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The Chef Who Dared Post a Food Pic without ‘Cultural Context’

Chef Stephanie Izard (via Instagram)

Once in a great while, we encounter a “controversy” whose catalyst is so inscrutable, it takes several passes through several articles to start to understand what all the fuss is about.

So, in such a case, you’d be forgiven for wondering why Stephanie Izard — a James Beard Award–winning Chicago chef — was cornered into apologizing this past week for posting on Instagram a photo of “bibimbap.”

Eater Chicago helps explain:

A photo posted Thursday using Izard’s social media handle showed a bowl with beef and topped with cilantro and mint. The post — which has since been edited — was sponsored content created for New Zealand Beef & Lamb. Izard issued an apology Friday morning.

The dish, full of green herbs, looked more like a Thai or Vietnamese dish; at best, it’s Pan Asian, Korean-American chef Won Kim (Kimski) tells Eater Chicago. But it was not originally described as fusion — the post only called it “bibimbap” without any cultural context or sign of the dish’s hallmarks like crispy, charred rice from a stone pot.

Still confused?

The article’s title, “Stephanie Izard Apologizes For a Poorly Received Representation of a Korean Dish,” is the stuff of time capsules. Hopefully it’s placed as a bookend to a packet of headlines starting with ‘ALLIES INVADE FRANCE’ and ending here, to capture the full arc of history that led to this point. Future generations curious how a society’s celebrated strength in heterogeneity was corroded by the rigid guarding of identity need only scroll through this social-media saga.

First, for the uninitiated (i.e., you haven’t been hungover and found yourself coveting this dish), bibimbap is a Korean staple — a rice bowl topped with neatly arranged vegetables and meat and other fixings, often gochujang (chili paste) and, if you’ve been good, a fried egg.

The photo Izard included on her now-denounced Instagram post was . . . not exactly that. It looked more like a bowl of pho that had been left out in the sun, with strips of desiccated beef and torn mint all that remain.

A butchered version of a classic, no doubt. But cultural appropriation?

It is curious that the aforementioned chef Won Kim, who aired his complaints in detail on Facebook, did not specifically allege cultural appropriation. That was left to others. Instead, he wrote about the racism he encountered growing up and the taunts he faced for having Korean food at school, while accusing Izard of mislabeling the dish and, in turn, marginalizing immigrants and their challenges.

It’s a lot to pin on an Instagram pic. Still, Won Kim’s story is surely genuine and abundantly relatable for Asian chefs. The problem here is those who would adopt such frustration as their own outrage, and treat him as their latest gladiator in the woke arena.

Angry readers piled into her Instagram page, and Izard posted a clarification:

UPDATE! I want to make sure my language is more clear on this dish.** I see and hear your comments. So I want to clarify: This is my take on a tasty rice dish using flavors from a Japanese Beef Bowl and Korean Bibimbap! It’s not intended to be an authentic interpretation of either dish. This is my interpretation/homage.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Stephanie Izard (@stephanieizard)

Duly clarified, right? Perhaps, but not good enough for the Chicago Tribune:

Unfortunately the update did not address the accusations that the interpretive recipe remained so dissimilar to the original dishes yet invoked their names. One of the most liked of the new round of comments read in part, “The only tenuous similarity is that they are meat over rice and you show that racist tendency to conflate all Asian cultures …”

You know how this ends. The Top Chef winner issued a full-blown apology, provided to Eater Chicago:

This was a misstep on my part that spun out of control and I am sorry. When I was originally brainstorming recipe ideas for this project, I thought of Bibimbap as an inspiration and jotted the recipe idea down as that – from there the recipe went through many variations and channels and ended up very far from traditional [Bibimbap]. I should have made sure the name was changed before it went out to the public and I apologize that it wasn’t. It has since been changed to “Strip Steak Rice Bowl.” …

A few points here: Izard has built a brand offering eclectic menus across several Chicago restaurants. Moreover, she approaches these foods with care (notwithstanding the parched pho pic) and is recognized for her excellence. America continues to be in a transitional phase with its culinary tastes, but consider the conundrum posed here, as explained by Eater:

BIPOC [black, indigenous, and people of color] chefs … often struggle to find opportunities in the industry and risk being labeled as lazy for cooking their own food. Meanwhile, white chefs are hailed as explorers for “discovering” that same food. As Kim and others struggle for acceptance, Izard is held up as a tastemaker by her fans. If she approves a dish, then it’s safe for consumption and hailed as a trend.

It is a point grounded in the experience of many minority chefs. But the implicit question is raised: Should white chefs be circumscribed to only cooking, and marketing, food deemed part of their culture?

The answer is obvious. That we are not consigned to such an insipid fate is why my household does not do gefilte-fish Fridays, for instance. Chefs regularly borrow and pay tribute. José Andrés, the renowned Spanish-born restaurateur, grew an empire cooking the cuisines of not only his home country, but Lebanon, Turkey, and China.

Where’s the outrage? Well, since we’re quoting anybody who tweets a thing, I’ll do so here: One “Twitter user” indeed reacted to the Izard contretemps asking, “Where are all these men who are calling her out when it’s other men appropriating?” The most underpaid hype man on the Internet — the “hmmm” emoji — punctuated this comment.

Meanwhile, it should be noted that Western diners do not as a rule depend on Anglo interpreters to approach Eastern, or any other, cuisine. David Chang, the Korean-American Momofuku mastermind and ubiquitous food-porn presence, is far more famous and followed than Izard. D.C. alone, where Andrés put down roots, features growing success stories of chefs cooking the food of their heritage. An increasingly urban and increasingly diverse country is increasingly exposed to more foods, meaning diners are not waiting to “see what Stephanie thinks” before taking a bite.

Izard’s crime, in short, was to shorthand the labeling of what was clearly a loose riff on a classic dish from another culture. As even Won Kim noted, she should not be “canceled” for this. And despite the amplification of this dust-up, her post was liked by over 2,000 people and the comments lately have turned to words of support and appeals not to cave to the “mob.”

You want to shame a white chef for sloppily interpreting another culture’s cuisine? This video of Jamie Oliver being savaged by a comedian for his sorry take on fried rice ought to offer sweet catharsis. But — to culturally appropriate the words of Hunter S. Thompson, not in service of memorializing the ’60s but of challenging a different kind of madness in every direction — let’s hope that with every such nonsensical nontroversy, we are getting closer and closer to that high-water mark of woke, “where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

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