Ms. Tkacik explained to readers that the restaurant’s name is a reference to the “hot dry” noodles that are a popular street food in Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei Province in central Asia. She also noted, “Lefenfeld admitted that he has yet to visit the city.” The reporter’s straightforward question and my straightforward answer reach into the heart of the ongoing controversy regarding cultural appropriation, specifically the tsoris (a Yiddish word meaning trouble and anguish) about food and cuisine.
In many places, here and abroad, the debate has been most heated when it comes to Chinese cuisine. The opening of Lucky Cat by Gordon Ramsay in London, described by the owners as an “authentic Asian Eating House,” and Andrew Zimmern’s Lucky Cricket restaurant in the Midwest are perhaps the two best-known flare-ups in the debate. Yet, it is hardly confined to Asian cuisine. The Oklahoma-born Rick Bayless, who has created a restaurant empire centered on “authentic” Mexican cuisine and two women in Portland, Oregon who opened a burrito cart, have also triggered a flurry of heated exchanges.
Undoubtedly, this debate will continue for some time to come. It raises many questions, questions that I think about every day but for which I do not presume to have definitive answers. For example, what is “authentic cuisine?” Who is qualified to prepare authentic cuisine? Can only certain ingredients be used in preparing “authentic cuisine?” Is one permitted to utilize locally-sourced products in cuisine that is not native to our region? And what about fusion cuisine that blends flavors from multiple cultures? Moreover, within a culture, ways of cooking change over time, so that dishes from 50 years ago may be done somewhat differently today.
For me, the overriding question is: How does one approach a “different” cuisine, any cuisine? I have strived to approach this Hubei-inspired cuisine with research, respect and appreciation. I believe that it is my responsibility as a chef to do this as faithfully as I can. We at The Hot Dry do not use the appellation “authentic.” We do hope that our guests will find our hand-cut noodle dishes and our dumplings and buns to be delicious, unusual, and very satisfying. I have been asked, and will be asked again, the questions, “But why this Wuhan-inspired menu? Why these dishes and why here?’” My only answer is that I love the dishes. I love working with the flavors and the ingredients and the methods. I love preparing and serving the dishes and getting the feedback. I love the challenge of sharing this cuisine with people here in my city. A city that I love.
Ben Lefenfeld, Baltimore
The writer is chef and co-owner of The Hot Dry and La Cuchara.