. But the general gut feel here is that no matter where you come from, writing on any subject of speciality requires a decent sense of tact, research and respect. On some level, when it’s not, the ick factor is real.

In a beautifully articulated piece by African-American food writer Adrian Miller for National Public Radio, he says: “Am I arguing that only people of a certain race should write food stories about their culture? No. I’m arguing for more balance in who gets the writing assignment. Depending upon the angle sought, an African-American writer may be able to tell a story with more dimension than someone unfamiliar with the culture. At the very least, that writer will avoid the kinds of mistakes that get people in a lot of trouble on social media.”

Like many first-generation migrant kids with a combined perspective of culture and country, it’s a fascinating lens to view Australia.

When it comes to food writing; a job that requires a reasonably firm grasp on cultural appreciation, what are the challenges facing people of colour in food media? “The first, and probably most pervasive, challenge is that writers of colo[u]r are often limited to writing about their traditional foods, while white writers are given much latitude to explore a wide variety of cuisines beyond their immediate expertise,” says Miller.

Writing from the perspective of being an African-American food writer in the US he acknowledges how this experience is shared among writers of colour in general, and I can certainly attest.

My first few years of writing clocked a helluva lot more Asian restaurants than any other category, but it’s fair to say I’m just as comfortable discussing cooking to cuisson and whereabouts on the map of Italy people stop cooking with olive oil and start with butter.

But to the industry, does it really matter who’s writing the story and where they come from? “To be honest, it doesn’t really matter to me who’s writing the story if they know what they’re talking about,” says Merivale executive chef Dan Hong, though he’s also quick to add there is a certain amount of affront to be taken when a non-Asian writer tells him how to eat, as though it’s a new discovery. “When someone tells me, ‘You should try sucking the head of the prawn’, it’s like, ‘Shut the f**k up. This is the way we have always done it’.”

“I don’t mind who’s writing, but for me, I think someone from an Asian background would understand me and what I do more,” says Vietnamese-Australian chef Khanh Nguyen of Melbourne’s Sunda.

And on whether media’s encouragement to try something new has any impact; “To be honest … social media probably drives consumer choices [for Sunda], more than what’s written in the media.”

There are some chef/writers such as Igni’s Aaron Turner, who are aware of the delicacy of taking on someone else’s story. “It’s something that has weighed heavily on me as a white guy writing on fried chicken,” he says.

Turner is completing his second book, which explores the US chapter of his life in Nashville, Tennessee, and its influence. Somehow, this degree of conscious respect leads me to believe his efforts won’t be for nothing.

In terms of ‘getting it’, Lee Ho Fook’s Victor Liong says his feelings have changed. “I used to feel more sensitive before in terms of how media perceived what I do and my business,” he says. “Now, I don’t really care if they label my restaurant ‘fusion’. It’s only because they can’t put other words together to describe it better.”

I’m inclined to agree with the perspective the ethnic background of a writer shouldn’t necessarily have a critical bearing on the story, so long as the writing is sound, the research is apparent and the tone is respectful. But as Miller notes, do we lose something by way of dimension?

There’s no doubt that what’s going on in the world has us all feeling a little raw. And when contemplating the current food landscape and the intertwined relationship between media, restaurants, chefs and producers, it’s easy to both oversimplify and complicate when it comes to our shared feeling of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Be that as it may, it’s time more than ever to encourage a more inclusive and balanced perspective wherever we can. We have to believe that the way forward is with skill, knowledge and respect, no matter who you are, or what you’re having for lunch.

This story originally appeared in the August edition of Hospitality magazine. Subscribe here.

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