The lighting is moody, romantic even. Utensils and dishware sit on the smooth tablecloth. A candle, the centerpiece of the table, casts shadows from a soft orange glow that dances about restlessly. A waiter places a dish before you. What do you see on your plate?
For many of us, it is not difficult to envision a steak, a plate of pasta, or an even more extravagant French creation. Europe and the Western world has long been tied to luxury. Countless European brands have cemented themselves in their respective market as status symbols around the world. Food is no exception to this trend of European idealization. Though seemingly benign, the eurocentric mainstream perception of fine dining that idealizes European cuisines devalues and hides the culinary pursuits of other cultures.
When comparing restaurants, Michelin Stars have been a metric used for the past century. Published in the Michelin Guide, stars are symbols of prestige and esteem. Each restaurant can be awarded up to three stars. Only about 35 percent of starred restaurants in the United States identify with cuisines beyond Western or European cooking. Of the 13 restaurants with three stars, all but two restaurants fall under American or French cuisine.
In an article published on December 19, 2020, Michelin admitted that minority head or executive chefs at starred restaurants are rare. Discrimination in the restaurant industry is a projection of discrimination of minorities in the world as a whole. The same way typical college is a costly endeavor for many, culinary school is no different. A substantial portion of starred restaurants prepare contemporary or modern style cooking. These styles of cooking involve techniques from molecular gastronomy that require specialized equipment, raising yet another barrier for disadvantaged chefs. Minority groups face a difficult road pursuing professional cooking when there is less access to networking at culinary school, few and underpaid internships opportunities, and below average pay for the same positions in kitchens. Subsequently, we see the homogeneity present in fine dining and the Michelin Guide.
As European cooking pulls the definition of fine dining closer and closer to itself, other cuisines fade from relevance. Further perpetuated by cooking media, documentaries, and movie scenes, marginalization warps the perception of good food generation by generation. Other cultural foods are often lost when chefs pursue cooking believing that they need to cook a certain cuisine to succeed. This association is so ingrained into our society that even for home cooks, such as myself, who aren’t looking to turn cooking into a career, there are challenges to cook dishes from different cuisines. For example, food from my home, China, is less accessible in America. When cooking, I usually will not be able to do my grocery shopping in most supermarkets because many items simply aren’t stocked. The neglected “ethnic food” aisle at the back corner of the store is usually stocked with items that probably fulfill only a quarter of my shopping list. I often need to make an express trip to an Asian supermarket to find Asian vegetables or specific ingredients like thirteen spice, but even then, the market is still not not guaranteed to hold it in stock. Truly excellent Chinese food is far and few between in America. If well-cooked food from different cultures are uncommon, how can we expect other chefs to be inspired to pursue different cuisines?
Though not everyone can become a renowned chef, we all need to eat on a daily basis. As a consumer, your influence lies in what you choose to consume. Try new foods from different places without expectation on whether it’ll taste good or bad. Keep eating what you find yourself enjoying while still exploring. By their nature as money making institutions, markets and restaurants want to give what you want. If enough of us want the same thing, they will change to accommodate us, making different cuisines and styles more accessible.
While I don’t believe that one region’s food is better or more refined than another, one cuisine benefits from the presence of others. Good cooking has no home. Gatekeeping culinary arts privilege only serves to senselessly stagnate the field as a whole; it is senseless to devalue another culture’s food and chef’s pursuit to elevate your own. Cultures working in tandem draw from each other for self improvement. Looking towards a cooperative tomorrow, what do you see on your plate?