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Portland Chefs Discuss Cultural Appropriation Amid Burrito Cart Closure

Kooks Burritos closed last week after accusations of recipe thievery and cultural appropriation, and the aftershock is still rippling through Portland's restaurant scene.

Brad Japhe

Photo by Flickr user stu_spivack

At a time in the U.S. when political and social tensions seem to be coming to a head, the conversation of privilege and cultural appropriation has spilled over into the food world. Cooking is arguably the purest, most intimate example of cultural expression, and arguments over who can cook what food usually point at broader battles waging within society at large.

Earlier in the week, Portland, Oregon found itself on the frontline—and on front pages—of this battle as the saga of Kooks Burritos stepped into the national spotlight. For those that missed it, two white entrepreneurs, Kali Wilgus and Liz Connelly, shut down their Mexican-themed pop-up amid allegations of cultural appropriation and recipe thievery. The concept had been operating in southeast Portland for several weeks with limited fanfare until local newspaper Wilamette Week profiled Kooks.

Among other controversial statements, Connelly said: "I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did...They wouldn't tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn't quite that easy."

That story ran on May 16. By May 22, Kooks Burritos was a wrap as the social media maelstrom got so intense that the two women shut down their businesses and closed their social media accounts. While it's a conversation that many in the local Portland scene are having in private—or on their Facebook feeds—few industry professionals we contacted were willing to go on record with their views. Those that did had a lot to offer on a complex issue. Here's what they said:

HAN LY HWANG (Owner, Head Chef at Kim Jong Grillin', Korean-American chef who launched his food cart in 2009 and won the Judges Choice at the Eat Mobile food awards in 2010).

I know the women that ran Kooks Burritos. They are regular customers of mine. They are very sweet women, however they are not professional cooks. I think they were trying to show their love for tortillas, but it came off grossly misrepresented.

"Being Korean-American, I had to ask myself so many times, 'Am I Korean enough to make this food?' I don't think any white chef that appropriated another culture's cuisine asks that question."

I think what they did does count as theft, but there is a gray area here when it comes to what is "borrowed" or what is considered "theft". It has been my experience that what most POC businesses and chefs have a problem with is the approach. Did they really look in the windows and maliciously steal a recipe? Would it have been different if they told the press that they love the cuisine so much that they want to help share it with the world?

READ MORE: The Struggles of Writing About Chinese Food as a Chinese Person

I do have strong feelings with white chefs making Korean food. I really don't care if you do cook Korean food without being Korean, but come with the respect and be prepared to make it taste good. I know chefs that make amazing Korean food that are not Korean. But what sets them apart is that they have done so much research on the cuisine, and they respect the flavors and know what they are doing.

Being Korean-American, I had to ask myself so many times, "Am I Korean enough to make this food?" I don't think any white chef that appropriated another culture's cuisine asks that question. I think in the end what is really frustrating is that when a white chefs appropriate food, they are so quick to think that it's ok. I see it as really arrogant and a huge disservice to the consumer.

Gregory Gourdet ( Chef de Cuisine at pan-Asian restaurant Departure Portland; Oregon Department of Agriculture 2013 chef of the year):

I am a first generation American with Haitian Heritage. I learned how to cook from my mother, aunts, and grandmother, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten—a French chef who spent a part of his early career in Asia. From the start of my culinary journey, I was cooking food from various countries and cuisines. I was only born into one of those cultures, and I can't imagine not cooking all the other wonderful things I have learned over the years.

"Not many people are taking the time to respectfully learn about different cultures, and sometimes the ones that do treat it in an exploitive way."

It's not fair to say that because someone is white they can't cook another ethnicity's cuisine. I am black and cook with Asian flavors. I have been for 17 years. Am I just as guilty or is my story different because of my race? It is all how it is approached.

READ MORE: Cambridge Students Criticize Cafeteria for Serving Inauthentic "Ethnic" Foods

I believe in respectfully immersing yourself in a culture, having a relationship with the people of that culture, and honoring and supporting their business and beliefs.Not many people are taking the time to respectfully learn about different cultures, and sometimes the ones that do treat it in an exploitive way because they get caught up in poor marketing choices, business, and profit.

It's a complicated story. At the end of the day, I respect anyone trying to run an honest restaurant business. It is extremely challenging from costs, staffing in the Millennial age, profit margins, and now backlash from trying to highlight global cuisines.

Nick Zukin (owner of Mexican restaurant Mi Mero Mole and co-author of the Artisan Jewish Deli at Home):

It's hard to know if the Kooks burrito review went viral because of the ladies saying they were peeking inside or just because they were white and didn't seem like serious professional chefs. They probably would have gotten at least some backlash no matter what. But misogyny probably played a part as well, which is one of the ironies of this controversy. You have many people clearly treating them dismissively and demeaning them based on their gender, and none of the so-called social-justice warriors are asking them to knock it off. It's a really ugly mob mentality that takes over in these sorts of things.

I don't think the majority of social-justice warriors are truly concerned with justice. I think they enjoy causing people pain and "social justice" gives them an excuse. I think real activists are focused on stuff that truly matters, like housing, education, immigrants' rights, and so on." Some say the problem is that it takes money out of the hands of minorities. But many of the most popular restaurants in Portland in various cuisines —Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, et cetera—are owned by people of color. Just in the past year, we had an Asian chef, Ha Luu, and Latina chef, Gabrielle Denton, receive Beard nominations. A Korean restaurant with an Asian owner, Han Oak, received a nomination, as did Castagna, a New American restaurant with an Asian owner.

If you look at the blacklist (a list of restaurants in Portland to avoid because they're run by people outside of the cuisine's cultural heritage) the alternative given for my restaurant is Verde Cocina. I have one location. Meanwhile, there are four locations of Verde Cocina and two farmers market stands. Does Verde Cocina really need my business? Is that equality?

These two women were paying brown guys to use their cart and probably barely scraping by. They had little or no Yelp reviews and were just doing it on the weekends. Meanwhile, you have a major corporation, Taco Bell, making a lot of people a lot of money, mostly white people, and in some instances outright mocking the culture from which their food originated, and certainly making a piss-poor product that they constantly bastardize. All the substantive criticisms against Kooks would be stronger if applied to Taco Bell.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.