When Chef Gordon Ramsay hosted a preview for his Asian-inspired London restaurant Lucky Cat in April, he called the evening “warm, buzzing & brilliant.” But Angela Hui, a British food writer, felt otherwise.
In her article on food website Eater London and in an Instagram story, Hui, who is of Chinese descent, lamented the menu lumping together various Asian cuisines, the lack of Asian staffers or invited guests, and what she perceived as the head chef’s scant experience with Asian food. “It was nothing if not a real-life Ramsay kitchen nightmare,” she wrote, pointing out culturally ignorant names on the menu, like “White Geisha” cocktails. But after publication, Hui faced a torrent of racist abuse on social media. Ramsay, the creator of the award-winning series Kitchen Nightmares, also weighed in on Instagram, calling her posts “derogatory and offensive.” (TIME repeatedly attempted to contact Gordon Ramsay Restaurants but received no response.)
Chinese food has been served out of scrappy basement joints, lunch boxes and regal dining rooms, and cooked by striving immigrant mothers and millionaire restaurateurs alike. But in recent years, debates surrounding the cuisine have intensified, with allegations of cultural appropriation, insensitivity and oversensitivity being cast from all sides. The Lucky Cat flare-up followed two recent firestorms surrounding Chinese or pan-Asian restaurants with white proprietors accused of being culturally insensitive. Earlier in April, a New York City restaurant, Lucky Lee’s, was the target of public fury for purporting to offer “clean” Chinese food. And in December, television chef Andrew Zimmern had to walk back comments he had made about Chinese food in the Midwest being served in “horseshit restaurants” while promoting his own chain, Lucky Cricket.
For Hui, the narratives around cultural appropriation have often lacked nuance. “The question of whether white people can cook Chinese food is completely missing the point,” Hui says. “Instead, it’s about respecting it.”
As debates about authenticity rage, two central questions emerge: Why is this conversation happening primarily around Chinese cuisine? And why now?
While Chinese food is tied up in personal identity for many, the current intensity of the conversation is partly rooted in a history of viewing Chinese cuisine as cheap and dirty. When the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, the country’s immigration quota system was abolished; as a result, a wave of working-class Chinese immigrants–many of them Cantonese– started to arrive in the United States, opening up slews of low-budget restaurants. Because many of the restaurants operated on tight budgets in dense city centers, Chinese food came to be seen by many as unsanitary or worth little more than a quick bite.
Around the same time, prompted by land reforms in the former British colony of Hong Kong, many agricultural workers from the island were attracted to the U.K. in search of new lives. Two decades later, significant migration from mainland China began as the People’s Republic relaxed restrictions on emigration. In cities like London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Bristol, Chinese communities of significant size set up shops and food establishments, creating world-renowned Chinatowns and Chinese Quarters. A 1985 survey indicated that 90% of employed Chinese people living in Britain worked in the catering industry, and by 2001, an estimated 12,000 Chinese takeaways and 3,000 Chinese restaurants were operating in the U.K.
“The early Chinese restaurants in the West were opened by poor immigrants who were not trained chefs and were just trying to make a living,” Fuchsia Dunlop, a British writer specializing in Chinese cuisine, tells TIME. But Chinese food quickly became popular as an easy dinner option, especially in urban centers; the cuisine became a source of unity and derision alike in TV shows like “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” In the 90s’, white Western restaurateurs, spotting an opportunity, began to open up their own Asian restaurants—like Stephen Starr’s Buddakan in New York, Philadelphia and Atlantic City, Jean-Georges’ Vong in New York and Noah Tepperberg’s Tao in Las Vegas —that sought to elevate the unpretentious cuisine’s prices and quality. “It became this sexy thing,” says Filipino-American chef Dale Talde, who worked at Buddakan and Vong early in his career.
While some of those restaurants have been lambasted for exoticizing Asian cultures, complete with Buddha statues and red lanterns, they played two important roles: to create a pipeline for Asian cooks and chefs like Talde to make high-level food, and to shift the general perception of Asian cuisine. “Whether or not they made money off the backs of Asian culture, they helped show that it wasn’t just $5.95 for a bowl of soup,” Talde says. Talde also points to Asian-American chefs in the 80s and 90s like Martin Yan and Roy Choi, who served as inspiration for a new iconoclastic generation that included himself, Danny Bowien, David Chang, and Eddie Huang. These irreverent and media-savvy chefs emerged as uncompromising cultural forces in the 2000s, opening up their own restaurants that revamped Chinese cuisine in varied and astonishing directions.
As these chefs and others gained a Western following, they were also buoyed by China itself. During the 1990s, the Chinese government implemented several new policies boosting a flow of tourists both in and out of the country during the 1990s. The very idea of Chinese cuisine began to expand beyond the low-budget Cantonese style common in Western cities, to include cuisine from the regions of Sichuan, Hunan and Xi’an. “To cater to all the new Chinese living in the West, there’s a whole new generation of restaurants which are not trying to adapt to simplified Western tastes, but are serving more authentic regional cuisine,” Dunlop says.
As Chinese food rises in stature and price, a new wave of white restaurateurs are realizing there’s money to be made in the field, just as Starr and Tepperberg did decades ago. But unlike then, Chinese communities in the U.S. or the U.K. now have the ability to critique the work of these chefs, thanks in part to social media. And when leaders across industries perceive a disrespect toward their community or heritage, they have used their platforms to voice discontent–like during the #StarringJohnCho movement, which called for increased representation in Hollywood, or during the Harvard affirmative action lawsuit, for which impassioned op-eds sprung up from both sides.
