Race, food and more discussed in Detroit on MLK Day

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Several dozen members of Detroit’s food and restaurant industry gathered at the Urban Consulate in Cass Corridor on Monday night to discuss race, cultural appropriation of food and restaurants.

The panel was moderated by Tunde Wey, a Nigerian-born chef and writer who travels the country with his pop-up LAGOS discussing race and food. Panelists were Devita Davison of FoodLab Detroit and Metro Times dining editor Serena Maria Daniels.

Appropriation was the icebreaker topic, and Wey framed his question by giving an example of celebrity chef Rick Bayless, a white chef who specializes in Mexican food and was accused of appropriation, and Bayless’ response was to wonder if that was racism toward him. Wey called the response “tone deaf.”

“We can start with Neiman Marcus selling collard greens during the holidays for $66 a bowl and $15 shipping and handling,” said Davison. “No mention of all to the origins and the history of collard greens.”

Davison pointed to what she said bothers her about appropriation: cultural ownership and economic advantages.

“What I mean by cultural ownership ... I know white people should not be limited to cooking with mayonnaise and white bread — I’m not saying that, but I do think that when folks who are cooking food that is not of their culture and their heritage then there needs to be some kind of recognition and honor and credit given to that individual or that culture,” she said.

She also pointed to a recent episode of “Top Chef” when several contestants didn’t know who southern cuisine expert and chef Edna Lewis was.

“Edna Lewis was doing farm-to-table stuff before (chef and restaurateur) Alice Waters even got out of bed,” said Davison to the diverse, standing-room-only crowd that included noted Detroit chefs Max Hardy, Kate Williams and others.

Davison also spoke about the value of food, and who decides what food is worth what price.

“Mario Batali can open up a restaurant in New York City, have a pasta dish that sells for $50 but if you go and try to get mole and they charge you $30, all of a sudden you want to have a heart attack about it. It’s too expensive,” she said. “Who deems what the value is on food that is created by ethnic and indigenous people? Why does Mexican food have to be so cheap?”

Representation in the media also was discussed, and Daniels pointed out that publicists who hype businesses to the press are typically available to those business owners who can afford it. And, she said, they’re majority white men. Davison called this “pay to play,” adding that some restaurants may pay up to $30,000 a year in publicity.

“Those clients can afford to pay the PR people; they have angel investors, they’re winning grants ... they’re the ones getting access to resources,” said Daniels, adding that these businesses are more likely to make best-of lists because they have that “machine” behind them.

“Should white chefs be able to cook food from other cultures,” Wey asked, saying it was his “most controversial” question of the evening.

“Do your damn homework before you dive into someone else’s culture,” said Metro Times’ Daniels.

“There are enough talented people of color to collaborate with,” said Davison.

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Twitter: @melodybaetens