The Michelin Woes
Updated: Feb 6, 2019
If you were to ask me to sum up 2018 in one word it would be: food.
We saw a rise in the people’s love of food and the various ways to experiment with it. Veganism became a routinely google’d word, Instagram cut the middle man out of the culinary world, and twitter saw even the most mundane person beam with pride as they presented their weekly culinary challenge. 2018 sparked a new appreciation for food that I never had before, gone were the days of consuming meals without a single thought of the process and labor that went into the meal that had just been presented before me. In its place was born an almost all consuming obsession and an intense desire to be caught up in the ubiquitous food realm. This fascination of food wasn’t new but the understanding and appraisal of the art was.
Like many others’ my food spell started with cable television. When I was in middle school I religiously toggled between my five favorite channels: Nickelodeon, Disney, CartoonNetwork, TLC, and the FoodNetwork. I would set my cable boxes timer regularly to be switched to the FoodNetwork so that our living room would be graced with Guy Fieri in some small-town diner enjoying an all “American” burger, or have the droning of Ted Allen fill the space as he announced the vague three items novice chefs would transform into semi-presentable restaurant dishes. Every now and then a CupcakeWars and Iron Chef episode would appear in the rotation as mainly cooking competitions became the way I entered the world of food. Every week I saw ‘American’ styled, Mexican, Italian, Chinese and the occasional Japanese cuisines manifest in various shapes, flavors, and presentations. This was about as much exposure to different foods as I could get living in the suburbs of NE Ohio. In my own home, my mother would rotate out American and Haitian dishes so as to please houseguests’ but I was oblivious to her craftsmanship and unless it was on a tv screen I didn’t consider it high echelon food. Rightly so my food intelligence peaked in adolescence.
“My first day in Chicago, September 4, 1983. I set foot in this city, and just walking down the street, it was like roots, like the motherland. I knew I belonged here.”
As tired as it sounds Chicago did birth the gastronome in me, it was the largest cultural mecca I had ever lived in and with that came some of my first’s in food. Little India off Devon gave me Aloo Paratha, Logan Square introduced me to the Jíbarito, I started an unhealthy relationship with Bulgogi in Wicker Park, and got a taste of home with Pwason nan Sos in Rogers Park. This was not the catalyst for my new found philosophy, it took renting my second apartment and cooking seriously for the first time in my life to bring this enlightenment. I would call up my mom timidly asking her how to make some diri (rice) and move up to making legim (mixed vegetable stew), each call was a surprise to her, and finding an intoxicating surge of pride every time the dish came out to not only my liking but others as well. Cooking became something of random affair that turned long-term as I realized I had somewhat of a natural inclination towards it. The upsurge of streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu fed my enthusiasm as I found myself being able to be fully immersed in a newly modeled FoodNetwork with shows such as the Final Table, Chefs Table, Salt Fat Acid and Heat exposing me to even more terms, dishes, and chefs I had never heard of.
But something was missing. With all these conversations of high dining, Michelin stars, and international influence of world cuisine there was something missing.
Black. Black? Black.
Where are all of the black chefs? Their genius laid out before us evoking applause at their innovation? Where was the diverse platters from South America, Africa, and the Caribbean? I could count on my hands the times I had seen black dishes appear in the mainstream and only Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern had been the well-known/acclaimed persons to do so. In the world of James Beard’s and Michelin’s there was the lack of acknowledgment of the black diaspora cuisine and its impact.
When I binged the Final Table I recalled there being only one black chef and him being from Jamaica, which brought another point of irritation that Caribbean food in the mainstream culinary world is reduced down to Jamaican. I found myself seething for a moment, upset that the world hadn’t recognized Black people’s food, that they chose yet another way to make us into the invisible man. Then I went into the overplayed mindset of wanting more representation, of yearning the esteemed awards, of desiring something that we’ve unfortunately continued to revolve our worth around. White standards and accolades are not what we need and yet it’s so easy to default into that mindset as I did. While wanting to champion for Black, especially Haitian, cuisine to be glorified I used the measures created by those considered the gatekeepers of food/gastronomy as validation. This shift of thinking had come so easy when it came to very blatant conversations surrounding race politics (Is this thinly veiled racist thing racist? Yes. Should I let that determine who I am? No.) but when thinking about food and all that comes with it I began to realize how hard the culinary world and its subsets has tried to make food apolitical.
In a politically charged world, consuming something from another culture can be an act of intimacy or violation depending on the context. I would even go as far as to say that, next to language, food is one of the most intimate acts someone can engage in with other cultures and people. These become plates a reflection of a countries history: immigration, race, discrimination, and identity all come together in an exhibition of a nations archived memoir. While I no longer crave the accreditation from some stars given out by elites, the narratives of black food and its histories being deliberately excluded from the mainstream of food tv is damaging. Audiences are missing out on the large historical and cultural contexts of black cuisine and its global reach, when this food is excluded there is a message being signaled about the importance and value of black anecdotes to the wider conversation of this worlds ideology regarding black people.
While representation of black populations in food entertainment isn’t the end all remedy, it’s a very small start in addressing the issue. In the ways that we understand how structural racism affects every ins and outs of our daily lives, this perspective needs to be applied in the food realm and incite dialogue that challenges white counterparts as the world authority on food. Food culture as commodity, globalization of food cultures, uneven class and race dynamics, and the thin line between appropriation/appreciation are all issues that need to be examined to respect the integrity of all cultures and those involved in the process. The efforts of black bloggers and social media freelancers in this task are not unnoticed. Haitian youtubers like Chef Jude, LoveForHaitianFood and websites like Kreyolicious are attempting to do just that for Haitian food and chefs with all the nuances that appear in the racial and cultural politics of food.
The many facets that are needed to preserve a people are done by those with a ferocious spirit and tenacity. Even as ridiculous as people might think it is, food is every much as a political force as protesting. Two weeks ago, on Janaury 1st, there was an outpouring of articles from Haitian media of various articles/videos signifying the importance of the 1st being Haiti’s independence day and with that came the soup of the revolutionaries: Soup Joumou. Haitian millennial’s are fighting to cement our countries long lasting impact on the world, Soup Joumou is a testament to our countries history of resiliency. Haitian youth and their peers are fighting to have their nation, their people, their heritage safeguarded while venerated and are attempting to unify the two sentiments into dishes that holds the will of generations to come.
Written by Keesha Moliere