The food industry is no exception. “Traditional gourmet criticism has been a white male thing for a long time,” Krishnendu Ray, a professor of food studies at NYU, says. “They are many Asian-Americans who are Anglophone and who have a memory of disdain and disgust toward their foods in school lunches. They are saying, ‘I suffered at your hands all these years: you called it yucky and smelly food. It’s now my turn to talk back.’”
Ray says that the shift in perception of Chinese food is likely to further transform, in part because of China’s rise as an economic power. “We are nearing the end of poor Chinese migration and the growth of professional Chinese circulation,” he says, pointing to the Chinese students and software engineers who are filling Western cities. “They have a very different exposure and understanding of Chinese food.”
It’s likely that in the years to come, Chinese food in the West will expand beyond the notion that it is mostly low-budget takeout food–just like Japanese food did last century. In the early part of the 1900s, raw fish was an alien idea to most of America; Japanese food was associated with canned foods like SPAM, and anti-Japanese sentiment lingered after World War II. But “in 50 years, the American conception of Japan had almost flipped,” Ray says. “It is crucially linked to the rise of Japan as a political and cultural power.” Japanese chefs, arriving with money and influence, opened restaurants that catered to higher-end diners and critics. Their exacting culinary methods cultivated an aura around the food. Now, Ray’s study of Yelp and Zagat data shows that Japanese food is one of the most expensive cuisines in America, and chefs like Masaharu Morimoto and Nobu Matsuhisa are treated like auteurs.
A generation of Chinese chefs hopes to be treated with the same reverence, and they’re asserting themselves as creative forces as opposed to just faithful translators of some hazy notion of authenticity. Ray says that there is a double standard in the upper echelons of haute cuisine, in which white male chefs are praised for their individual artistry, allowing them to experiment and cross-pollinate with other cuisines, while non-white chefs are judged by their faithfulness to a tradition. “If you are a chef of color, you’re probably going to be squeezed into that space somewhere between the cook representing the community and the chef as an artist,” he says.
This divide is explored and reinforced in this summer’s Netflix film Always Be My Maybe. When Sasha (Ali Wong), a celebrity chef, attempts to make a “transdenominational” interpretation of Asian food, she is accused of cultural betrayal by Marcus (Randall Park). “Asian food isn’t supposed to be ‘elevated.’ It’s supposed to be authentic,” he says, criticizing Sasha for “catering to rich white people.”
But while audiences are meant to sympathize with Marcus, Sasha shares a vision with many real chefs in the West who have reinterpreted Chinese food to great acclaim, incorporating tastes and presentation to appeal to the dining world elite. In San Francisco, the chef George Chen recently opened a new restaurant, Eight Tables, which features lavish multi-course meals in stately rooms meant to resemble Chinese homes; his menu features cross-cultural innovations like foie gras potstickers and osetra caviar. And while the large price tags on his menus have drawn some criticism, Chen says he is trying to combat a double standard that places him at a disadvantage compared to, say, Italian chefs. “Nobody complains about a half portion size of pasta Bolognese for $19,” he says. “People want to pigeonhole you into these categories. We’re not supposed to be creative with our cuisine.”
In London, Andrew Wong’s trendy restaurant A. Wong presents diners with dishes designed to evoke snapshots of China across regions and time. Awarded a Michelin star in 2017, Wong tells TIME that the accolade has allowed him to do more adventurous things he wouldn’t have considered before, such as working with an anthropologist to craft the conceptual menu.
Wong’s restaurant is a homage to his parents; two first-generation Chinese migrants setting up shop in the food industry, with his father being one of the first Chinese pub-owners in the U.K. “My parents would never look at cooking as a profession. It was more a function to serve a purpose,” Wong tells TIME. “Nowadays, there’s also the understanding that a chef has to be more than just a cook.”
And while A. Wong has attracted a lot of attention since gaining the Michelin star, its head chef still wants the restaurant to retain an accessible, family feel. During a busy dinner service, a slab of crispy roast pork hangs off a butcher’s hook and baskets of dim sum sit atop a steamer as Wong calls out instructions to his team. “I want our guests to feel as if they’re eating in our own house, and I’m trying to push people to understand the beauty of our culture,” he says in a quiet moment. Here, inventive takes on classic Chinese favorites such as Shanghai steamed dumplings infused with ginger and stir fried market vegetables garnished with truffle are presented with meticulous detail and in-depth explanations from wait staff.
Wong, Chen and other innovators hope to inspire a new generation of Chinese-influenced chefs unbound by stereotypes or any rigid notion of authenticity–as well as a new generation of consumers who will embrace the vast array of Chinese flavors. “When we say ‘Chinese cuisine,’ it’s not one familiar cuisine; it’s incredibly diverse,” the writer Fuchsia Dunlop says. “I think people thought they knew all about Chinese food, and actually it’s full of surprises.”
For writer Angela Hui, these culinary experiences have been integral to her identity. She spent her childhood in the kitchen of her family’s Chinese takeout restaurant, founded by her Hong Kong-native parents in the Welsh valleys during the 1980s. That relationship with food is partly why she was so frustrated with her experience at Lucky Cat. “For a person with a high profile like [Ramsay’s], he could have done a lot more. The point I’m getting at is take inspiration, but don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” she says. “It would be an incredibly boring world if we were all only allowed to cook the food of our culture.”