Head Scratchers

PaperCity: In Defense of White Chefs?

The magazine takes aim at the Houston episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, which featured cooks from across the globe.

By Katharine Shilcutt April 11, 2017

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Won't someone think of the overlooked and marginalized white chefs in America?

Certainly the strangest statement of the day has been White House press secretary Sean Spicer's insistence that unlike Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Adolf Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons." But on a local level, we have another contender: a PaperCity blog post in which writer Chris Baldwin mourns the lack of white faces found in an episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown filmed in Houston—a city known and celebrated for its diversity.

Despite the fact that the episode first aired on CNN six months ago (and to rave reviews), Baldwin dug up a two-month-old New Yorker interview with Bourdain to take issue with the fact that the chef and television personality wanted to showcase a Houston infrequently seen by the nation at large. Baldwin zeroed in on one quote from the long interview, twisting it into a baiting headline: "Anthony Bourdain Bans White People from His Houston Show: Mission Accomplished," PaperCity kvetches.

Below is the quote from that interview in context, making it apparent that Bourdain never issued any sort of "ban" on white people:

Now, Bourdain says, the pleasure of making “Parts Unknown” lies in revisiting places to see how they’ve changed—Cuba five years ago is a different country from Cuba today—or in returning to a place with a fresh perspective. For a recent episode on Houston, Bourdain decided that he wanted “no white people,” and provided instead a look at the city “as a Vietnamese and Central American and African and Indian place.”

Baldwin argues that Houston's already-media-saturated flock of celebrity chefs just didn't get the sort of fawning attention they deserved: "Foodie power players such as Chris Shepherd, Bryan Caswell and Ronnie Killen were out from the moment Bourdain issued his 'no white people' command," Baldwin snipes. Perhaps "power players" such as Justin Yu or Hugo Ortega aren't deserving of Baldwin's defense, as, you know, they're not white? While Baldwin admits "the episode provided a fascinating look at the Houston that many of the residents populating all the mid-rises and high-rises popping up don’t even know," that's not the overall tone or message of his piece, which fires on all the wrong cylinders.

Leaving aside for the moment the inarguable fact that minority groups have been traditionally marginalized and overlooked for, oh, pretty much all of American history up until the last couple of decades—and even then, in fits and starts—one has to wonder who Baldwin's audience is for this piece. It would seem to be those who believe in the persistent myth of white victimhood, the misguided notion that as other groups continue to gain equal footing in our society, white folks will become the new oppressed and marginalized class—in other words, the totally dangerous idea that equality is a zero-sum game.

This wouldn't seem to be PaperCity's ideal demographic, and besides, "white oppression victims" already have enough alt-right blogs and 4chan boards that do enough pandering as it is without dragging Bourdain and Houston's chefs into it.

The chefs Baldwin mentions are already paragons of their industry, well-respected and highly-compensated, award-winners all. But Houston is more than white men, after all. The city was built by Chinese rail workers and Japanese rice farmers, Lebanese grocers and Vietnamese shrimp boat captains, Mexican prisoners of war who drained the downtown swampland so that buildings could be erected, and black inmates compelled to harvest sugar cane and cotton in the fields of what is now Sugar Land. Though it's just recently been recognized as such on a national level, Houston has been a melting pot from day one.

Houston's culinary scene is so rightfully celebrated because of that rich tapestry of historical diversity. We are Mutt City, where all cultures and cuisines flow into one. Restaurants like Chris Shepherd's Underbelly have capitalized on that confluence of cultures by creating menus that feature everything from Korean braised goat dumplings to Vietnamese cha ca snapper, so why not give a spotlight to the people without which there would be no Mutt City menus, no Underbellys to enjoy? In other words, why only focus on the white iterations of those dishes when you can go straight to the source, just as Shepherd himself suggests on Underbelly's menu? In a big, sprawling city like ours, there's room for both, after all, which is the point so nimbly made by Bourdain's Houston-centric episode.

White chefs, by virtue of simply being born white, are not more inherently worthy of Bourdain's attention than, say, Himalaya chef Kaiser Lashkari, who painstakingly prepares his Hyderabadi-style mirchon ka salan with 67 different ingredients each day from scratch; than the Congolese refugees who fled their homes and today supply Houston's best restaurants with fresh, organic produce from Plant It Forward farms; than the Vietnamese refugees who keep the shrimp industry afloat in Palacios; than the crawfish-loving Wisdom High School principal who fights the good fight at one of the poorest and most diverse public schools in Houston, where an increasing number of young students are refugees themselves. God forbid these people get a spotlight for the work they do—work that's arguably just as important and interesting as anything Chris Shepherd, Bryan Caswell and Ronnie Killen have done.

These are the people who make up Houston—all of them, together. We are white as much as we are Hispanic, black, Asian, Middle Eastern, Desi, Norwegian, Chilean, Australian, bi-racial, tri-racial. We are, simply, Houston. We won't be reduced to some race-baiting gotcha headline.

Update: Anthony Bourdain is not a fan of PaperCity's headline either, as evidenced by his Twitter account.

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