These days, I rarely do fine dining. When I was around 30, I went through an haute cuisine phase because I was making more money than I can spend and saw no point in saving it. I set foot in enough high-end restaurants that I can feel comfortable with their lavishness and formality, but one thing that still plagues me is racial optics.
At high-end French restaurants, even some white people do not feel comfortable, especially if they are from rural America. When tall, beautiful white people walk in, I cannot help but think, “Those are the kind of people they would rather fill these tables with, not some Asian guy with a camera like me.” When I saw a table with a black couple, I wondered how they feel about dining at a French restaurant. How would it compare to dining at, say, a soul food restaurant?
In terms of racial optics, I certainly feel more comfortable at a Japanese restaurant. At the height of the Japanese economy, there were many high-end Japanese restaurants in midtown Manhattan that catered exclusively to Japanese businessmen. Yes, they racially discriminated against everyone else, but not overtly. One young Japanese businessman told me that when he tried to go to one of them with his white girlfriend, the bouncer told him in Japanese, “Umm... Sorry, but we don’t serve chicken teriyaki here.” Being Japanese, he could read the air and decided to go elsewhere.
From the original Iron Chefs, the only one to become famous in the US was the Iron Chef Japanese, Masaharu Morimoto. It’s not that he was more talented than the others; it just didn’t make sense to promote Iron Chef French and Italian who are Asian. We want a French chef to look like Eric Ripert.
The restaurant business might be more sensitive to racial optics than most other industries. The problem became more acute as chefs became more publicly visible through TV and magazines. MTV created a similar problem for musicians; musical talent became less important than looks.
Since we live in a visually dominant culture, looks dictate what’s possible, but this is all the more reason we have to behave in ways that defy stereotypes. It’s a worthy cause, but don’t expect to be rewarded.
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