Note: The following essay, written by 1520’s Marius Zürcher, is a slightly adapted version of an essay previously submitted to Wittenborg University of Applied Sciences as part of the MBA course Critical Perspectives in Hospitality Management.

Introduction

It is well documented that authenticity is becoming increasingly important for consumers (Kreuzbauer & Keller, 2017; Lu, Gursoy & Lu, 2015; Zimmerman, 2014). Authenticity has furthermore shown to be of particular importance to millennial consumers (Stoute, 2011; Pattuglia & Mingione, 2017), the world’s “most powerful consumers” (Gapper, 2018). As Stoute puts it: “Millennials, raised on hip-hop as a fact of life, believe fundamentally in the power of authenticity” (Stoute, 2011, p. 174). Some suggest that the millennial generation’s desire for authenticity is the main engine behind the desire for authenticity among consumers in general (Faber, cited in Dansehku, 2018; Stoute, 2011). Whatever the cause, this desire for authenticity is also strongly affecting the restaurant industry as well as other food related industries (Daneshku, 2018; Kreuzbauer & Keller, 2018; Carrol, Lehman & Kovács, cited Zimmerman, 2014). According to Kreuzbauer and Keller authenticity “is a central concern in the evaluation of all cultural products, including […] cuisine” (Kreuzbauer & Keller, 2017, pp. 119). Research by Carrol, Lehman and Kovács (cited in Zimmerman, 2014) showed that, in the case of restaurants, consumers even value authenticity over cleanliness. This is significant, as cleanliness is known to be a crucial attribute (Liu & Jang, 2009; Stevens, Knutson, Patton, 1995). Notably, Carrol, Lehman and Kovács (cited in Zimmerman, 2014) focused their research on Chinese restaurants, but highlighted the general applicability of their results.

Given the apparent crucial importance of authenticity in the restaurant industry, I will make an effort to provide insight into the meaning of authenticity in this context and how it affects the restaurant industry, with an emphasis on ethnic restaurants in the United States. I have chosen this focus due to the large number of available sources, but the general trends described in this essay are present in most Western countries.

Given the topic of this essay, I feel it is necessary to clarify my awareness of the underlying societal issues associated with the topic, particularly racism and xenophobia. Although the role these issues play is addressed, I acknowledge that one can never write enough. I furthermore grew up as both an immigrant and as part of an immigrant family that has owned and operated a variety of hospitality businesses and, through that, have personally struggled with the concept of authenticity in food and restaurants.

The Meaning of Authenticity

The exact meaning of authenticity is unclear. According to Kovács, Carroll and Lehman, “authenticity can be defined as an attribution accorded by social agreement to certain objects, persons, or places - entities, in a general sense - about whether the entity is ‘genuine ‘or ‘real’ […]” (Kovács, Carroll & Lehman, 2013, p. 460). In the context of products, “objects perceived as authentic are considered more valuable than other inauthentic objects with the same characteristic” (Kovács, Carroll & Lehman, 2013, p. 460). More simply, Lu and Fine define authenticity as “that which is believed or accepted to be genuine or real: true to itself” (Lu & Fine, 1995, p. 538). Similarly, Gaytán defines authenticity as “a modern cultural construct that sustains the assumption of a ‘true’ experience or occasion” (Gaytán, 2008, p. 317). According to Lu, Gursoy and Lu (2015) however, authenticity can be defined and interpreted based on three different perspectives: constructive, objective and post-modern.

Objectivists believe that authenticity can be determined on the basis of objective specifications set by experts (Lu, Gursoy & Lu, 2015). In the case of ethnic restaurants, these can be “food ingredients, food preparation processes, restaurants’ […] settings and decorations, servers’ uniforms and service manners” (Lu, Gursoy & Lu, 2015, p. 37), which “can be considered as authentic when they conform to native traditions” (Lu, Gursoy & Lu, 2015, p. 37). Objectivists’ focus on native traditions can often be recognized in definitions and interpretations of authenticity that employ phrases and terms such as “from back home” (Gaytán, 2008, p. 320) and “homeland” (Lu & Fine, 1995, p. 538). An example of such a definition in the context of food is by Lu and Fine, which say that “authentic food implies that products are prepared using the same ingredients and processes as found in the homeland of the ethnic, national or regional group” (Lu & Fine, 1995 p. 538).

