On Appropriation, Restaurant Names, and Reading the Room

A white-owned St. Paul restaurant coming under fire for using sacred Mexican name, Elotés, raises lots of questions
Elotés
Elotés

Photo by Diego Lozano (@diegonacho)/Unsplash

Over the past two months, I’ve heard from Latina and Latino restaurant owners, bakers, and chefs, among others. They’ve whispered about the new “Mexican Street Food concept” announced by Brian Ingram. It was to be called “Elotés,” and the owner is white.

In the release announcing the restaurant, the PR team wrote: “After spending time earlier in his career in Southern California and Mexico he has dreamed of bringing his take on Mexican street food to the community.” Ingram is the guy behind Hope Breakfast Bar, which has won understandable acclaim for incredible generosity during the pandemic, donating countless meals. Last month, he and culinary director Justin Sutherland opened the Gnome, St. Paul’s buzziest patio. Sutherland also oversees food and menu quality at Ingram’s new spot, which is going into St. Paul’s Keg & Case Market.

The Latina and Latino community members contacting me didn’t want to go public, fearing pushback from our largely white restaurant community. But, they had questions.

Motives Matter: Questions for Chefs and the Community

Their questions included:

  • Why was the name “Elotés” chosen? To them it felt like picking a trendy, Mexican-sounding name instead of honoring a food that some consider to be part of a sacred tradition.
  • Why are there no management people with a background from Mexico?
  • Finally, in this time of heightened awareness of racial unrest after the death of George Floyd, why would a white guy open a Mexican place?

I also sensed some jealousy. There’s no bigger celebrity chef than Justin Sutherland, and there’s no bigger food news story to counteract all the closings than the crazy guy in St. Paul opening two giant spots in the pandemic. So Elotés was getting a lot of attention.

My questions to the chefs and owners who contacted me:

  • Do you have to be Mexican to open a place that sells Mexican food?
  • Almost every restaurant in town has at least one taco on the menu. Is that appropriation?
  • Does it matter that culinary director Sutherland is Black? Isn’t appropriation about a group with power co-opting a culture without?
  • Does any particular culture own the rights to any particular cuisine? Should Mexican chefs make Italian food and Asian chefs cook in the French tradition if they’re so moved?
  • I don’t want to call out people here, but I asked about other restaurants/planned restaurants and if they would be considered appropriation.

It’s complicated! The complaints against Elotés simmered behind the scenes until the day before it was scheduled to open, when this petition went on Change.org to the St. Paul City Council. The key point: “The problem is not cooking their interpretation of Mexican food, it’s the name of this restaurant that is problematic and unacceptable.”

I know what you may be thinking: Isn’t eloté just the Spanish word for corn? The argument: Elotés as a form of food has a special spot in the tradition of Mexican cuisine, and the name wasn’t chosen because of a commitment to understanding elotés, corn, and its value—the name was chosen because it was catchy. One protester who picketed the restaurant on Thursday, September 10, had a sign reading, “Our culture is not a trend.” The protest included Aztec dancers in traditional garb, and along with the petition, the pressure appeared to work. When I reached out to Ingram, he told me he was doing a lot of listening.

What Happened Next?

Ultimately, he changed the name to Woodfired Cantina & Grill. I checked: The team registered the web address just yesterday, so it’s not like they had this thought out as a backup name or anything. His statement: “We have listened to concerns from members of our community over the name of our restaurant and have taken quick action to change the name to Woodfired Cantina. Our goal is to make food that brings people together. We are here to listen and learn. Please join us for a meal and make our community a better place.”

When I tweeted this out, I got mixed reactions. Some applauded Ingram for listening and taking action so quickly. Others complained that he was bullied by activists. I’m not here to judge whether or not anyone’s feeling about appropriation is right or wrong. If someone feels their culture is being appropriated, I honor that feeling. The question is what action should be taken: Should the place be boycotted? Should you just choose to spend your money at Latina-owned and Latino-owned Mexican restaurants, Asian restaurants owned by Asians, soul food restaurants owned by Africans or Black Americans? You should follow your own belief system.

Andrew Zimmern took grief for cultural appropriation with Lucky Cricket. It was not just because he cooked Chinese food, but because of what he said from his position of power as a TV celebrity and white man of wealth. Zimmern opening a Chinese restaurant isn’t inherently appropriating, according to the people I spoke with; it was what he said (and subsequently genuinely apologized for) that made it an issue.

Next Steps: Appropriation vs. Appreciation

From my conversations, a few things to consider when judging whether someone is appropriating or appreciating a culture:

  • Motive: Are you opening a concept solely because it’s a good financial move?
  • Research: Did you dive deep into researching and learning about the culture?
  • Outreach: Have you talked to people from that cultural group in your community?
  • Partnership: Are you working with purveyors from the community? Are you working to employ people from that group? Supporting a nonprofit? All of this factors in.
  • Location: Are you a white man or woman setting up shop in District del Sol in St. Paul or Lake Street in Minneapolis?

Everyone may end up in different places on these issues, but having discussions matters. And as a chef, nothing stops someone from loving Mexican food or Asian food and cooking it at home for fun. When you make a decision to try to profit using another culture’s food, that’s when you need to be prepared to answer the questions above, or consider changing your name—or changing your concept altogether.

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