How Chains Like Chipotle Get a Pass on Appropriation

I’m a professional chef, and up until three years ago, I had no idea what barbacoa really meant.

I thought I did. I’d eaten my fair share of “barbacoa” at Chipotle, where its shredded-beef burrito was my splurge order. But on a tour of Xochimilco, a tapestry of canals and artificial islands that was once a major source of local produce for Mexico City, Paco, my tour guide, took me to his favorite barbacoa stall, where we were greeted with three juicy tacos and a bowl of lamb broth to wash it all down. When I mentioned that I’d thought barbacoa was only beef, he gave me a quizzical look: “Oh yeah? Where have you been eating barbacoa?”

As a chef, I was a little embarrassed by my lack of knowledge. But as someone deeply convinced that food is an extension of identity, who has experienced first-hand the harmful impacts of stereotypes seeping into cultural norms and is now actively working toward changing them, I was horrified at how easily I accepted something completely stripped of cultural context sold to me by a chain.

But such is the world of giant quick-service and fast-casual business: Find interesting, “trendy,” flavorful ideas from any culture, dilute them into their most mass-marketable forms, and reap monetary gain without acknowledging the sources. Although these chains, due to sheer size and reach, are often representing certain dishes or cuisines to large swaths of people — sometimes for the first or only time — they do very little to contextualize the foods they serve. So far, these companies have experienced little pushback and are under no compulsion to change. But as we reckon with the complicated intersection of social and political structures behind food, we have an opportunity to demand a very different future for fast casual.

Barbacoa’s history is a fascinating case study of Caribbean “barbecue” (aka barbacoa) evolving as it moved through Mexico, where lamb or mutton would be wrapped in maguey leaves and steamed underground, and into Texas, where cattle heads were substituted for sheep due to regional availability. It is a laborious process, hence why devotees happily line up for chefs they believe can work magic in the meat, like Cristina Martinez of Philadelphia’s South Philly Barbacoa.

While the final shredded texture of beef barbacoa may resemble that of Chipotle’s “slow-cooked beef combined with water” — as it’s described by Chipotle’s culinary director, Chad Brauze — it comes nowhere close to representing barbacoa technique. In calling this filling “barbacoa,” a sharp contrast to its straightforward “chicken” and “steak,” Chipotle has found an easy way to add a marketable tinge of foreignness to its menu to back up its cred as a “Mexican” grill.

Illustration of a grocery shopping cart that contains, among other items, a plastic-wrapped world.

This is not to say food can’t, or shouldn’t, evolve. The very core of food culture is adaptation to new environments, new palates, new people, new ingredients — and these exchanges are not always peaceful or mutually beneficial. Barbacoa has changed over time to include beef as a common protein choice, Spam musubi is now a well-loved Hawaiian staple, and so forth — but ignoring history in search of “approachability” only serves to entrench distorted power dynamics that persist to this day.

As barbacoa becomes another “familiar” option on the steam table, we must examine who has the power to force the process of adaptation and assimilation for profit, and who does not. In the case of food, all that PR fluff about bringing people together completely misses — or perhaps purposefully conceals — the truth that with power, the food of another culture can become a mere commodity, a cog in the wheel of capitalism separate and distinct from the people closest to it.

At $4.9 billion in revenue and close to 2,500 locations as of 2018, Chipotle’s influence is undeniable. “One of the best things about Chipotle is our reach … in many diverse communities throughout the United States and beyond,” Brauze said in an email. Yet when it comes to educating this diverse audience — some of whose view of “Mexican” food has been shaped specifically by Chipotle’s interpretation — he deflects observations of the chain’s responsibility. “We hope that all people will arm themselves with a greater knowledge of where their food comes from, what ingredients are utilized, and how it’s prepared.”

Maybe it is too much to expect a giant company like Chipotle, run by a primarily white C-suite and most famed for an efficient assembly line, to provide an anthropological perspective for each dish. But what is the inflection point of scale and profit where accountability also sets in, whether it feels “fair” or not?

Nomenclature is arguably the most visible — and therefore hotly contested — aspect of food representation. To have the ability to name something is power, and to proliferate that name widely is influence. At Noodles & Company, with 460 locations and a revenue of $458 million in 2018, dishes are titled “Japanese Pan Noodles” or “Spicy Korean Beef Noodles,” harking back to a likely inspiration (yakisoba) or arbitrary ingredient choice (gochujang). It’s easy to assume these are the results of a flippant naming process, but they’re in fact quite deliberate; as the chain’s executive chef, Nick Graff, explains, names are determined after conducting “online screening tests and taste panels where guests can tell us what naming convention best represents their expectations once they have experienced the dish.”

