When Does Inspiration From A Culture Become Appropriation?

I very recently had a conversation that went a bit like this (paraphrasing and keeping names / cultures out):

  • Friend – I saw you post about the opening and jobs at XYZ Bar.
  • Me – Yeah, it sounds like a great opportunity, do you want me to connect you?
  • Friend – No, I don’t want to work there. I want to know if they are partnered or consulting with anyone from the XYZ cultural community.

This is how the topic of cultural appropriation in the bar world and the growing concerns were entered the forefront of my mind and now that it is there, I can’t seem to shake it.  As someone who strives to do the work and be a positive force for progress in the hospitality community, the  the realization that I am not educated enough on the topic to actually speak on it really strike me hard. It is a topic that has been heavily addressed in everything from food to fashion, so it is only natural that we discuss it in the bar and beverage world as well.

As the bar community has become tremendously globally connected through pop-ups, guest shifts, brand tours, FAM trips and the like, many in our industry has been afforded the privilege of traveling the world.  Along with these opportunities is the precious honor of experiencing the local culture and getting a glimpse inside the lives of the local people. Naturally, connecting with locals with a deep passion for hospitality, food, beverage and bars is often a top priority.

So as travel becomes not only a perk but an essential part of our education, it is a big part of the life of someone in the bar industry.  In turn, it is only natural that life experience will shape our inspiration when it comes to business ideas in hospitality concepting.  However, the question that we need to ask is when does inspiration cross the line into appropriation of another culture?

Traveling to Japan and getting inspired by ice programs, going to Cuba and falling in love with their rum Daiquiri styles and experiencing Oaxaca then wanting to bring Mezcal culture to another city are fairly common in the bar world; I am sure you can rattle off several highly celebrated concepts for each example.  Is that the same as going to an amusement park and getting served a stein of beer by a fifth generation Italian American server wearing Lederhosen as work uniform?  What about going to Benihana and being served teppanyaki by a cook that clearly is not Japanese?  How about so much on the Las Vegas Strip?  And are we adding to a problem by going to these places?  Where is the line between costume and faking as opposed to studying and honoring culture in the bar world?

There is a well-known (official) drinking game at Epcot called “Drinking Around the World” where you get a drink at each of the eleven pavilions that represent a different country.  Many in the industry have completed this challenge and I myself have publicly stated that I want to do it.  Am I wrong?  Are these people in uniforms (costumes?) no better than the Kardashians taking  styles from Black culture?  Is Rick Bayless wrong for being a white man whose culinary stardom was earned from cooking food that is not from his culture?  What is inspiration and what is straight up theft?

My point is to engage in a challenging conversation so that I can learn, even as I struggle to spark the conversation and fully recognize that this is a vague op-ed. However, I don’t feel educated enough to be a champion here. My mother was born in Puerto Rico and that is a predominant culture that I was raised with and so I love seeing Coquito on any holiday pop up menu, but I certainly wouldn’t be enthused if someone who cheered on Trump as he threw paper towels post-Maria suddenly got famous for mass producing & marketing it.

Just this week, I halted an article about a major bar opening with very notable personalities because of a concern on this topic.  But how do I handle this moving forward as it is my business to report on bar openings?  What is the best way to handle socially and ethically to make sure that a bar is up to a standard that we have not created?  Many of my friends work in, own or operate bars that “borrow” from other cultures and I have happily supported these bars. Now I just have so many questions.

I actively trying to educate myself and  have conversations with those whom I trust to help guide me. Although I  have made the commitment to listen and learn, I have a fear of stumbling through all of the gray areas and I encourage anyone to engage with my privately and publicly on the matter.  The challenge will be not jumping to defend ourselves, our friends and our employers, but to rather work together to collectively draw and recognize the delicate lines between inspiration and appropriation.

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