Constructivists on the other hand believe that authenticity cannot be measured in an objective manner (Lu, Gursoy & Lu, 2015). Authenticity, according to them, is thus “a subjective, socially and personally constructed perception of objects and cultures from unique observations rather than […] an objective representation based on evidential or objective standards” (Lu, Gursoy & Lu, 2015, p. 37). This means that customers might perceive constructed, artificial experiences as authentic (Lu, Gursoy & Lu, 2015). In the case of ethnic restaurants, this might mean that customers think that “two Chinese restaurants of the same name located in two different places with obviously different physical settings, menu items, and attendants’ dressing” (Lu, Gursoy & Lu, 2015, p. 37) are equally authentic, as the customers might think the restaurants represent different parts of China’s culture (Lu, Gursoy & Lu, 2015).

Finally, post-modernists believe that “authenticity is not about whether something is real or staged, original or replicated […] but is about how much an enjoyable illusion it creates” (Lu, Gursoy & Lu, 2015, p. 37). From their perspective, consumers, themselves post-modern, “are not likely to judge the authenticity of their experiences based on the objective criteria but based on their emotional experiences” (Lu, Gursoy & Lu, 2015, p. 37), meaning they “will still perceive a restaurant as authentic if what they see, what they eat, and how they feel are concurrent with their desired emotions or experiences” (Lu, Gursoy & Lu, 2015, p. 37).

The Role of Authenticity in the Restaurant Industry

One of the first instances in which the authenticity of food and restaurants entered the public discourse was in 1972, when author and cook Diana Kennedy released her book ‘The Cuisines of Mexico’, in which she distinguished between authentic Mexican cuisine and the adapted Mexican cuisine, referred to by Kennedy as ‘Tex-Mex’[1], served in many Mexican restaurants in the United States at the time (Gaytán, 2008). Since then, the term authentic, in the United States as well as other places, has generally been used to described ethnic food (e.g. Chinese, Mexican, Italian) that appears to not have been adapted to local tastes and circumstance, such as the unavailability of ingredients, and instead has been prepared the way it would have been in the various countries and regions of origin (Lu & Fine, 1995) as well as restaurants that serve such authentic food and have what is perceived to be the appropriate atmosphere (Gaytán, 2008). 

A problem associated with this perspective on authenticity in restaurants and food is that it generally does not leave room for a broader interpretation of any specific cuisine based on its gastronomical traditions rather than on individual applications. An example of this is ‘chop suey’, a popular American-Chinese dish named after a category of Chinese dishes prepared with the cooking method ‘chao’ or ‘stir fry’ (Chen, 2017). The dish is “widely regarded as an American invention by both Chinese and non-Chinese observers” (Chen, 2017), despite the fact that “as a cooking method […] chop suey has been a defining and unifying element of Chinese cuisine, used in different regions across China since the Song dynasty” (Chen, 2017). This perspective on authenticity in restaurants and food furthermore requires a static understanding of culture, whereas in reality “the culture of any […] group is in continual flux” (Lu & Fine, 1995, p. 538) and influenced by external changes (Lu & Fine, 1995). Similarly, McArdle (2017) points out that “most of the foods we think of as ‘authentic’ are of relatively recent vintage” (McArdle, 2017) and that one “wouldn't want to eat like a European peasant of yesteryear, or a Chinese peasant, either” (McArdle, 2017). I thus acknowledges that adapted ethnic cuisines, e.g. ‘Tex-Mex’ and the American-Chinese cuisine,  might well be perceived as authentic in their own right, but for the purpose of this essay, authentic is used to describe ethnic food that appears to not have been adapted to local tastes and circumstances, as this is the common perspective among consumers, as has been addressed previously. 