Consumers do not produce these flattened, generic names in a vacuum. It’s a result of centuries of blurring and erasure of geographic, historical, and cultural nuance, socialized into an idea that “other” places are more homogenous and less important. Consistent exposure to governmental and corporate propaganda has reduced vast regions like “Asia,” “Africa,” and “the Middle East” into amorphous descriptors barely varied enough to distinguish, their differences of little regard, and the essence of their cuisine easily distilled into a few fried wonton strips or a pinch of garam masala.

Within this self-reinforcing cycle, it’s unsurprising to see examples like Wendy’s limited-run “Asian” Cashew Chicken Salad, a riff on “Chinese” chicken salad that conflates China with Asia and disregards its complicated roots in assimilation and cultural adaption. (Wendy’s declined to comment for this story.) Even a trip to the grocery store yields similar findings: Enter Trader Joe’s painfully stereotyped Trader Ming’s line, which sells blurry pan-Asian items like Kung Pao Tempura Cauliflower in a package accentuated by a “Chinese”-ish font. (Recently, Trader Joe’s vowed to rebrand its “ethnic” lines, but has since reversed course.)

It’s easy to dismiss these collective occurrences as a byproduct of capitalism, to make excuses for the middle managers who aren’t willing to risk their own necks to push back. But food has always been entrenched in Western colonization, imperialism, and enslavement, and it continues to shape (and change) public opinion. The way we allow these national and international chains to treat a food culture implicitly shows the respect (or lack thereof) we have for the people represented by these cuisines — and it is with this backing that appropriative, white-centered food narratives can take place.

For instance, Google searches for “Nashville hot chicken” jumped from an interest index of 4 to 100 after KFC released its version in January 2016, with the New Yorker calling it a “viral sensation.” Yet no part of KFC’s marketing includes a mention of Prince’s, where the dish originated. (KFC declined to comment for this story.) The chasm left by KFC’s silence gives way to a very different, white narrative. Within the year, Food Republic treated the African-American soul of hot chicken as a mere footnote: “Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack may have created hot chicken in the 1930s … but Hattie B’s has made hot chicken cool,” it said of a newer hot chicken contender in Nashville, after calling Hattie B’s chef “the man who launched the Nashville hot chicken craze.”

This erasure of foodways has further manifested in disasters like “pho gate,” where Bon Appétit anointed a white male chef as the expert on pho, allowing him to bend the narrative of an iconic Vietnamese dish with his own “rules”; Andrew Zimmern’s restaurant Lucky Cricket, where the celebrity chef insulted “horseshit” Chinese restaurants to tout his own “authenticity,” ignoring the foundation laid by early Chinese restaurateurs adjusting to an American palate and subsequent creation of a distinct Chinese-American cuisine; and Kooks, the Portland, Oregon, burrito cart whose two young female entrepreneurs proudly admitted to snooping their way into the intellectual property of “tortilla ladies” in Puerto Nuevo, Mexico, in order to profit off of their techniques back home.

These are far from the only times Black culture has been co-opted or immigrants’ contributions dismissed. But the stakes are now higher than ever. Stripping food from its undoubtedly political history in order to offer a sanitized version digestible by the majority allows for the frightening notion that minorities are separate and distinct from what they offer to the country. It suggests that after “we” as Americans have harnessed what we want from them, those people can be discarded.

Protesters shouted at Kirstjen Nielsen for dining at a Mexican restaurant after escalating the “zero tolerance” immigration policy in 2018, but her actions are eerily consistent with those of her predecessors. In the 19th century, Chinese restaurants were lauded as having some of the best food in the country; in spite of that, anti-Chinese political rhetoric was widespread enough to pass the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act — after Chinese laborers had been hired specifically to construct the most hazardous points of the transcontinental railway — which was not repealed until 1943.

Illustration of a fast-casual worker taking items from a steam table, but the steam table contains an image of the world map instead of ingredients.

How and when foods and cultures are embraced by a historically white-dominant America has had hefty implications. Without racial, socioeconomic, and political power, without the right “image,” ideas command little value — at most they are trendy, at worst “indecent” or even “criminal” if embraced by the minority. But demographics are changing: According to the Brookings Institute, at 45 percent minority, millennials are the most diverse adult generation in U.S. history (Gen Z will be even more so), and this presents an opportunity to push back on problematic nomenclature and representation.

If the actions of these big companies have demonstrated anything, it is that there is power in numbers. It is up to our generation to scrutinize these brands, whose reach permeates our lives on the daily, whose executives (inaccurately) treat America as though they are as white as they are, whose menus and messaging influence the next wave of restaurateurs and food entrepreneurs. One start would be for Chipotle to consider an accurate rebranding of its barbacoa to “shredded beef.”

To light the way, a new wave of fast casuals is actively changing the status quo. For these restaurateurs, the first step has been to hold their own menus accountable.

