The challenges of writing restaurant reviews as a person of color

One of the highlights of the past year has been working on the Top Restaurants spin-off lists, which had me seeking out vegetarian feasts or sushi omakase sets that I could lift up with the kind of positivity that has been rare in the world this year. Every time we […]

One of the highlights of the past year has been working on the Top Restaurants spin-off lists, which had me seeking out vegetarian feasts or sushi omakase sets that I could lift up with the kind of positivity that has been rare in the world this year. Every time we publish one, I’m so hyped up that I’m practically dancing in my office chair. But I have to admit that this latest one about Vietnamese food gave me a lot of stress, though I adore these restaurants and pop-ups. More than any other exercise of my expertise as a restaurant critic, writing about Vietnamese food like this gives me serious impostor syndrome over whether I’m Vietnamese enough to do it.

What does it mean to be a real Vietnamese person, let alone a real person of color? It might seem like an absurd set of questions on the surface.

It’s an immutable fact that I am Vietnamese by blood — my family did in fact depart from their home in Vũng Tàu during one terrifying night in 1975 and does in fact season our carbohydrates with Maggi seasoning, not soy sauce. I was raised to speak their language first; it’s the culture that I call home.

But there’s a reflexive gatekeeper who lives in my head. He pops up at odd moments like when visiting family, shopping for clothes or just ordering takeout in English, moments that are ripe with cultural dysphoria. The ever-vigilant watchman believes that anything could expose me as a fraud, a tourist trying on conical straw hats at some Đà Nẵng bazaar; every missed diacritical mark on words like phở and bánh mì, or even the way I pour my tea, could reveal it. So an opportunity to write about my favorite Vietnamese restaurants felt like a test — not just of my taste and expertise, but of my legitimacy as a Vietnamese person.

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People have actually been really excited about this list since it published, which was a relief. But this gatekeeper isn’t so imaginary, as Armenian American writer Liana Aghajanian mentioned on the Extra Spicy podcast a few weeks ago. They’re often our own people, who are working out their own feelings about identity and belonging by rooting out perceived inauthenticity in anything that purports to represent their culture. For them, any deviation from the narratives they know feels like an attack, especially when opportunities to tell those stories are so limited. People end up battling it out over whatever inches they can claim.

It might be that my excitement over next-generation takes on Vietnamese cuisine, like what’s sold at the Claws of Mantis pop-up, is alienating to traditionalists; or that the community work of places like Monster Pho doesn’t matter to soup aficionados who are laser-focused on the contents of the soup bowls. I can almost hear the watchman whispering, “A real Vietnamese wouldn’t be fooled by food like this!”

One of these Spider-Men is an impostor.
One of these Spider-Men is an impostor.ABC

The weight of representation clings to writers and other creators with any whiff of marginalization to them, whether on the basis of class, geography, disability, race or sex. While the ability to represent a minority in any industry comes with its own privileges, you’re restrained by the binaristic idea of good representation and bad representation. Everything you do soaks up meaning, authority and symbolism, the main components of one rather terrible tres leches cake. When you’re doing it right and accurately mirroring the lived experience of a stranger who shares one or two things about your background, you’re an icon; when you’re not, you’re a caricature or sell-out.

The idea that someone like me can only be an expert on their own culture has a lot to do with the way writers of color are cultivated in American media, especially in food media. We’re mostly called up to bat to write about what we’re thought to know, whether it’s soul food for Black Americans or paratha for South Asian ones. One of the big reasons why I was so excited to take on this role was because the regular gig would allow me to write about all sorts of cuisines and topics, instead of fearing, from experience, that no one would want to take my freelance pitches unless they were about Asian cuisines.

I was thrilled to get in touch with local Vietnamese restaurant owners to talk photos for my list and hear about how they’ve been coping with the challenges of the pandemic. That’s the bright side, and it does have a meaningful impact on the world — not just financially for the restaurants involved, but psychologically for people who are excited to see their experiences reflected in storytelling.

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