Is Teresa Puente’s Opinion of Rick Bayless “Racist”?

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This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

Is ChicagoNow blogger Teresa Puente a racist for saying that Rick Bayless is stealing the spotlight from native Mexican chefs in the United States? Some say yes–including the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Vettel.

Yesterday on her Chicanisima blog, Puente complained about American media’s incessant spotlight on Bayless in a blog post entitled, “Why is Rick Bayless the expert on Mexican cuisine when he isn’t even Mexican?”, saying in part:

“Something just bugged me that a white guy was gaining so much fame for his Mexican cuisine. I’m sure his love of Mexico is genuine and he does good charity work. I’m not saying he’s a bad guy, and he is a great chef. But why does the media make him the spokesman for Mexican food in the United States?”

She goes on to suggest the French might have a similar problem if the most famous chef of French cuisine wasn’t French. That was enough to elicit a pithy rejoinder from Bayless, himself, on Twitter, reminding Puente (or perhaps, informing her for the first time) that two of the most celebrated French chefs in the United States–Julia Child and Thomas Keller–were American born, too:

“JuliaChild,TKeller? RT@VirtualFarmgirl:Sad2see Trib run this.Why is Rick Bayless expert on Mex cuisine when he isn’t Mex? http://bit.ly/s2rJh” (@Rick_Bayless, Thurs Aug 13, 12:39 PM)

Puente’s post generated a heated comment debate throughout Thursday. A few readers agreed with her. Most, however, said she was misinformed about Bayless and inserting political correctness into an arena–cuisine–where it didn’t belong:

“Julia Child was not French, and she managed to be the “French Chef” in the U.S. Dianna Kennedy broke ground with her books about “real” Mexican food in the late 70s. She was not Mexican either. I think Rick and Diana have found a way to document Mexican food and its preparation from an outsider point of view. This allows them to focus on things we, Mexicans might not see because we are used to them. In the end, that very way of observing things makes them insiders.” (Quetilla)

“Actually, the reason Rick Bayless is considered the expert on Mexican cuisine in the U.S. is because he DOESN’T stylize or adapt the food to American tastes. He presents it as is, whether the traditional recipes or the nouvelle Mexican cuisine. I can tell you this because I was born and raised in Mexico and when a few years ago I decided it was time for me to learn how to cook Mexican food I turned to his books. Initially it was because Rick offered alternatives to ingredients that are hard to find.” (mgallardo)

“This is a weird post, actually. I’d bet Rick spends more time in Mexico than many of the Mexican chefs here in town. If you watch his shows or read his books, he’s there quite a lot…Now, if Rick was the celebrated Mexican chef and actually lived and worked in Mexico, now that would be weird…I just don’t see the issue. It’s like saying if I became the best non-Hispanic Spanish speaker in Chicago, it’d be weird if I talked/wrote/taught the language. Why? Or is it just because he’s white?” (Brian Moore)

“But you tout a restaurant with two chefs creating dishes with “Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban influences” and a “paella-inspired special.” Are these two chefs Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and fresh out of Valencia? Shame on you, Teresa. And shame on the Tribune for providing a platform for this racist/ethnist drivel.” (Alan Solomon)

“I don’t have a problem with this post; I think it’s interesting to ask how and why a particular person becomes a “name” in the media. A big part of the answer is lazy journalism, I think.” (Chris)

“‘You can accuse me of being too politically correct.’ Excuse me? You really think this article contains one iota of political correctness? Since when was it politically correct to judge -anyone- or their abilities based on their race/ethnicity/heritage? I thought today’s idea of political correctness is truly having an understanding that all people have all kinds of experiences and anyone can do anything, good or bad.” (Yesterdayi8)

“It’s so disappointing to read blogs like this. And to think the author gets paid for this. If your ‘main point’ was to try and highlight mexican cooks, why call Bayless’ race into question? Why spend the first half of the blog being critical of hius success? Of course that was not your main point. You main point was to use the race card and ride a Bayless’ coattails to try and gain some readership. You must be very proud.” (midwesteric)

Puente’s post raised blogosphere ire beyond ChicagoNow, too. Chicago Tribune food writer Phil Vettel called Puente’s comments racist, saying:

“Perhaps Ms. Puente would understand the ugliness of her argument if we switched a few ethnic identities. For instance, suppose I were to question the authenticity of an Italian restaurant because it had too many Mexican cooks? Is Harry Caray’s less of an Italian steakhouse because for most of its life the head chef’s name was Abraham Aguirre?”

Other local bloggers were equally perplexed by Puente’s post, but some conceded Mexican chefs have yet to get their due in the U.S.:

“Still, at the very least, Puente’s point does stand as a reminder that the current state of celebrity cheffery suffers from a disappointing lack of diversity. Of the twenty-four contestants on Top Chef Masters, the show whose promotion of Bayless piqued Puente’s ire, just three are chefs of color: Anita Lo, Roy Yamaguchi, and Douglas Rodriguez.” (Grub Street Chicago)

“Thankfully, she listed what she considers some top restaurants in the Chicago area, such as Xni Pec, specializing in authentic Mayan cuisine, May St. Cafe, a Nuevo Latino gourmet place, and Carnicería Guanajuato, 1436 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago, (773) 772-5266, where they have good tacos de carnitas, according to Sra. Puente. Next time I’m in Chicago, I’ll go to all three, and I’ll stop by and tell Rick Bayless to stop being so white, or stop being an expert on Mexican food, or something like that.” (The Taco Matrix)

“*deep breath* I can’t shake the feeling when watching them wander through Mexico and far off countries that these sophisticated white dudes are trying to tell us what is authentic and what isn’t. As if they are Marco Polo’s of food searching for the most authentic food to bring back to the States…I’ve heard or read comments classifying Bourdain as a food anthropologist. I kinda get that…Honestly I’m torn.” (Viva la Feminista)

“312DD’s two cents: The acclaimed Ethiopian-born chef Marcus Samuelsson (Aquavit, C-House) is considered an authority on not only Northern African cuisine, but Swedish fare as well.” (312 Dining Diva)

By day’s end, Puente defended herself in a follow-up blog post entitled, “It’s too easy to label someone a racist”. Her words:

“Is it racist to say the media should be more inclusive? I don’t think so…Is it racist for me to say I only went to each of his restaurants once? Is it racist for me to say that I do not want to give Bayless my money? He doesn’t need it anyway…When I go out to eat Mexican food, I prefer to support local Mexican or Latino-owned restaurants. Is that racist to want to help business owners from the Latino community when I can?”

Yes. It is. Does that make Puente a racist? No more than anyone else living in American society–and no less, either. Does that make her comments racist? You betcha it does.

Speaking as a Hispanic, myself (don’t be fooled by my last name, my blood is 50% Spanish and 50% Puerto Rican), it always amazes me when people who set themselves up as the standard bearers of the race–any race–think their self-chosen title makes them immune to criticism or unable to adopt and espouse racist opinions, themselves.

Every time a white Chicagoan shudders when a black teen walks by on an after-dark ‘L’ train, or an Asian-American decides to shop at only Asian-owned stores–or Teresa Puente decides to favor Latino chefs over American-born chefs–that’s racism.

Why? Because these responses–involuntary or not–are entirely based on race. And I would argue the voluntary responses are worse. What Puente is advocating is rejecting one restaurant in favor of another based solely on the race of their head chefs.

I’m sorry, Teresa, no matter how tightly you want to wrap yourself in the flag of the good fight, that’s a racist position you’re proposing. And from one Hispanic to another, you don’t get a pass on it just because you’re doing it for La Raza.

Did Avenue Q teach us nothing as a society?

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