Comment: Making space in the kitchen

Zoe Adjonyoh explains how cultural appropriation within the food industry can be tackled by offering platforms to marginalized communities.

Zoe Adjonyoh is a writer, cook and founder of restaurant brand Zoe's Ghana Kitchen. Her upcoming anthology, Serving Up: Essays on Food, Identity and Culture, is being crowdfunded by Unbound.

The food industry has a habit of congratulating itself for the few reckonings that take place to combat institutional racism within its corridors and how the bigger players are rethinking their stance on diversity.

British chef Jamie Oliver recently said in an interview that he hires ‘teams of cultural appropriation specialists’ to vet his recipes and make sure they're safe for publication in his cookbooks. But who are they? What makes them specialists and how long have they been on board? How many people of color are on his staff? How many POC develop and write his recipes? These are my questions. 

Georgina Hayden (who has worked for Jamie for many years as a recipe writer) has said it's about ‘immersing yourself in the culture’ and being ‘respectful and genuine’. But does visiting a country and observing locals from an outsider's perspective really give someone the ability to write a cookbook that's supposed to encapsulate all the history, knowledge and nuance that goes into centuries-old cuisines?

Good old chef Gordon Ramsay continues to offend Asian communities with his imagined expertise over anyone from its many cultures. Malaysian-British comedian Nigel Ng, also known as his alter-ego Uncle Roger, reviewed Gordon's fried rice skills, to which the celebrity chef jokingly responded: ‘I've been to Indonesia more times than he has.’ It's not the first time he's been culturally insensitive – take the launch of his ‘Asian-inspired’ London restaurant Lucky Cat, led by a white head chef. Although in jest, the exchange with Nigel is the essence of white privilege and the troubling lens through which so many white chefs and food writers justify their appropriation. 

Recent comments from prominent white chefs seem to be more about assuaging white guilt and giving themselves permission to write outside their own cultures, bastardizing others' cuisines and recipes in the process. Many of the so-called experts I see on the topic – along with many mainstream media outlets in general – are still looking inwards at quick fixes that align with their desire to appropriate, rather than outwardly engaging with the root of the issues to create change – which involves including more BIPOC in what these experts want to share that's outside their own culture. The current strategy isn't going to shift any needles.

The spaces outside mainstream media outlets are still the only places to find nuance, insight and alternative perspectives. Bookshelves remain dominantly filled with white voices, whereas brown and black voices are thriving in the realm of newsletter platform Substack. Of course, there was the knee-jerk flurry to sign black voices in food media following Black Lives Matter protests. But have we seen any changes in editorial? Have there been any changes at a board level that demonstrate a more inclusive approach to strategy and direction? I'm still waiting. It's primarily from Substack that I found the voices that'll be in an anthology I'm editing, called Serving Up: Essays on Food, Identity and Culture

We need space for real insights and alternative perspectives to inform the discourse. It's not a quick fix with a hire or a sound bite. A cultural shift for the industry needs to take place. By creating authentic platforms for marginalized voices, more people will listen, and the industry will become truly equitable.

A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 47, June/July 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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