Cultural appropriation in restaurants: What is it and why does it matter when it comes to food?

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Cultural appropriation is a term I am hearing more and more in the news recently. With people becoming increasingly aware of societal issues, it’s no surprise more people are calling out cultural injustices in today’s world. However, the line for many people can be blurry and, especially when it comes to food, it can be hard to know when it is being crossed.

The term was added to the Oxford Dictionary last year, under the definition: “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” Simply put, it’s when someone lifts something from another culture without care or respect.

Jamie Oliver’s Punchy Jerk Rice

One of the largest news stories this year that discussed cultural appropriation was regarding Jamie Oliver and his “punchy jerk rice”. The story started when Labour MP Dawn Butler called Oliver out over his use of the term ‘jerk’, a native seasoning and cooking style in Jamaica.

Her tweet was then backed up by TV chef Rustie Lee, who told the Guardian she “didn’t like it” and that there’s “no such thing in the Caribbean as jerk rice.” Lee added: “Jerk means barbecue. So, you can’t barbecue rice. If you tried to barbecue rice on a barbecue it would fall through. It’s ridiculous.” Conversation around this story soon entered the public eye and become a national debate.

This case is a perfect example of how cultural appropriation can come about in food. As Lee said, ‘jerk’ isn’t a term that anyone has ever used to describe rice before, because it simply doesn’t make sense. Oliver took that word, detached it from its traditional meaning and then used it to sell his product.

Cultural Appropriation in restaurants

After the Jamie Oliver debacle and with many more incidents of appropriation coming to light, people are starting to wonder, when is the line being crossed? With more international cuisines appearing on our high streets and in our supermarkets than ever before, it seems many still struggle to grasp the concept of appropriation.

Sometimes the appropriation can spread further than the plate however, and restaurants that serve cuisines from a particular culture often also adopt the culture’s styles and characteristics in a stereotypical fashion. For example, have you ever been to a Mexican restaurant and been offered a sombrero to wear? Have you ever gone out for Caribbean food and noticed all of the staff in floral ‘Hawaiian’ shirts? Using these items as a shortcut to create a sense of place and culture is a lazy way to try to boost sales and the gimmick will be seen for what it is.

How can the industry get better?

For some, cultural appropriation is vague, and that is where a lot of the confusion can lie with people. However, I think it is not only possible but entirely important that our industry gets better at appropriating other cultures. Cooking has always been a collaborative experience, it is one of the most exciting and innovative things about it. But the thing I love so much about cooking, and about the industry is that when it’s done right, it’s not one person taking an idea from another culture, but it’s someone passing an idea on -teaching it and upholding it in admiration.

For every bad example, there are good examples too. There are so many chefs and restaurants out there that are respectful when taking inspiration from other cultures. Food truly is a celebration of other customs and traditions, and it’s up to us to ensure we uphold these with the utmost respect and decorum. There are chefs like Ken Hom and Ottolenghi who are passionate about bringing their food culture to wider audiences through restaurants and cookbooks. Encouraging everyone and anyone to pick up a saucepan and give it a try. Ensuring the lessons they are teaching are true and relatable.

Furthermore, behind every culture-inspired dish, there is a chef who loves a particular cuisine and wants to learn everything about it. There is a restaurant who works hard to ensure their ingredients and cooking styles are as true to their origins as possible. There are restaurant owners who know how important it is to bring in traditional chefs from that culture and take that necessary step back to allow them to have the spotlight. And who knows, maybe we might learn a thing or two.