This week I prepared a simple fried rice with some day-old rice, eggs, garlic, and nam pla. As I cooked, a memory arose of fixing a more elaborate version of the dish with my former co-worker Mark Harris. We worked together at IFTC, a subsidiary of financial software and services firm DST, nearly thirty years ago.
We worked at adjacent desks separated by low gray walls into a cluster of pods. Another team member, Anita, sat next to us. Mark and Anita were loud, sassy, and outspoken. They brought bold attitude into every conversation, whether discussing paperwork, dissing a customer’s complaint on the phone, or joking with each other.
As a shy Asian-American fresh out of college and inexperienced in the workforce, I couldn’t have been more different from Mark and Anita. They relished being obnoxious and outrageous as extroverts. Mark was a six-foot-tall African-American with a large frame, close-shaved head, and an expressive face. He threw frowns full of dissatisfaction like hatchets. Mark often raised one eyebrow to show surprise, disapproval, or doubt, or simply to convey a nonverbal challenge. Anita was tiny and scrappy, full of rapid-fire commentary, and unwilling to back down in a challenge.
As the newest member of the team, I was quiet and soft-spoken. I let their banter and tirades blow past while I learned the ropes of my customer service job. I laid low for the first two weeks, only asking questions to learn processes and procedures. Mark and Anita chatted, argued, sassed, joked, and slung slang like fastballs at each other while I listened. Their patience with my quietness, apparent lack of personality, and non-participation in their office antics soon ceased. They weren’t having it.
I was on a phone call one afternoon discussing an account with a customer. Mark grabbed a large paperclip and flung it at my head. His eyebrow raised, daring me to respond. Anita watched in anticipation. I felt the paperclip bounce off my forehead, recovered from the distraction, and finished the call. I looked at Mark with a mixture of irritation, surprise, and confusion. Who does that? How rude. Mark and Anita burst into laughter at my shocked expression.
“I just had to break the ice,” Mark said, staring me down with a wide grin. “You’re too quiet.”
Ice broken, I spoke up more, joined in their banter, and countered remarks with my own. I learned and adopted slang of the day, talking about hoopty cars and whatnot. We made up our own slang for the office and the world around us. We told stories about daily encounters that created shared bonds and inspired laughter. We understood each other better even though our background, music tastes, life perspective, and goals remained different.
Over time, Mark and I ate lunch together. We’d hop in his jeep, top down, and zip over to a fast food drive-through or take our packed lunch to the park. Anything to breathe fresh air and get out of the office on a nice day. The latest R&B hits from KPRS boomed on his stereo. Sometimes Mark would sing, crooning with delicacy and soul that ran counter to his bullish demeanor in the office.
Eventually, Mark took an interest in my dual culture background, being half-Thai, and my interest in cooking. I learned basic Thai dishes from my mom and also explored cooking while living on my own in college. As a young white-collar worker, I had no idea that I would pursue professional interests in cooking and writing about food years later.
Mark wanted to eat healthier and learn how to cook fried rice and stir-fry. I volunteered to show him how to cook. One day we bought groceries at the supermarket and took them back to his parents’ home in Kansas City east of the Plaza, if I recall. I steamed rice, sliced and prepped vegetables, and chatted with Mark in his parent’s kitchen. I’m sure they wondered what the heck this skinny guy was doing, but they didn’t interrupt us.
I was eager to show off my cooking skills and introduce Mark to an authentic Thai-style dish. I used freshly steamed rice instead of day-old rice so the grains were too wet and gummy. I added too many types of thinly-sliced vegetables to make the rice more colorful and add volume. The vegetables only added more moisture to the gummy rice. I used soy sauce instead of nam pla (fish sauce) for fear of stinking up the house and Mark’s unfamiliarity with its intense salty, fishy flavor. Working in an unfamiliar kitchen with another person’s pots and pans, I didn’t anticipate the different heat level of the stove or how the pan’s surface would stick. The result was a massive glob of sticky rice, soggy vegetables, and flavorless shrimp. To his credit, Mark didn’t bust my chops over the cooking disaster. We ate as much as we could. I never cooked my hoopty version of Thai food for him again. The subject of cooking never came up at work.
We remained friends and co-workers for another year or so. I left the company to begin a six-year run at Twentieth Century Mutual Funds until it transformed into American Century. Eventually, I left the mutual fund industry and corporate world to pursue an interest in cooking and becoming a chef. That led to another track, where I completed a master’s degree in writing and publishing from 2000-2002 at Emerson College in Boston. I incorporated my professional experience and personal interest in food into writing.