Adapted ethnic cuisines and the restaurants that serve it have long been dominant in the United States (Lu & Fine, 1995; Chen, 2017). The American-Chinese cuisine, for example, goes back as far as the early 1900s, and has developed in reaction to local circumstances, ranging from the unavailability of ingredients (Lu & Fine, 1995; Chen, 2017) to a negative image of authentic Chinese food shaped by “racist notions of dirtiness, foreignness, and a fundamental incompatibility with civilized, American values and palates” (Kim, 2017, p. 37). Although “the popularity of Americanized Chinese food came at the cost of obscuring ‘real’ Chinese food” (Kim, 2017, p. 37), restaurants serving this adapted cuisine, often at a low price, have been a collective success story, providing a path towards more prosperity for many Chinese immigrants and families (Chen, 2017). However, in many cases, this focus on apparently inauthentic, often cheap food also came, and still comes, at the cost of “authentic self-expression” (Li, 2019), as “many young immigrant chefs faced with the daunting task of opening restaurants […] choose to replicate recognizable food and other cultural stereotypes for their diners’ comfort” (Li, 2019). Furthermore, this “limited conception of immigrant cuisines constrains chefs’ ability to achieve creative fulfillment, operate ethical businesses and garner the high status usually reserved for European restaurants” (Li, 2019). A growing group of restaurateurs and chefs however, among them newly arrived immigrants as well as second and third-generation Americans, decide to take a different path and serve food they consider to be authentic, across all price categories (Kim, 2017; Tran, 2007). To illustrate, in his speech at the ‘National Immigrant Integration Conference (NIIC) 2016: We the People’ in Nashville, restaurateur, author and TV personality Eddie Huang (2016) said the following: 

‘Eddie, immigrants can't sell anything full price in America’, my father said. My Name is Eddie Huang, I was born in America, my ancestors are from China, and my parents were born in Taiwan. I sell Taiwanese gua bao for full fucking price in America.

One can thus say that there is a growing desire for authenticity not just among customers, but also among proprietors and chefs. As has been hinted at previously, this shift towards authenticity has a variety of potential upsides, among them more critical respect (Kim, 2017), more room for “authentic self-expression” (Li, 2019), more innovation and creativity, and more diverse offerings (Li, 2019). As Eddie Huang (2016b) says, “I've opened Baohaus and I cook food because I'm telling a story about identity”. As Kim put is, the shift towards authenticity “marks a sea change from times when foreign foods were looked on with suspicion” (Kim, 2017, p. 38).

Nevertheless, the shift towards authenticity has also been associated with a number of potential problems and downsides. As has been addressed previously, the very meaning of the term authenticity is ambiguous, and there a variety a problem associated with the common perspective on authenticity in food and restaurants, such as a static understanding of culture (Lu & Fine, 1995). Furthermore, given its ambiguity, it is arguable if authenticity is even a workable categorization, as some “cultural analysts […] claim that authenticity is a discursive strategy for sociopolitical ends and that, at best, it is a matter of degree” (Lu & Fine, 1995, p. 538). Beyond semantics however, there are a number of more concrete issues worth addressing.

For instance, according to Gaytán, “the insistence on authentic cuisine not only implies the existence of inauthentic food, but reveals the ubiquity of self-assertions that affirm and appropriate the cultural expressions of people from different ethnic backgrounds” (Gaytán , 2008, p. 318). Therefore, the desire for gastronomical authenticity, “while always rooted in cultural and socio-economic assumptions, ‘carries real colonizing attitudes and implications’ that too easily essentialize certain ethnic groups” (Gaytán, 2006, p. 318). Similarly, now that “the very exoticness of Asia has become the most appealing quality of its food”, (Kim, 2017, p. 38), Kim (2017, p. 38) asks “how does the fetishization of authenticity vis-à-vis cuisine grapple with problematic histories of glamorizing the mysticism and inherent foreignness of Asia?”. This essentializing of ethnic groups negatively effects creativity and expression and strengthens “the notion that some groups of people are more ‘exotic’ and ‘ethnic’ than others” (Gaytán, 2006, p. 318). What consumers looking for authentic food “really want is a replica, ‘a true copy of our expectations’ - some platonic ideal of what a dish should taste like” (Godoy, 2016). This “definition of authenticity that can trap the immigrant cook in very narrow expectations” (Godoy, 2016). Whereas creativity and expression were therefore previously potentially being stifled by customers’ unwillingness to eat unadapted ethnic food, they are now potentially being stifled by customer notions of what makes ethnic food authentic. To illustrate, in the context of pizza and the discussions of authenticity surrounding it, restaurateur, author and TV personality David Chang (cited in Nguyen, 2018) says the following about authenticity in food:

