cultural appropriation

A table in Thailand. Photo by Clay Sandhu

Cultural appropriation in the Montreal restaurant scene

How a poorly named, poorly conceived pop-up started a controversy.

Montreal’s restaurant scene has been embroiled in a controversy surrounding cultural appropriation, and one chef is at the centre of it all.

In mid-June, Antonin Mousseau-Rivard reopened his restaurant le Petit Mousso under a new name: Seoul Train. The pivot traded Mousseau-Rivard’s signature highly conceptual, intricately plated food for a more take-out friendly Korean menu. Unsurprisingly, the pop-up was met with its fair share of criticism. Mousseau-Rivard’s worst critics labelled him a racist, others simply chalked it up to poor execution of a concept that had its heart in the right place. Regardless of opinion, it opened the floodgates on the topic of cultural appropriation in Montreal’s white-dominated culinary scene. 

On its face, the pop-up is obviously problematic. Regardless of what opinion anyone might have on the subject, the name, which in itself is a play, of course, on Soul Train — an icon of Black culture in America — is a problem. Even worse, the name combines a misplaced reference to Black pop-culture with a vaguely Korean identity. It’s a mess. But what’s even messier is Mousseau-Rivard’s very public response to the backlash, which varied from an “I’m not racist, you’re racist” approach to an “I polled my Instagram followers and they said it’s fine” argument. As I said, the whole thing is cringe-worthy. 

Digging a bit deeper into it, however, the controversy does pose a very interesting and important question: who gets to cook what? In an even more cringe-inducing attempt to answer that question, Charles-Antoine Crête of Montreal Plaza posted a now-deleted but highly controversial video in which he plays a fictional character named Jojo POW POW. In the video, Crête attempts to satire the conversation of cultural appropriation in food by running around his restaurant and chastizing his employees and telling them that they essentially no longer have the right to do anything — the whole video feels like a high-school gym teacher venting about why he can’t call kids pansies anymore. 

The video, if anything, helped to underscore that not only is the conversation around cultural appropriation in Montreal not being had, but some of the city’s most revered chefs are actively mocking any notion of the concept. Needless to say, the video was publicly reviled and promptly taken down and replaced with a statement that can be summed-up as “Can’t anyone take a joke anymore?” to which the community at large responded with a clear, “Fuck you.” 

Crête’s tone-deaf video aside, the question is still valid. In what circumstance, if any, are white chefs allowed to cook racialized food? In Marie-Claude Lortie’s excellent article in La Presse on the same subject, she touches on a vital argument: “When a white chef enriches his repertoire with this knowledge from elsewhere, it’s modern, it’s progressive, it’s avant-garde. Meanwhile, an Asian-born chef does the same in their kitchen, but it’s not special because it’s expected of him or her.” It’s a statement that echoes many of the conversations being had around topics of privilege, equal access and racial inequities. 

Intent is also a major contributing factor in who gets to cook what. Mousseau-Rivard claimed his restaurant’s pivot was designed to pay homage to Korean food and to shed light on the generally little-understood cuisine in Montreal. While nobody doubts that Mousseau-Rivard probably likes Korean food, it seemed that, generally, his white-saviour defence of the pop-up only poured fuel on the fire. Julian Doan, an investor in restaurants both in Montreal and internationally, put it this way: “Good intentions [are] not good enough. If you are an industry leader, like in the case of Mousseau and Crête, you need to be held at a higher standard. You need to be well-versed in anti-racism and engage with communities you are borrowing elements from. You have a responsibility to not represent other cultures in an ignorant way.” 

Seoul Train (Cultural appropriation in the Montreal restaurant scene)

The whole debacle illustrates two important but conflicting ideologies. On the one hand, I don’t think you’d find a chef anywhere that doesn’t believe that the cross-cultural sharing of recipes and techniques is an essential part of shaping one’s own cuisine. The goal for anyone who cooks, or who enjoys food, is to learn as much as possible. On the other hand, there’s a racial and economic argument. one that’s less romantic and more rooted in reality. It’s easy to get caught up in the pageantry of restaurants and food. Food media constantly presents us with the idea that there is a global community in which chefs all over the world come together in a kumbaya-style harmonious sharing of technique and respect. But the reality is that it’s white chefs and restaurateurs who have the ability to claim the right to cook whatever type of food they like, ignorantly cherry-picking elements of other cultures and typically misusing them. 

Épicerie Pumpui co-owner Jesse Massumi and his two business partners are white and run a Thai restaurant. Their approach to cooking the food of another culture, however, is significantly different from Mousseau-Rivard’s.

“It was always really important, since the beginning, to make sure that we were operating adjacent to and with the communities that have a claim to that food and that culture,” Massumi says. Pumpui is an example of a real homage, and proof that anyone can cook anything so long as they’re willing to create a working relationship with the culture from which they’re borrowing. 