Once I left IFTC, I lost touch with Mark as he pursued his career path. I learned quite a bit professionally from Mark and Anita about working in a corporate office without losing your personality and identity. I experienced fresh perspectives on culture, slang, work, and living in Kansas City. Their lives were far different from my sheltered suburban upbringing and four years of college.
Even now, I remember Mark’s statement to Anita one afternoon. She was worried about some matter troubling her. Mark said, “Don’t be scared. Be aware.”
Simple but empowering. Rather than cower in fear, practice awareness. Listen, learn, and watch. Be informed and prepared as much as you can for life’s challenges and threats. I try to apply Mark’s words in situations that prompt a choice of being scared or aware.
And whenever I come across a large paperclip, I’m ready.
Are Yelp reviewers pushing white supremacist norms by their usage of “authenticity” in food and restaurant reviews? It’s an interesting, provocative question, considering that Yelp has amassed 17 million restaurant reviews from more than 30 different countries. Writer and researcher Sara Kay’s Eater article, Yelp Reviewers’ Authenticity Fetish Is White Supremacy in Action, draws startling, if dubious, conclusions.
Kay clarified her position with regard to Yelp’s 17 million reviews. She wrote, “Of course, not all of these reviews support white supremacy, or even mention authenticity.”
To reach her findings, Kay narrowed the scope of her study. She read and studied 20,000 Yelp reviews as part of her thesis as a master’s student at New York University in the Food Studies program.
Kay wrote: “I narrowed my data collection to reviews from New York, and focused my field even further by picking from Zagat’s top ten most popular cuisines in New York City: Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian, Korean, and Indian, adding Mediterranean and Soul food based on recent dining trends.”
To summarize, Kay’s study focused on 20,000 Yelp reviews based on ten cuisines confined to one city.
That’s a far cry from the generalization implied by the article’s clickbait title. Without reading further, the inference is that there’s notable white supremacy in play among Yelp reviewers in New York.
A second critique of the article, based on questionable research, is tethered to this admission.
“While I don’t know anything about the specific demographics of the reviewers I studied, trends in the reviews I read reflect some of the more troubling themes seen on the internet these days,” Kay wrote.
As such, Kay cannot reasonably conclude that reviewers’ comments are coming from white people or from any racial group in particular. Regardless of who the reviewers may be, she suggests that the reviews push white supremacist norms – a broad claim. Again, the author loosely extrapolates findings from a geo-specific study, based on Yelpers who are unidentified demographically.
Kay also asserts that her findings echo “themes” seen on the internet that are “frightfully mimicking of other supremacist trends on the internet and in American life.” Her cherry-picked link somehow conflates her assertions as similar to radical extremism on social media. Oh me, oh my. Who knew that writing a Yelp review was a gateway to white supremacy and echoed the tendencies of radical extremism?
Let’s dig deeper into Kay’s points.
She asserts that Yelp reviewers judge restaurants by “authenticity” and tend to put non-white restaurant owners in a trap. Either the owners keep their non-European food (i.e. Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese) cheap and therefore “authentic,” as deemed by the reviewer, or face the consequences of lower ratings and being decried as “inauthentic.”
Others have made similar observations in more eloquent, astute terms.
Krishnendu Ray notes, “When we seek authenticity from a star chef — say, Thomas Keller of the Michelin-starred restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se — what we really want is his signature, his individual creativity evinced through food, and we’re willing to shell out big bucks to get it.”
Ray elaborates that when diners demand authenticity from “ethnic” cuisine, what they really seek is a replica. In other words, “a true copy of our expectations––some platonic ideal of what a dish should taste like,” Ray says. “It’s a definition of authenticity that can trap the immigrant cook in very narrow expectations.”
Ray’s view certainly has merit; however, she approaches authenticity from a different angle from Kay’s position. Ray asserts that the economic value of authenticity is tethered to a star chef’s status and skill. We pay more because of the chef’s brand name and reputation. What’s unstated in Ray’s second quote is what value is assigned by diners to the “replica” of ethnic cuisine and what people are willing to pay for it.
Regarding Ray’s point, there’s false equivalency in the comparison between fine dining vs. “ethnic” cuisine. If the chef is producing top-level cuisine, regardless of its origins ethnic or otherwise, then diners bring a higher level of expectations to the table and are willing to pay for it.
It’s important to acknowledge the vast hierarchy between star chef, chef, and cook. The skill, creativity, and wow factor of a star chef’s work and reputation foster quite high expectations. No one realistically expects the same standards from a cook at a run-of-the-mill family or independent restaurant, whether the venue serves burgers, regional fare, or Chinese. Accordingly, it’s natural that the food and venue are evaluated by different standards than a fine-dining establishment and its star chef.