I view authenticity like a totalitarian state. It’s something that I think has been overvalued, but in reality, it hasn’t been scrutinized enough. It’s not that I hate authenticity, it’s that I hate that people want this singular thing that’s authentic.

Similarly, through studying Yelp reviews for restaurants located in New York City, Kay identified that the term authenticity tends to put ethnic restaurants at a disadvantage. According to Kay, “the average Yelp reviewer connotes ‘authentic’ with characteristics such as dirt floors, plastic stools, and other patrons who are non-white when reviewing non-European restaurants” (Kay, 2019), whereas “when talking about cuisines from Europe, the word ‘authentic’ instead gets associated with more positive characteristics” (Kay, 2019). These tendencies also apply to how the reviewers describe the staff, as reviewers not only “talk about non-Western workers differently, but the difference is racist, rude, and frightfully mimicking of other supremacist trends on the internet and in American life” (Kay, 2019). The restaurants most affected by this are Mexican and Chinese and restaurants, according to Kay (2019). This is also reflected in the final scores of the various restaurants, as ethnic restaurants’ scores profit from being seen as authentic, but at the same time suffer due to the negative connotations associated with authenticity (Kay, 2019). Therefore, “while it might seem good to label restaurants as authentic, the usage of the term builds an authenticity trap where reviews reinforce harmful stereotypes that then become nearly impossible for restaurateurs to shake off” (Kay, 2019). To illustrate, Kay (2019) writes:

Bringing in newer decor, sourcing local produce, charging higher prices, or taking creative liberty with a menu might allow non-Western restaurants and cuisines to compete in the larger dining landscape. But then, the restaurant might not meet the expectations of diners who expect authenticity in the ‘correct’ way. Many restaurants end up losing either way: stay ‘gaudy’ and authentic, and receive lower ratings; or update and be ‘not authentic’, and receive lower ratings.

Therefore, as Peterson writes, “authenticity ascribed through group membership can be a cruel trap” (Peterson, 2005, p. 1087).

Conclusion and Recommendations

Consumer desire for authenticity in food, although in many ways questionable as a concept, has become a crucial force in the restaurants industry, especially for ethnic restaurants. This development, which partly shifted the focus from ethnic restaurants that serve adapted cuisines to restaurants that serve seemingly authentic versions of their cuisines, has been freeing for some chefs and restaurateurs, as it allowed them, among other things, to express their true selves. However, for others, it has simply changed design of the box into which they are forced by mainstream, often white consumers, from one that pressures them to serve adapted versions of their cuisines that leave little room for self-expression, to one that leaves them with the choice to “stay ‘gaudy’ and authentic, and receive lower ratings; or update and be ‘not authentic’, and receive lower ratings” (Kay, 2019), which is no choice at all. As Gaytan writes, the way consumers perceive and judge authenticity, especially in the context of ethnic food, can have “real-world implications that illustrate the limits and constraints that less powerful populations face in the marketplace - especially when it comes to accessing the conditions that enable the production and consumption of their identities” (Gaytán, 2008, p. 338).

Authenticity has thus become a double-edged sword. Given that, it is my opinion that it is time that consumers reexamine their understanding of the term authenticity in the context of food and restaurants and become aware of their biases associated with it, as the status quo has become yet another trap for many people. Until then, I suggest that mainstream consumers as well as uninformed critics should make an effort to refrain from judging the authenticity of ethnic food and restaurants, especially publicly.

~

Footnotes:

[1]‘Tex-Mex’ may also refer to a hybrid-cuisine originating in Texas (Pruitt, 2015) but in this essay is used as a shorthand for a version of Mexican cuisine that has been adapted to American tastes and circumstances, in line with Diana Kennedy’s definition.

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