“A big issue we faced as operators [of a healthy Indian concept] was finding a way to meet consumers midway with their vision of Indian food and what we wanted to present them with,” explains Viraj Borkar, co-creator and former culinary director of Inday, an Ayurvedic-based Indian chain. “It’s a push and pull and it’s often hard to find the sweet spot of serving what people think they want when they eat ethnic foods versus what they’re actually comfortable eating,” says Inday CEO and founder Basu Ratnam, “and in fast casual, that often means multiple times a week.”

Now in its fifth year, Inday has learned its own lessons: a smooth chickpea puree originally called “chickpea masala” went through a sequence of name changes so as to not misrepresent it to those unfamiliar. Borkar stands by the statement that “it is the fast casual’s job to educate people and give clarity” on what it is offering, but sometimes that means the company needs to scrap a product causing more harm than good, and start over.

Lucas Sin, a 2019 Eater Young Gun and the culinary director of Junzi, a Chinese fast-casual chain, emphasizes this notion of education with the prevalent use of Chinese characters throughout his menu. No one dish is titled as if it represents a region, even if the flavor combinations may hail from one, and unfamiliar ingredients are deliberately not renamed so guests must actively learn what they are. Finding a balance between the “60 seconds or so” guests take to assess the menu and the terminology he deems important to promote has not been easy. Furu tofu, for example, a lacto-fermented type of tofu unfamiliar to most American consumers, is used throughout the menu and elicits questions, which Junzi’s staff is trained to answer thoroughly.

“[One of the few terms] we’ve ever made up is our Jaja sauce,” Sin says. Because the Junzi sauce resembles the classic zha jiang sauce in flavor, but doesn’t have the ground pork component, he opted to create a phonetically similar word for it.

It is possible to reset the framework for making and serving foods from other backgrounds, too. Sofia Luna, president of Sophie’s Cuban, a Cuban fast-casual chain, hails from Lima, Peru, but saw that Cuban food was particularly popular among the Latinx community in the Financial District, where her family first started operating food stands. To open the restaurant, they brought on Cuban chef Eduardo Morgado to create the menu (with most items still available today) not just as a consultant or research and development chef, but an active owner of the business.

In particular, Luna has paid attention to the implications of naming: “If something is tweaked or modified, we want to be transparent with our customer. Our ‘Pernil with a Twist’ was named that way to ensure customers knew they were not getting a traditional pernil sandwich.”

Chef JJ Johnson of Field Trip, a rice-centered fast-casual restaurant with two locations in New York City, sees menus as a way to celebrate and expand, not marginalize, consumer perceptions of its roots by providing cultural context. As the menu spans many cuisines, from a loosely Thai-inspired sticky rice shrimp dish with green curry (simply titled “Shrimp”) to a jollof-style basmati rice bowl (“Veggie”), Johnson is adamant that “every culture deserves specificity” and “we don’t call something for a selling point, like ‘The Jamaican Bowl,’ because that’s just lazy.”

“Take jollof, for example,” he explains, “it’s a tomato-based rice, and jollof is about the preparation of the rice. The inspiration of the overall bowl [Veggie] comes from India. It’s somewhat similar to biryani [the bowl uses basmati rice]. We have a map showing people where the rice is from, and we lead with service by explaining the technique behind the rice. So if someone asks for ‘Spanish rice,’ we can say, ‘What kind of Spanish rice?’ and show them how there are styles, and there are regions.” By using straightforward language accented with in-person dialogue, Johnson is demonstrating that no restaurant “has” to lean on tired tropes to express flavor.

And it’s working: All of these fast casuals have seen steady engagement from customers since opening, disproving the idea that consumers exclusively care about convenience. The owners attribute part of this brand loyalty to their larger commitment to raising conscientiousness and increasing community access to new foods and food cultures. “Every community needs some sort of impact structure to improve,” Johnson says. “I opened in Harlem because I was tired of people telling Black and brown folks that we don’t care about what we eat. The future of fast casual is not to tell people, ‘This is what you should eat because that’s what’s affordable,’ it’s where you can understand your food, where someone can talk to you about it, where you want to try new things and expand what you know.”

These varied dishes all contribute to the growing tapestry of American cuisine, a multi-dimensional story of adaptation, innovation, and survival. Increasing a restaurant’s reach or volume does not entitle operators to shirk the responsibility of explaining the very complexities its foods are based on. Instead, we can embrace learning about food as a natural part of the eating process, each meal an opportunity to deepen our understanding of ourselves and each other.

Correction: October 7, 2020, 10:10 a.m.: This article has been corrected to clarify items that are currently available on the Inday menu.

Jenny Dorsey is a professional chef, writer, and the founder of Studio ATAO, a nonprofit community think tank working at the intersection of food, art, and social impact. Bug Robbins is a non-binary queer illustrator obsessed with printmaking, folklore, and green witchcraft.
Edited by Rachel Kreiter
Fact-checked by Andrea López-Cruzado