Circling back to Kay, she writes in her study of Yelp reviews:
“…when reviewers use ‘authentic,’ they put unfair expectations on restaurateurs to maintain a low set of standards for their establishment — much lower than any restaurant serving Western cuisines. The language directly supports a hierarchy where white, Western cuisine is allowed more creative latitude to expand, explore, and generate profits than its non-Western counterparts.
This conclusion begs examination of what is authentic, is there a consensus on authenticity, and who decides that standard with regard to food tied to a culture or tradition. From there, it also seems slippery to apply the term “authentic” and vague standards comparatively to “white, Western cuisine” that may or may not have any discernible ties to a culture or tradition. It also begs the question: What is considered white, Western cuisine? Does it make sense to compare a Yelper’s review of foods in this vague, broad category to foods from Mexico, China, and Vietnam, for example. with a more defined taste, appearance, tradition, and history?
Kay’s study and conclusions are problematic in its methodology, sample size, broad assumptions about the nature of authenticity, and how/why online reviewers use the term. Bandying about the term “white supremacy” in this study based on flimsy evidence in a poorly-constructed context is troublesome. Addressing white supremacy is absolutely worthy of examination to generate discussion and solutions. Making broad claims based on a bucket’s worth of reviews drawn from an online ocean of information is ludicrous.
I’ve been reading Buttermilk Grafitti, a food memoir by Edward Lee. Lee explores melting-pot cuisine across America. His writing deftly examines cities and communities and how immigrants and cultural forces shape a cuisine or local specialty. Lee shares anecdotes and conversations with chefs, cooks, restaurant owners, food enthusiasts, and passersby on his travels. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter, “The Palace of Pastami.”
Brian Shapiro, Shapiro’s Delicatessen, Indianapolis: “All the chefs these days are artists, and that’s fine, but then you have a restaurant linked to an individual, not a tradition. There will never be a restaurant that lasts one hundred years anymore. Chefs change their food depending on the trends. We don’t.”
Chef-author Edward Lee: “So there is no chef here?
Shapiro: “We don’t call them chefs. It is family recipes that are made by everyone. It speaks to the culture of the group, not an individual. If we persist in making food that is an individual expression, our restaurants will only last as long as the artist’s whim or the public’s attention span. This…” He gestures to the room. “This can go on forever.”
This passage sparked a lively conversation when I posted it on Facebook. For me, Shapiro doesn’t entirely discount the impact of chefs as artists who may adapt to trends. His primary point is that adhering to traditional recipes and preparation methods have been the key to his family’s kosher delicatessen over four generations.
Operating since 1905, Shapiro’s focuses on a specific culture and its foods. It makes sense to emphasize the consistency of preparation and quality over time. The pastrami sandwich, stuffed cabbage, matzo ball soup, and other dishes are standbys. They are tried-and-true touchstones for regular customers that have been patronizing Shapiro’s for years. These prepared foods upholding Jewish traditions are also a draw for tourists and food lovers seeking genuine tastes.
There’s something comforting in eating food like this. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken, whether it’s classic Italian-American cuisine based on family recipes brought from the old country or fried chicken that stands the test of time. Clearly, Shapiro’s has found a successful approach that pleases customers and generates profits. Otherwise, change would certainly happen if the business weren’t making money.
Underscoring Shapiro’s point, the focus centers on the food preparation more than the cook or chef making it. The culture of the group, the tradition of the family, whether tied to ethnicity or regional style, supersedes the influence of any one person.
A $6.95 Chinese buffet banner hangs above the front door. It is a tempting lure; however, that price applies to the lunch buffet. Later, the young woman behind the register said that a dinner buffet might be available in coming weeks. Meanwhile, I was hungry and curious to see what else Kim Son’s had to offer.
The menu offered both Chinese and Vietnamese dishes. In need of updating and reprinting, the menu has a number of items that are crossed out. I opted for #14, a Vietnamese dish made with ong choy and pork belly served with rice.
Ong choy is also known as morning glory, water spinach, and many other names. If you haven’t had ong choy, then seize the opportunity to eat a dish that features it. Ong choy is an oft-eaten staple in Thai and Vietnamese households. Abundant and available at Asian markets, inexpensive, and delicious, ong choy is also nutritious as a leafy green.
I haven’t seen the vegetable as an option in Vietnamese restaurants around Kansas City. Maybe I just haven’t noticed it. Regardless, this dish had a home-style cooking feel to it that made it more appealing.
