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The Cultural Challenges of Opening up a Restaurant

Recently, a new Chinese restaurant that opened in the city of New York bore the brunt of a social media lashing. The debacle concerned one of the owners, Arielle Haspel, a Manhattan health coach, who was spreading the word about the restaurant known as Lucky Lee’s through Instagram and other social media outlets.

According to a post in The New York Times, Ms. Haspel inferred that Chinese restaurants were dirty and unhealthy by promoting her new Chinese restaurant as clean with food that wouldn’t be too oily or leave you feeling “bloated and icky.”

It didn’t help, of course, that neither she nor her husband and partner are Asian. Termed cultural arrogance or appropriation, this is not the first time that restaurateurs have been slayed on the social media circuit for opening restaurants that serve food outside their ethnic circle, and then disrespecting the culture from which it derives.

In Haspel’s favor, she did respond that she did not mean to suggest that traditional Chinese food was dirty. She was simply stating that she would be promoting healthier alternatives to traditional food. So, really, in addition to suggesting that Chinese food may be dirty, it’s also not very healthy. Nice.

The food she does offer is gluten-, dairy-, and wheat-free with no GMO oils, MSG, or other food additives used in the dishes. She probably would have fared better if she’d kept to the facts and left any comparisons to other Chinese food out of the equation.  

Cultural Challenges

The problem is not new. Many cultures hold deep-seated beliefs and traditional values that they feel are disrespected when others open restaurants and portray similar cultural symbols but know nothing of the meaning behind them. An example: Many Chinese restaurants create an ambiance that symbolizes luck, strength and fortune. You can see this in the bamboo, which stands for strength and resilience, and the green jade which represents Confucian values of virtue. Haspel chose to decorate Lucky Lee’s with touches of bamboo and jade. Did she know the meaning behind the décor”? We don’t know, nor did she want to talk to us about her decorative choices. Not that I blame her. I’m sure she’s more than ready to leave this topic far behind. She can only hope that the Chinese proverb, “A bad beginning makes a bad ending” does not come to pass.

I checked out the reviews of this establishment on Yelp. Due to unusual activity, they have temporarily disabled posting of content to this page. I did note that most of their first reviews were five-star ratings.

So, while those restaurateurs who choose to open establishments that they are not culturally connected to need to respect the culture at large, does this mean that we cannot open an Asian, African, Indian, Moroccan, Mediterranean, or Italian restaurant unless we herald from or have their genes buried deep within our DNA?

I don’t know. That sounds a little racist. I do know that my father served one hell of a ceviche at his restaurant, despite being solidly Scotch-Irish through and through. For those that do take the plunge, developing a strong and respectful understanding of the culture that you’re emulating is certainly a worthy goal.

Cultural Appropriation

The people that created the “White-owned Appropriative Restaurant” list disagree with me. Writers of this list accused several Oregon restaurants of cultural appropriation—a tool of “a white supremacist culture.”

This list included the name of restaurants that are owned by white individuals who serve food outside their ethnic traditions. An example is Burmasphere—a restaurant serving Burmese food that is owned by a white man. Another is Kooks Burritos, a food truck owned and operated by two white women—who eventually shut down their pop-up due to the backlash. The list also included names of restaurants that were run by people of color who were creating food from their country of origin—suggesting people try these establishments instead.

I was happy to see that this document had been removed from the internet.

So, white people can’t serve ethnic food? Hm. Can they own an ethnic restaurant and hire a cook from the country? Should American restaurant’s stop serving Shephard’s Pie? And should people from other countries stop opening restaurants that serve American cuisine?

In order to answer those questions, I had to look up the term “cultural appropriation.” It means: “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.”

I still can’t answer those questions. I mean, just what determines “unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption?”

The example in the dictionary is this: “His dreadlocks were widely criticized as another example of cultural appropriation.”

Really? If having dreadlocks is a sign of cultural appropriation, I have several friends that will need to promptly cut their hair.

Here is what I believe: We live in one big world in which we should respect each other’s cultures and traditions. When done right, opening a restaurant that celebrates a specific culture’s cuisine is a form of honoring, not degrading, their society and customs.


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