“Before we opened [Pumpui], we wanted to make sure, when possible, to go straight to the source so that we’re putting money back into the economy, whether that was straight to Thailand or through local Thai suppliers and producers. At the end of the day, the food isn’t ours. We’re cooking food we love, but it’s not our food, it belongs to Thailand and the people of Thailand.” 

It’s a venture that strives for a net-positive effect on the Thai community at large, a drastic departure from Mousseau-Rivard, who seemed to view his culinary background as a way to elevate Korean cuisine. Conversely, Pumpui views themselves as responsible for authentically representing Thai food and to contribute to building up the Thai community around them. 

In Montreal, food is qualified by a trickle-down effect from Europe. If there is an innate Europeanness, or better yet, a Frenchness associated with one’s style of cooking, then it’s far easier to achieve legitimacy, which is vital because legitimacy directly contributes to revenue. Le Mousso is a modern, highly praised restaurant that has a perceived Europeanness. They are reputed to be one of the best restaurants in Canada and are therefore perceived as experts in terms of food regardless of what, from where, or with what knowhow the food is derived. Simply put, Mousseau-Rivard’s ability to cook Korean food is baseless, but it’s perceived as legitimate because of the reputation of his praised Euro-centric cuisine. Therein lies the major problem. Nobody is shitting on Mousseau-Rivard and Crête because they have an affinity for Asian food, they’re shitting on them because their identity as industry leaders lends them the credence to appropriate whatever cuisine they like without impunity. 

Épicerie Pumpui (Cultural appropriation in the Montreal restaurant scene)

Recently, Clarence Kwan, who’s best known by his Instagram handle @thegodofcookery, has become one of the most vocal critics of cultural appropriation and white supremacy in food. Kwan, however, cuts directly to the point: “The Montreal food scene has consistently proven that it willfully and freely engages in white supremacy.” And he’s not wrong because even when the intent is to create an homage to a different culture’s cuisine when the vehicle through which the homage is disseminated bears a white (particularly white-male) face it participates in erasure. Every element of Mousseau-Rivard’s concept takes the focus further and further away from anything truly resembling genuine Korean culture, which according to him, is supposed to be the star of the show. 

Mousseau-Rivard’s whiteness isn’t the issue. In fact, there’s nothing implicitly wrong with white chefs cooking racialized food — even critics of Mousseau-Rivard and Crête like Doan agree: “White chefs should be encouraged to take inspiration from other cultures — provided they put in the work.”

The problem is that the work is hard and white chefs rarely take the time to do it. For Massumi, it’s like this: “You don’t need to worry, as a white person, that you’re not going to be able to cook any food, that’s stupid. Just ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing and [do it] with respect and care. If people are telling you that you’re not, you need to listen to them and not just lash out and prove to them that you never should have been doing this in the first place.”

Without actually engaging with the cultures the chef is borrowing from, it becomes incredibly easy to create something that upholds the notions of systemic racism and white supremacy that are latent in our food culture. Mousseau-Rivard’s mish-mash of Soul Train, Soul food, Korean food and the glaring lack of consultation and collaboration with Koreans combined with his whiteness and celebrity obscures any tangible connection to Korean culture. That’s called erasure — that’s white supremacy. 

The cuisines of France and Italy are closely protected — like a gated community that lets few outsiders in. Those same protections are seldomly offered to cuisine of BIPOC cultures. Seoul Train reaches blindly into a culture of which it has but a passing knowledge of, and through a white lens projects an imagined authenticity, one that actively competes for business with real Korean restaurants in town. It’s that point that sticks most with me. Intent and white supremacy aside, Mousseau-Rivard claimed that his detractors were attacking a small business owner during an especially difficult time. Woe is me. The Korean restaurants in our city are suffering through the same economic downturn and they can’t pivot to le Mousso’s formula of $150 per head tasting menus. They can only continue doing what they have always done, except now they have an entitled pseudo-celebrity chef charging $75 for an approximation of Korean food to compete with. Not only does Seoul Train not adequately showcase anything authentically Korean, it actively steals business from real Korean restaurants.

The question of who gets to cook what and the concept of cultural appropriation in food has almost nothing to do with food at all. Like so many aspects of society, it’s a question of race and all that comes with race. Mousseau-Rivard and Crête are the most visible examples of the issue, but they are far from the only culprits. White chefs and restaurant owners control the lion’s share of resources, they drive the conversation around what is valuable and what is not and more often than not it’s through the white-washing of BIPOC cuisine that it’s able to break into mainstream culture, typically to the benefit of the white-washer and typically to the detriment of the traditional culture.

The gut reaction of some was to groan about yet another aspect of society being labelled racist, but we should all remember, it’s not another log being thrown onto the fire, it’s one of the many blazing embers at its heart. If we are to create a better society, we must be better in all things, including food. ■

This feature was originally published in the October issue of Cult MTL. For more about Épicerie Pumpui (83 St-Zotique E.), which is open for takeout, please visit their website.

For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.