I failed to jot down the Vietnamese name of the ong choy dish I ordered at Kim Son’s. The proper name of the dish is similar to rau muong xao toi, or ong choy stir-fried with garlic. The menu has options for at least two other dishes featuring ong choy besides pork belly, but I cannot recall whether it was catfish, chicken, or other protein. Odds are you can order a vegetarian dish of it that would also taste great.
The plant has a thin, long, and hollow stem and a slender triangular-shaped leaf when uncooked. Whether stir-fried or steamed, ong choy has the light taste of fresh leafy greens with no bitterness and a tender texture. Thin watery sauce in this dish added subtle sweetness and hint of salt. A wedge of lime squeezed onto the dish provided a suitable amount of acidity for balance.
Thin pieces of pork belly were mostly lightly rendered fat that added layers of flavor – a faint sourness reminiscent of cured Chinese pork sausage, a hint of sweet fatty bacon, umami, and salt.
Cooked ong choy is easy enough to eat with chop sticks. Transfer a mouthful from the main dish onto the rice mounded on a separate plate. Scoop underneath and guide the mouthful to its destination. A fork and spoon may make the handiwork easier for those not adept with chop sticks. Be sure to spoon some of the sauce from the plate onto the rice so it soaks up the combined flavors. Don’t waste a drop of sauce or grain of rice.
An order of ong choy with pork belly was an ample portion for one, but easily shared between two people. While the amount of pork belly wasn’t substantial, its contribution to the overall flavor of the dish was evident. Pork belly played a supporting role while ong choy shined as the star of the show.
Kim Son’s menu has plenty of other familiar Vietnamese dishes, including spring rolls, pho, and banh mi, as well as classic Chinese fare. If inclined, try some of the less-familiar selections. The prices are super affordable. My initial unplanned visit was rewarding enough to merit return trips and sample other dishes.
Beyond the Buffet
A final note on appearances.
Don’t venture to Kim Son’s for the decor or ambiance. Indoors, it is a colorful mishmash of low-key design and startup decor – think Las Vegas palace meets Chinatown meets restaurant makeover candidate. There’s an over-sized fish tank of goldfish trolling around in yellowish water. Even so, don’t expend effort knocking the venue for its looks. After all, it takes a lot of $6.95 lunch buffets to cover overhead.
Here’s what I’m saying: Go for the food and simplicity of the experience.
There’s something delightful and understated about a suburban Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant in the sleepy nook known as Gladstone. The city’s modest civic revival hasn’t quite reached every shopping strip and parking lot filled with more pools of amber light than vehicles on a quiet weekday winter evening. With luck and time, joints like Kim Son’s and other Vietnamese restaurants and eateries in nearby Gladstone Plaza will find a growing audience for their food and drink. Kim Son’s has homestyle appeal with potential for growth. Hopefully, that sidesteps the formulaic offerings of a chain restaurant, an all-out dumbing down an “ethnic” eatery to accommodate timid diners, and hip takes on classic cuisine that render its spirit impotent.
On the other hand, if you want a large volume of assorted food at a cheap price point, Kim Son’s will gladly welcome you to its buffet, too.
These restaurants seem like the kind of modest venue that the late Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, might explore. Famous or not, the intent is not to be a foodie prima donna or a colonist, who “discovers” or denounces a “find” based on self-appointed criteria and standards. Instead, try savoring a single unfamiliar dish. See if it stands out from the usual array of greatest hits that normally constitute menus in Asian restaurants. Meet the food, culture, and experience on its own terms. Enjoy the detour.
You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you. The scent of smoke from wild plum, oak, grapevine, and lavender clings to my skin, my hair, and my clothes. Smoke hangs on with persistence, a ghost that lingers, a presence that is intangible but most certainly there.
As the chef and brand/event manager at Fence Stile Vineyard and Winery, I spent the afternoon preparing ingredients for a farm and market-themed wine and small plates dinner taking place on November 18th in the Tasting Room. Near a pond with a slushy iced surface, I built a small fire to grill radishes and smoke leeks sourced from farmers Tom Ruggieri and Rebecca Graff at Fair Share Farm, based in Kearney, Missouri. I used wild plum wood obtained from farmer Linda Hezel at Prairie Birthday Farm, also based in Kearney, and oak and grapevine from the winery estate. A single piece of oak formed the foundation of the fire. Smaller pieces of wood tilted at angles on both sides of the oak like church rafters. Brisk November wind blew across the pond and fanned a flame. Kindling shriveled into glowing orange threads and ash. Soon the fire roared as wood crackled and hissed.
The upcoming wine and food dinner highlights ingredients and products from Fair Share Farm and Prairie Birthday Farm. Also, Dr. Janet Smith of Borgman’s Dairy Farm, based in Holden, Missouri, supplied milk, cheese, yogurt and other products made from goat milk.
