Bon Appetit just put out a viral new video, highlighting the work of a chef-owner…and, in the process, nearly wrecking his career. The chef is Tyler Akin—a bro with a five o’clock shadow and a telegenic soft-spoken demeanor who looks like he could totally hang out with you at a frat house kegger but totally object to the widespread non-prescription abuse of rohypnol. The food is Vietnamese pho—the food of my people—that bowl of hot noodle soup that is the cure-all for a night of regrettable decisions and hang-over.
The schtick is simple. Pho was billed by BA as the next trendy food item—the new ramen. Tyler Akin was supposed to lay down the law—the method, the process, the sequence of gestures—with which you genuflect before the bowl of steaming goodness.
But the video went viral for all the wrong reasons. Viewers—not just Asian viewers—savaged poor Tyler Akin. He was appropriating. He was Columbusing. It was food-gentrification—the take-over of the culinary Sesame Street by NPR liberals and their SUV strollers. For those who have witnessed this phenomenon before–with ribs and tacos and fried chicken–the entire disaster that was the BA video was all too familiar.
The video was brought to my attention by a childhood friend—a nice Jewish boy who wanted to know if this was appropriation? If the restauranteur was overstepping? If it was kosher? So after much deliberation, I wrote him a much-too-long note and I will distill it for you: First, I would assess Tyler Akin’s advice and look at it for what it truly is. Second, I would make a distinction between Tyler and the ways that he is framed.
From where I sit, Tyler’s pronouncements are actually not that terrible. It may be offensive to Vietnamese people who really know how to consume pho and don’t need a white boy’s advice. But his advice is pretty okay: take a sip first, try not to load down the soup with sauce. Some of his advice is crazy and would get you quite literally slapped: use a shit-ton of limes or twirl your chopsticks like a barbarian. This is genuinely crazy-talk and I would stop listening to any self-procalimed “expert” if they talked like this.
But I probably wouldn’t condemn him to the third rung of a fiery Guantanamo. And over-all, I’ve heard variations on this advice before—advice that has been repeated in iterations by the likes of the bestselling cookbook author, Andrea Nguyen, who is not only a specialist in Vietnamese food but a bestselling author who is about to come out with a book dedicated exclusively to the national dish, pho.
Still, there are some problems with his advice, not so much for its content but for its provenance: I know exactly where Tyler got his information. He got it from Andrea Nguyen. He is basically reciting the exact advice—in the exact sequence—that Andrea Nguyen gives about eating pho in a widely read article (except for that crazy talk about the limes and chopstick). How do I know? I’ve read Andrea Nguyen’s work and I have a Ph.D. in literature…so I have an eye for things like intertextuality. And I have a nose for plagiarism because, you know, my bread and butter was sending kids to the Dean for just this kind of shenanigan.
Don’t get me wrong: What Tyler Akin did is not plagiarism. The food-bro is simply reciting what others have said before him. And what has been said before him doesn’t need attribution, because this is general knowledge. And it is subject to Fair Use.
But the problem with Tyler’s advice is that it’s not theoretically sophisticated. It’s an oversimplification and a distillation…and it loses its nuance. For example, an outsider might explain to you about the broad outlines of kosher but somebody immersed in the traditions might explain more systematically the logic behind the restrictions. Andrea Nguyen, for instance, explains why you don’t add any sauce to the soup before you taste it: it clouds the soup; the purist tradition from which pho descends comes from the North of Vietnam where they are so persnickety, they don’t even add vegetables, let alone sauce; the soup is meant to be tasted at its very essence.
This is something that a connoisseur of pho—someone like Andrea Nguyen—knows and can explain. So Taylor, who mentions none of this, comes off as a frat boy teaching another frat boy moves—plays—that he can use to get some action on a date.
The larger issue for me is not poor Tyler who is really a pawn in the media game. It is Bon Appetit. Bon Appetit could have used any number of really great Vietnamese chefs, writers, critics to disseminate this message. Why not Andrea Nguyen, who has a masters and actually performed research in Asia about foodways and has several bestselling books on Vietnamese cuisine?
Why not Diep Tran, who comes from a Vietnamese family famous for her pho—a restauranteur who has been consistently named to Pulitzer Prize Winning Critic Jonathan Gold’s List of great places to eat?
These people are not only great chefs, they are highly educated. AND they not only speak amazing English but have stage presence. There are literally dozens of great chefs, restauranteurs, writers who are Ivy-League trained and fully capable of talking about the food.
But I think that ultimately, Tyler Akin was given the opportunity because of the optics: He is white and he makes the scary Asian food not-so-scary. Let’s face it: Everybody wants to look at a white guy—especially a white guy that looks like him. After all, you might seriously have drunk a foamy beer out of a red cup at a kegger with this charming rascal, and he would definitely have been your wingman. No doubt about it: that bro would tell you if some ass-hat slipped a funny pill in your boozy Natural Light.