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What Heritage Means - Taste Talks Brooklyn

This is part of my series of recaps from the Brooklyn Taste Talks panels I attended.

The What Heritage Means talk was fantastic and one of my favorites. All three panelists had different upbringing and got into cooking Heritage food in different ways. The moderator was Matt Rodbard, who wrote Koreatown (which I really need to get) and he did a good job moving the conversation around and getting everyone's viewpoint into the talk.

It was great listening to people with such passion for the food they are cooking. They also seem to view it as not just feeding people but educating them while celebrating a culture. I haven't been to their restaurants yet but they've moved up to the top of my list and I'd highly recommend them to anyone living or visiting New York. Being able to eat food prepared by people so passionate about their subject and cooking such personal food can't be beat.

Note: I try to use "heritage" in this recap instead of "ethnic" because of the extremely negative connotations some of the panelists (especially Suvir) had to deal with over the years because they cooked "ethnic" food and not food worthy of being elevated or praised.

Note: I didn't bring a recorder with me, so all quotes are either what I jotted down or what I remembered but the words aren't verbatim. I tried to do my best to capture the spirit of what they were saying but if they come across negative in any way it's because I screwed up the quote, not because of what they said originally.

The Panelists

Suvir Saran is from Tapestry, and previously was chef of the first Indian restaurant to be granted a Michelin star. He also is the chairperson of the Asian Culinary Studies Department of the Culinary Institute of America. He was born in New Delhi and came over to the United States several decades ago.

Joseph "JJ" Johnson is the head chef at The Cecil, a restaurant focused on creating "an eatable culinary conversation celebrating the foodways of the African Diaspora". Joseph is a James Beard nominated chef and grew up in the Poconos.

Esther Choi runs mŏkbar, a Korean ramen restaurant in Chelsea Market. mŏkbar has won best reader's choice restaurant and best Kimchi. She was born in New Jersey and grew up both there and in Korea.

Just as a note, even though they cook heritage food both Esther and Joseph are classically trained and all three chefs have, or could, work in almost any fine dining restaurant in the country, regardless of cuisine.

How Did You Get Into Cooking Heritage Food?

Suvir Saran grew up in India cooking normal Indian food. Once he moved to the United States (to be a doctor) he found himself cooking for his friends and neighbors because there were no good Indian restaurants in New York. Eventually he decided to start doing that full time.

Esther grew up cooking and eating Korean food, mainly with her grandmother, and when the time came to open her own restaurant she wanted to cook food she felt a passion for and spoke to her past. She felt like she had a duty to represent her culture and make it proud.

Joseph was a classically trained chef on the rise in New York but after struggling to land a head chef position (sadly this was a common theme on multiple panels for non-white or non-male chefs) he decided to take a position at a popular hotel in Ghana where he worked in the kitchen. He fell in love with the style of cooking and the connection he felt to his roots. When he returned to New York he focused on trying to open an African restaurant and teamed up with Alexander Smalls to do so.

How Do You Have to Change Your Dishes for Americans?

Matt wanted to know where the line is for keeping your food truly authentic versus recognizing that you have a business to run and you need to actually sell dishes to people.

Joseph said he has tried to tone down the flavors while still keeping them authentic. He occasionally gets complaints from people for dishes being too spicy but then he'll have an African come in and ask why the food is so mild... he always answers "because otherwise no one would buy it!"

Esther tries to use authentic spices and ingredients (like her house-made kimchi) while substituting some of the proteins. So she might use a beef shank in a dish instead of ox tongue. She also went with a noodle restaurant because ramen is a lot more accessible to many Americans than other styles of Korean cooking.

Suvir tries to use completely authentic takes on his dishes but he tends to describe them on the menu in very understandable terms. So instead of the traditional name of the dish, he would title it "Grilled Lamb Chop: chickpeas, hominy, cilantro, onions, chile, cumin, saffron" so people wouldn't be intimidated.

Suvir went on to say that he has a book filled with the descriptions and stories behind the dishes that all the waiters have to know. So if a diner asks about an ingredient or preparation they can answer any questions they have and dive deep into the culture of the food. He also will come out personally and talk with people that really are curious about specific dishes or obscure ingredients.

Where Do You Source Food From

Matt asked where they find their ingredients. When you are cooking a very unique heritage cuisine you can't just go through normal restaurant distributors.

Esther uses a fermented paste in many of her dishes but it takes forever to get it in from Korea. She thought about making her own but "if I did no one would ever work for me" because of the labor involved, especially since they make 10 types of house-made kimchi. She ended up finding a remote connection (I think it was something like her friend's mom's sister's neighbor) who makes some in New Jersey and now sources it from her.

Joseph discussed trying to get imported spices and ingredients from Africa, sometimes going direct through suppliers or growers. He also has found a lot of frustration with certain distributors who tell him "oh, we don't have X but this is the exact same thing" - this comment got a lot of agreement from the other two chefs.

Joseph and Ether both have struggled to find the specific rice they are looking for. Joseph wanted a specific African heritage grain and finally ended up finding a grain expert at a local university who knew of a farm upstate that could grow it and supply him.

Does the Media "Get It"?

Matt asked how often does the media "get it" when you are doing such a niche restaurant. Do they ever completely miss the point or get confused about what you are serving?

Suvir shared a story about when his first restaurant opened he received a call from a restaurant reviewer who he really respected. They told him that he was doing it wrong and that you can't charge that much for "ethnic food". He tried to explain it wasn't a casual restaurant but a fine dining restaurant, to which she responded it wasn't fine dining, it was "ethnic" and the reviewer eventually hung up on him. After a few days he left her a scathing message pointing out her hypocrisy and how it was hurting both the restaurant scene and immigrants. She ended up reviewing the restaurant, gave it a great review, and backtracked on many of her earlier comments.

Joseph talked about having a panicked moment about a week before they opened when the staff just turned to each other and said "is anyone going to get this?". He talked about once they opened, a restaurant critic wrote a review and Joseph was so glad that he "got it" and that it helped spark a lot more acceptance of the restaurant and the philosophy behind it.

Esther discussed how she can use social media, and specifically Instagram to really shape her narrative and tell her story the way she wants to tell it. She doesn't have to rely only on the members of the media to do that for her.

The panelists also discussed how discouraging it can be that "some white guy" learns to cook great Indian food and is praised for it but an Indian that does it is just cooking "ethnic" food. Whereas a French guy that cooks great French food is still praised for it.

What is Your "Ideal" Heritage Restaurant?

Matt wanted to know if you set aside financial considerations and the need to actually sell dishes, what the panelists' "ideal" restaurant would be.

Suvir immediately said he'd want to fly the diners to India to eat with his Mom. It'd be the most authentic experience they could have and also a unique one because there aren't many good authentic restaurants in India since everyone cooks at home.

Joseph said he'd want to a do a rice-based restaurant because rice is a connector and everybody, no matter where they are from, understands rice. He would want to serve rice-based dishes from around the globe to show how similar all cuisines can be at their core. During the Q and A afterwards someone asked what type of dishes he meant and he rattled off 5 awesome-sounding dishes off the top of his head - it was pretty impressive.

You can read all my Brooklyn Taste Talk Recaps or let me know what you think in the comments below.