Danny Bowien’s Post-Authentic Asian America

By Leland Tabares

In a recent interview, James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Danny Bowien admits that if he were to create authentic diasporic Asian food, he would be making “Hamburger Helper” and “buttery canned vegetables.”

A Korean adoptee of a white middle-class family who grew up in Oklahoma, Bowien shows the relationship between food and diasporic identity to be messy when it comes to authenticity. For instance, he never tasted Korean food until he left Oklahoma for San Francisco at the age of nineteen and never formally trained to cook Chinese food prior to opening his now famous Mission Chinese Food restaurant. Discourses on authenticity do not readily account for ethnic narratives like Bowien’s. Indeed, he considers himself “the least authentic chef.” Influenced by his unique background, Bowien sees the current culinary world as what he calls “post-authentic,” defined more by “credibility” than “heritage.”

Bowien’s notion of the post-authentic becomes legible through a recent collaboration with the Arizona Beverage Company. The New York-based company, known for their AriZona Iced Tea line and intentionally gaudy 1990s aesthetic, partnered with Bowien to create a special one-time menu using AriZona beverages as the primary ingredients. This brand deal was organized in 2019 as a pop-up event held at the Brooklyn outfit of Mission Chinese Food.

Image Credit: AriZona Iced Tea

The “Great Buy” menu—a reference to AriZona’s “Great Buy! 99 Cents” tagline—featured two entrées, a dessert, and a cocktail. They included, respectively: Mucho Mango Fried Rice, Smoked Green Tea Chicken Noodles, Grapeade Ambrosia, and Green Tea Ginsenger. The 99-cent price point for the dessert paid homage to the tall 99-cent AriZona Iced Tea cans popularized in the 1990s and early-2000s.

Image Credit: AriZona Iced Tea

To many in the culinary establishment, the notion that a chef would monetize his menu is antithetical to the profession’s values around creative freedom. Celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio, Michael Symon, and Marco Pierre White have partnered with brands like Coke, Lay’s, and Knorr. But none had brought a sponsored product into their restaurants. Famed food writer Pete Wells of The New York Times equated the event to Bowien selling a brand “access to [diners’] heads.” Bobby Flay publicly condemned Bowien, saying that he would “never take a product and force it into [his] menu” because such an act desecrates the “sacred” nature of a chef’s menu.[i] The backlash to Bowien’s collaboration would appear to have damaged his credibility, a devastating irony for a chef who places credibility at the forefront of the post-authentic. But Bowien remains as popular as ever.

What the collaboration makes visible has less to do with Bowien and more to do with the culinary establishment. It reveals how industry norms gatekeep minoritized chefs who prepare nontraditional foods, demonstrating how access to credibility is unequally distributed. As I have written elsewhere, Bowien represents an emerging generation of misfit chefs whose nontraditional approaches to professionalism literally and symbolically mis-fit within the industry. Acts of mis-fitting expose how industry norms render some chefs unfit for professional belonging. Professional norms thus play direct roles in the formation and regulation of culinary authenticity and identity. Bowien realizes as much when, in response to the criticism, he explains, “I believe in breaking the system that says a certain type of cuisine or price point should be frowned on.”

Bowien’s notion of the post-authentic then does not do away with identity, as if identity no longer matters. In fact, he indicates that identity is essential to the post-authentic: “Identity definitely interests me. I feel like today it’s all about identity.” Rather than using terms like inauthentic or nonauthentic, terms that might signal a refusal or avoidance of engaging with authenticity, Bowien employs post-authentic to highlight the important (and often damaging) ways that the restaurant industry’s professional norms—norms that place value in Western Anglo-European food traditions—not only contribute to the production of authenticity but also commodify and exploit minoritized cultures in the process.

By monetizing his menu, Bowien asserts control over the means of commodifying his Asian Americanness. In the fashion world, streetwear culture popularized brand collaborations between industry elites and smaller independent businesses. Bowien draws inspiration from these collaborations because they challenge the ideologies that separate so-called high and low culture. “Look at fashion,” Bowien explains, “how brands are doing collaborations with other brands. There’s this old guard that says you have to be haute couture or you’re not one of us: you have to do your haute couture first, then you can do your street-wear line. I’ve played that game [in the food world] and tried to do what made everyone else happy, but I wasn’t happy.”[ii]

Bowien’s collaboration with AriZona turns the tables back on the culinary establishment to insist that a menu composed of mass-produced commodities and branded content not only emblematizes an authentic contemporary American dining experience, but also illustrates the degree to which culture industries—from fine dining to advertising—produce and regulate notions of authenticity. For Bowien, the post-authentic is a critical accounting of these processes of cultural regulation by capitalist industries. Rather than refuse to participate, Bowien leans in to assert his own agency and individualism amid the system: “I believe that what I’m doing is good. I want to be myself.”[iii]


References:

[i] Qtd. in Wells, Pete. “This Menu Is Brought to You by Arizona Iced Tea,” 7 May 2019.

[ii] Qtd. in Birdsall, John. “Chef Danny Bowien doesn’t care that you have a problem with his Arizona Iced Tea deal,” 10 May 2019.

[iii] Ibid., Birdsall.