A Cook Explains Why 'Inauthentic' Menu Items Are Inevitable

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

After following Oberlin’s “culinary appropriation” debate a working cook sent these insights:

I thought a cook’s perspective would be important for this discussion. Below I have tried to outline what an impossible task it would be to try and make regionally authentic cuisine for everyone on campus. I am a cook and not great at expressing myself so please let me know if I missed anything.

The most important quality any Chef can have is the ability to limit waste and reuse food as something else. This is why cafeterias serve Sloppy Joes after Salsbury Steak and why your favorite French bistro serves bouillabaisse after running a fish special. Although authenticity is certainly something to strive for, we search for pragmatic solutions to problems, not idyllic ones. Making something out of nothing is not only an economic reality, it is possibly the oldest and most universal culinary tradition.

I currently work at a Piedmont-style Italian restaurant. The Chef lived and worked for several years in Piedmont before returning to open this restaurant. We have been written up in several national publications and, as far as I can tell, the food is not only delicious but what you might call “authentic.”  

Several months ago, we had an excess of dried pasta. Normally we would use this for family meal, but we had enough that Chef felt comfortable using it for a special. He ended up baking the pasta into a casserole with sausage, fontina cheese, and eggs. It was delicious. I can only describe it as halfway between a quiche and a lasagna. We spent half an hour trying to decide what to call it (it’s hard to write “lasagna/quiche casserole?” on a fine dining menu.) We ended up calling it a Patstitso, which it probably was not. It sold well, and as I said, it was delicious, but I can’t imagine it was an authentic representation of Italian culture.

I recently worked at a high-end British Pub-style restaurant. We had a Curry night every Tuesday that featured a different curry every week. From a food cost perspective it was a disaster. Our dry storage section was overstuffed with ingredients that had been used once and never used again. This restaurant is now closed, in part because of their inability to manage food costs. If this is a problem in a 100-seat restaurant, that problem is magnified in a school cafeteria. Catering companies need to buy products (in bulk) that can be used every day of the week. There is very little space in a budget or in the kitchen itself for speciality products. This is just a reality. The margin for error in the food service industry is very slim.  Your success is based on your ability to turn pulled pork into bánh mi.

Its important to note that “authenticity” is not a lightswitch you can just turn on and off, and it’s disrespectful to assume it is that easy. People train for many years to learn and understand a specific culinary tradition. I’m very lucky to work for a Chef who was able to travel the world in pursuit of his passion. Very few Chefs have the means and the drive to travel across the world in pursuit of culinary authenticity. Those that do, I would guess, very rarely decide to work in a university cafeteria. We can all agree that food should be good, and if possible, it should be authentic. The reality is not as simple. This food has to be sourced, it has to be stored, it has to be cooked, and it has to be served safely (making sure the food is sanitary is in my opinion, a much higher priority.)

I’ve tried to be reasonable about all this because I think on the whole, these college kids are probably well intentioned, if a little naive. But if I can address them personally I would say this: In order to go to culinary school I worked two kitchen jobs. In the morning I worked at a shitty salad bar called “Tossibilities.” My job consisted predominantly of apologizing to older white women for our lack of ripe avocados (this was Canada, in the winter). At night I worked at a Greek catering company as a dishwasher. The food was not great, it was mostly frozen spanakopita and pre made baclava. It is very hard work to make food for 600 people, much less an entire university. Most of the decisions are made pragmatically. Do we have the time to make Baclava for 600 people? Do we have anyone who knows how to make Spanakopita? No and no.

The food was not particularly great, but I worked from 10 AM till 4AM some days so I could afford to go to culinary school. Cooks are overworked, underpaid, understaffed and generally overwhelmed. We do the best we can under the circumstances, even at high-end restaurants.  I guess the point I’m trying to make is that if someone had come into my kitchen on one of those nights and complained that the authenticity of the food had offended them personally, I would have tried to knock their goddamn teeth out with a frying pan. That’s real talk.