Eddie Huang is notoriously outspoken, opinionated, and sometimes downright cutthroat. So when we heard he had written a review on Marcus Samuelsson‘s new memoir Yes, Chef for the New York Observer, we knew the piece was bound to be anything but neutral. Turns out Huang is not a fan of Samuelsson nor of his Harlem restaurant endeavor, calling the business “an embarrassing exercise in condescension” for its (according to Huang) failed attempts at paying homage to the historic neighborhood. Huang doesn’t like the food either, for its flavor (he calls the dirty rice “tepid” and the cornbread stale) or its price, which he believes out of sync with neighborhood values (“Who in Harlem pays $28 for chicken?!”). He finds Samuelsson overly concerned with a downtown clientele and removed from what Huang considers the real needs and desires of the Harlem community.
But many Harlem residents who commented on the article stepped up to defend Samuelsson, praising him for bringing an upscale establishment to an area formerly lacking. In response to Huang’s incredulous reaction to the price of Samuelsson’s chicken, one commenter remarked that “Tourists [pay that kind of money] and many Harlem residents do as well. Why? Not because the food is intrinsically worth $28, but we would happily spend that $28… in our own neighborhood than go downtown and pay $28 for uni foam and ice cream that looks like bagels.”
Others criticized Huang for forwarding a romanticized stereotype of Harlem. Huang himself blames Samuelsson for doing the same. It seems Huang may have bitten off more than he could chew, attempting to argue against Red Rooster on cultural and racial terms too big to tackle in an editorial.
This controversy follows on the heels of a recently published piece that discussed “authentic” food and questioned whether or not chefs have the ability or the right to cook food from others’ cultures. Food has always been a reflection of and a statement about the places we come from and the people we are, often making it a sensitive matter that deals with issues of race, class, and culture. Does Huang have the right to criticize Samuelsson’s operation? Sure. He can write whatever he likes, and historically has. Is he right in stating that Red Rooster is out of touch and doesn’t belong in the neighborhood? No one can make that sort of assessment. Writing, like food, necessitates opinion. But most people firing back at Huang’s criticisms believe that Harlem’s diversity leaves plenty of room for Samuelsson and his restaurant, whether or not the food is all that outstanding. When diners pay $28 for the fried chicken, they’re paying for more than just the fried chicken. They’re paying for novelty, for a night on the town. For many, that experience was formerly out of reach but now easily accessible because of Samuelsson and Red Rooster. When asked if they’d return for another meal, the answer is often “Yes, chef.”
Left: Eddie Huang, Photo: Julie Glassberg/The New York Times
Right: Marcus Samuelsson, Photo: Kwaku Alston