Food That Talks: Soleil Ho on Authenticity and Appropriation

The sheer thought of five-star restaurants spellbinds me: delicacies whisked from out of darkness, served to me on scintillating china, brought to my candlelit table, with music complementing the cuisine. As a college student recently equipped with a prepaid meal plan, the effect is doubled. Financially beyond my swipes and culinarily beyond my expectations, restaurants are a food oasis.

Last Thursday, Oct. 23, Timothy-Dwight’s College Tea with food writer Soleil Hodispelled my romanticization of restaurants as escapist entities. Soleil Ho, restaurant critic at The San Francisco Chronicle and former co-host of “The Racist Sandwich” podcast, pointed out our common tendency to view food as an apolitical entity, existing separate of the pervasive political sphere, as a fallacy.

In fact, she highlighted the opposite, arguing that everything is political. She points out that food has a sociopolitical and historical context and imbues it with subversive power in its own right. For instance, she noted that the presence of Vietnamese food in a French restaurant speaks to a history of European imperialism. As a food journalist, Ho aims to illuminate the stories of the food that ends up on our plates, as well as the contexts in which we eat it. She takes special interest in reviewing restaurants in marginalized communities, where historically coverage has been scarce.

On “The Racist Sandwich,” Ho specifically examines the intersections of food with race, class, gender, and identity. She discusses that just as marginalized communities themselves are viewed as “other, their cuisines are likewise viewed as alien and exotic — fetishized as an occasion yet ultimately overshadowed in mass media. Ho discussed mainstream media’s habit of relegating Black food stories to February and called attention to their recent erasure from the American barbecue narrative. While Black people created barbeque and built its legacy, mainstream food media flocks to spotlight Aaron Franklin (of Franklin Barbecue in Austin) and other white Central Texas pitmasters like him, largely ignoring the regional diversity of barbecue within Texas and the South. To counteract this trend, Ho has made a deliberate effort to feature primarily POC guests on her podcast and considers this a therapeutic and journalistically exciting pursuit. She explains, “When people don’t feel heard, they want to talk.”

Although the “Racist Sandwich” is currently on hiatus, Ho continues to share her nuanced sensitivity through her restaurant reviews at The San Francisco Chronicle. Despite the trope of undercover critics camouflaging into the mass of patrons, Ho enters restaurants unabashedly. Unlike the baby boomer critics before her, Ho cannot feign anonymity; the internet trail that precedes her spans years. Although she acknowledges that a pen name could function as a sufficient guise, she rejects the idea, proud of the power her name carries (although she uses a code name when making reservations). Still, Ho recognizes that her refusal to disguise herself comes with certain privileges — not everyone gets a free bowl of caviar on sight.

When it comes to composing her reviews, Ho abhors the standard star system, synonymous with crowd-sourcing review services like Yelp and Zagat. To Ho, the star system implies that everyone working in restaurants has the same starting point, stakes, and resources. The reality is that she can’t compare a restaurant by and for immigrants to a Michelin Star restaurant, as each business has different backgrounds and purposes. Ho argued that applying the standardizing star metric implies “an objectivity that just isn’t real.” She also pointed out the unsustainability of many Michelin Star conventions, where critics award stars for aesthetic practices like replacing every dish and utensil between courses. This, she adds, complements the specter of Michelin Tire Company razing Vietnamese forests for rubber plantations.

Ho aims to compose non-cookie cutter reviews inspired by their cultural-critical contexts, a process which can span two to three weeks per restaurant. To avoid preconceptions, Ho only allows herself to peek at the menus online. She avoids looking at gallery photos of the restaurant or doing any other extensive research in an attempt to be present and open to experiencing the restaurant’s ambience when she enters the first time. Recently, she reviewed the French-Vietnamese restaurant Le Colonial, which the San Francisco Chronicle has previously lauded. Ho noted that through an architectural and culinary theme of colonized Vietnam in the 1920s, the restaurant frames its diners in an unrelatable nostalgia and takes on “the positionality of the colonizer.” While that review took a more historicizing form, her reviews often shapeshift depending on their context. Notably, when she entered the lunar-centric Moongate Lounge in San Francisco’s Chinatown, she instantly felt like she was in the trailer of the new Blade Runner Movie, so she wrote the review as a screenplay!

In an attempt to be especially ethical, Ho visits each restaurant three times in order to gauge their average dining experience and collect relevant logistical information, including impressions of bathrooms and an accessibility check. Still, she does not praise restaurants for their affordability, explaining that it would dissuade them from investing in improving food quality. Despite her sarcastic inclinations, Ho tries to be very careful with what she says and does; she’s aware of her power in the food world, and the implications that reviews have on the livelihood of restaurants.

Ho also discussed the complexity of cultural appropriation in the context of the food industry. She referenced the fad of pho, which spread like wildfire due to its cosmopolitan appeal, as well as the pernicious appropriation of collard greens by Whole Foods. The idea that collards are the new kale makes them less accessible to communities in which collards have always been a staple, as prices spike in response to the demands of more affluent shoppers. However, Ho also talked about the sometimes problematic hyper-sensitivity surrounding culture appropriation; she laughed as she explained how this pendulum swing has resulted in questions like: “So, I’m white. And I made curry last night. Is that okay?” Ho defines cultural appropriation in the food industry as the act of stripping food from its communities of origin and injecting it into expensive restaurant spaces. Nonetheless, Ho explains that cultural appropriation is just an analytical frame. It doesn’t necessarily carry a wildly negative connotation; Thomas Keller’s Mexican restaurant La Calenda in California is cultural appropriation and “that’s fine,” she says, because it creates opportunities for and honors the cultures of the Mexican chefs who work there.

Soleil Ho acknowledges her luxury to dine in Michelin Star restaurants, but also tries to spread out her reviews geographically, across price-ranges, covering both newer and older establishments because she wants all of her readers to get a taste of the experience. While Yelp reviews an individual’s experience at one point in time (of one perhaps irregularly good or bad night in a restaurant), critics like Ho aim to capture the patterns.

Exploring historical-cultural patterns to her is much more important than evaluating food based on the elusive idea of “authenticity” that some critics use as a bludgeon. For example, many first-generation individuals in the food world feel inauthentic and face criticism for fusion cuisines that result from their mixed identities. Ho pointed out that the so-called pure and unparalleled “authenticity” of eating spanakopita in Greece flaunts privilege to travel more than captures the essence of good food. The reality is that authenticity is an invisible yardstick that no one can ever live up to. It is a lie Ho believes we tell ourselves to say that what food should and could be is fixed rather than changing. Especially in cosmopolitan urban American culture, authenticity is ever-shape-shifting. A more interesting question than whether or not food is “authentic,” Ho argued, is why food is the way it is now. Through this outlook, authenticity exists everywhere, in every food; no single defining quality marks authenticity. By acknowledging its sociopolitical context, we can appreciate food for more than just a fleeting escape; it becomes a gateway through which we can understand the world and the people in it better.

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