Several varieties of French-American hybrid grapes grow along ten hilly acres that surround the tasting room at Fence Stile. Owner-winemaker Shriti Plimpton launched the winery and vineyards nearly ten years ago. The winery is known for its dry and semi-dry wines, but has a wide range for those with sweeter palates. The upcoming dinner is an opportunity to offer a showcase for how three wines produced onsite – Vignoles, Backpack Red, and Vidal Blanc – pair with seasonal farm ingredients prepared to their utmost flavor.
Vineyard manager Shawna Mull tends to the vines year-round. Sometimes, a section of vine runs its course. Cut into small segments, this particular dry, dead grapevine in the heart of the fire had no more life to give as a lifeline for grape clusters. Burning vine and wood produced smoke that enveloped the bulbs of radishes with leafy greens still attached and a cluster of leeks thick as metal pipes.
You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you.
The wind shifted and smoke blew past my face, prompting my eyes to water. The smoke sent a signal, a reminder. Smoke and fire heeds its own whims and acts as its own master. I attempted to coax the smoke to lend its scent to vegetables on the grill. I tried to tame orange licks of flame to do by bidding. I poked and prodded and fed the fire’s appetite. Flames subsided into coals and smoke wafted at a steady pace, dancing around the radishes and leeks.
Slowly, the bright magenta skin of the radishes dulled and charred with black flakes. Most of the greens had burned away. Removed from the grill, the radishes more closely resembled baby red potatoes cooked directly in a fire. Grilling the radishes mellows its sharp peppery bite and introduces a soft sweetness. The subtle taste and aroma of smoke will interplay with the sweetness, a tart dash of lemon juice, creamy butter, and a dash of salt to unite the flavors.
The leeks grilled until they softened and charred at the edges. Once the coals were ready, I added stalks of dried lavender from Fence Stile’s flower bed to further perfume the smoke dancing around the leeks. After sufficient smoking, I plucked the leeks from the grill, doused the coals, and headed to the kitchen.
The leeks and radishes are only some of the produce received from Fair Share Farm. They also provided pristine small salad turnips with ivory skin and lush plumes of green leaves. I trimmed the greens and set them aside. They will be sauteed in a pan with Chinese broccoli and served with spelt, a rustic grain similar to farro. Salted and buttered grilled radishes will accompany the greens and spelt. I roasted the trimmed turnips with garlic cloves in the oven until they were tender, sweet gems.
After paring the charred tough outer skin of the leeks, I cut them into long strips and then chopped them into smaller pieces. The scent and taste of smoke on the leeks seemed to aggressive. Not only would it compete with the other flavors in the dish, it would overwhelm the wine pairing with Backpack Red. This light-bodied, dry red blend of Chambourcin and Norton offered a hint of pepper and earthiness on the finish. Bold smoke would wrestle and dominate the wine, altering the balance of the sweet, salty, earthy and smoky flavors.
I tucked the chopped leek into a food processor and pureed the contents. A light cloud of steam and smoke arose. Perhaps the leeks could become a sauce for oven-roasted turnips? Ransacking the refrigerator, I selected a jar of creamy goat milk yogurt from Borgman’s Dairy. Slowly, I spooned dollops of yogurt and sprinkled a bit of salt into the leeks and whipped them further. The leeks transformed into a creamy, thick sauce that still bore a hint of smoke. The savory, smoky sauce will provide suitable balance for sweet, earthy turnips.
Slowly, the various components of this dish, one of three, were coming together.Once assembled, plated and served, this melange of smoked, roasted and sauteed vegetables and grain should work in harmony. The goal is to stimulate the senses, appease the appetite, and illustrate how Backpack Red tastes with a variety of flavors while holding its own.
Other small plate dishes for the Farm and Market meal include a sweet potato, ginger, and turmeric samosa with curry goat’s milk yogurt sauce (paired with Vignoles). Dessert will be honey and apple sweet grits topped with Fence Stile blackberry compote and goat’s milk caramel sauce (paired with Vidal Blanc).
Smoking is one technique used to impart flavor and aroma to food. Its scent and taste connect with the primal parts of our brain and ancient appetites that learned how smoke adds character to food and drink consumed. Even when curls of smoke have dissipated, the aroma of smoke is a remnant of wood and vine that grew over years, served its purpose, and continues on its journey in an intangible form. Smoke is ethereal yet real like the memory of a remarkable meal or bottle of wine that makes a lasting impression long after the last bit and sip.
You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you. It sends a signal from past to present before continuing on for those ready to receive.