That time I ranted about ethnocentrism in travel food shows

I’m having an endo day, which means during the times I’m not in a pain killer induced nap, I’m watching a lot of netflix. Anything to help pass the time and distract me from the pain and discomfort in my body.

In looking for some new food and culture shows, I stumbled upon I’ll Have What Phil’s Having — a “travel and humor” food show by the creator of Everyone Loves Raymond that was on PBS. It seemed a little promising, so I thought I’ve give it a shot.

I couldn’t even make it through the first episode.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Anthony Bourdain. I know not everyone likes him, but I love how he goes beyond just the food but into the culture and history. This is especially true in his latest endeavor: Parts Unknown. One of the thing Bourdain does, which I appreciate a lot, is attempting to showcase local foods — as in what the everyday people eat. If any shows get close to an Ethnography of Food, it would be his.

I’ll Have What Phil’s Having comes off as the ignorant white American who wants the safe and sanitary cultural experience. Some of these restaurants would perfectly fit in to the comfortable discount tourism we’ve come to find and expect from “ethnic” restaurants in the U.S. However, some of it is still that speaking to a specific clientele. It’s the tourist experience where you want to feel catered to, removed from the real world. Rosenthal’s goal for this first season was to showcase a “best-of” tour. Yet, his definition of “best” is still rooted in western ideologies. Rosenthal, however, sets this up from the very beginning that this is how his “adventure” is going to go.

In his first culinary experience, he joins an expat turned TV host in a small alley called Memory Lane, formerly “piss alley” due to the former lack of bathrooms. He’s invited to eat barbecued eel. After giving himself a pep talk, he dives in and is pleasantly surprised. That is, until he gets to the head and is caught pulling bones outs. He concludes by stating that this is not for him, and the scene cuts to him going to an exclusive high end avant garde style restaurant where the food is more art than cuisine.

Inside that plank of wood the food is served on is a speaker that plays a live feed from a forest. Rosenthal goes on about how this phenomenal the food is — and hey, it probably does taste damn good. But in this situation as well as at the department store roof where he had a picnic (with $100 melon), he seems confused at how these seem like hidden secrets. Why isn’t everyone there enjoying this magnificence? And again this show has this arrogant air of the ignorant rich white American. But we have to remember, Rosenthal’s trying to share what he’s googled to be “the best” — all according to his own personal ideals.

Just like I feel like there is a place for chefs and restaurants like the one above, it calls to a discussion on authenticity. Would I like to eat Kobe beef that’s been cooked solely by pouring hot oil over it for half an hour and it’s so tender it cuts like butter? Yes. Yes I would. But I wouldn’t call that dish something indicative of the local cuisine. While I need to finish the series before I can make a complete judgment, I don’t feel comfortable calling I’ll Have What Phil’s Having a cultural food show. A pseudo-western centric show highlighting particular foods likely interpellating a specific type of audience? Definitely more likely. It does not feel like a show of the every day people. Again, for that I return to Bourdain.

Now, Bourdain does indeed hit up high-end restaurants that excludes the every day people. But I feel like maybe he does a better job at explaining how those experiences are something special and not a local norm.

Like all things, it all comes down to taste and also a willingness to go outside yourself. Aversion to “the other” closes us off to new experiences and relocates these situations and foods to the uncanny, the bizarre. Foreign becomes a misnomer for weird or gross or bad. And that’s a huge disservice. Different is just that, different. I believe we have to be careful how we portray this, and how we pass messages of Othering along. I don’t believe Rosenthal is wrong for feeling uncomfortable with the eel, or for stating that it wasn’t for him. I drew the line at the turtle I was offered at a wedding when I was in Chengdu. That was not for me. However, he shifted the narrative of the show. It was no longer about the food of Tokyo. He set out to show a very specific experience. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, however, it tries to mislead that his experience is in any way typical.

Rosenthal is not an ethnographer — he’s not even a cook — but by creating this show he attempts to put himself in a seat of authority. That is a place of risk. Maybe the rest of the season will surprise me. Maybe I’ll see a host actually grow and expand his view of the cultures he’s visiting and not just cherry-picking his experience to match his own preconceived ideals. It’s the very essence of ethnocentrism, which is a perilous path.

“If you’re really curious about a country, eat how everyday people eat.” – Anthony Bourdain