Mom’s Way or the Highway? Asian American Chefs Respond to the Authenticity Argument in “Always Be My Maybe”

updated Jun 5, 2019
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Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Films that are centered around food often feature a tension between humble, homestyle cooking and elaborate, elite restaurant food. In Ratatouille, an unlikely peasant dish wins over the toughest fine-dining critic in Paris. In Babette’s Feast, a resplendent, chef-prepared meal transports austere villagers bent on eating porridge. In Mostly Martha and Eat Drink Man Woman, a chef’s fixation with overachieving, professional-style cooking in the home is an endearing character flaw. In each of these films, people have something to learn from opening up to the other persuasion.

This familiar clash of virtues brews throughout Always Be My Maybe, the just-released Netflix film starring (and written and produced by) Ali Wong and Randall Park — a welcome addition to the canon of chef-y rom-coms. This dueling dynamic takes form in the opposing views of the romantic protagonists, Sasha (Wong), a world-renowned chef, and Marcus (Park), her childhood friend. But here’s where things get a little dicey: In one pivotal scene, Marcus insists that Asian food shouldn’t be “elevated,” referring to Sasha’s brand of high-concept Vietnamese-inspired restaurants. Rather, he says, Asian food should be “authentic,” denying the possibility of having it both ways — and suggesting that this is a rule specific to “Asian” food.   

“I watched that scene and I was like, Come on!” says Jon Yao, chef-owner of Kato in Los Angeles, who recently received a Michelin star and a Rising Star Chef nomination from the James Beard Foundation for his Taiwanese-inspired tasting menu. Yao says that his restaurant food is all about preserving his culture, and that he found Marcus’ assumption shallow. He described Kato’s version of traditional Chinese steamed fish with ginger and scallions: “Maybe you’ve had it 10 times and one time it was amazing and transcendent,” he says. “Elevating is all about figuring out how to produce that one amazing time every time at the restaurant, using the best possible products.”

“Doing a modern version is not making it better or worse … maybe it’s putting it in a format that’s more easily understood or accepted by a modern audience,” Yao explains.

“It just acknowledges the fact that a lot of people hold this opinion,” says chef Lien Lin of Bricolage, a modern Vietnamese gastropub in Brooklyn, of Marcus’ edict. She says she’s heard it plenty since opening her own restaurant four years ago. “I get the most pushback from Vietnamese people and Chinese people who are like, ‘It’s not what my mom makes.’” She also gets pushback on her prices: “Expensive for Vietnamese food” is something she’s heard a lot. She chalks it up to how much value we place in Vietnamese food — or don’t.

“Because you can go to a nice Italian restaurant and pay $25 to $30 for five ravioli, but you wouldn’t pay that for five dumplings,” Lin says.

Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

There seems to be a false distinction between Asian food and “fancy” food in the universe of Always Be My Maybe, where shabby dim sum diners exist, but Cantonese banquet halls do not. This selective sampling might benefit the plot, but it’s a disappointing setup and argument for a film character to make in a country where stereotypes around Asian food as “cheap” persist. And where Lin and other Asian American chefs have had to fight an uphill battle against double standards — even when they go to painstaking lengths with their technique or décor, or use notoriously expensive ingredients, like foie gras.

“With Anissa, some people balked at my really expensive foie gras dumplings,” says Anita Lo, chef-owner of pioneering New York City restaurant Anissa, which closed in 2017. “That’s clearly a problem of people thinking that ethnic food should not cost very much, and that’s ridiculous.”

Yet in Always Be My Maybe, Sasha’s hoity-toity food and high-end restaurant world are the butt of so many of the film’s jokes. It’s not reflective of what she grew up eating nor what she cooks at home — but then, what is a restaurant’s purpose if not to get away from that? It’s as if the script were written by someone hell-bent on ridiculing chefs who dare to take themselves and their own vision seriously. Or, someone who just really thinks that food should be mom’s way or the highway. But it’s stifling and restrictive to Asian Americans, particular second- or third-generation ones who grew up in America and are trying to grow out of the boxes drawn for them.

“We are doing our spin on our culture and cuisine and it’s always evolving,” says Lien.  

Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Setting aside value and price point, we get to the criticism of Sasha’s restaurants as not “authentic.” In the film, it’s clear that the pinnacle of authenticity is the kimchi stew and other home-cooked foods made by Marcus’ mom, served in “big-ass bowls,” with plenty to go around. In reality, “authenticity” is not so cut and dry. This is something that today’s real-life Asian American chefs have had to grapple with criticism about as well.

“People need to recalibrate what they think authentic means,” says Preeti Mistry, previously chef-owner of Juhu Beach Club and Navi Kitchen restaurants in Oakland, CA. “To me, I think authentic means something that’s authentically from the chef and who they are.”

“The problem with ‘authenticity’ is that it’s not grounded in reality; it’s a mythological ideal fueled by nostalgia,” says James Mark, chef-owner of North and Big King restaurants in Providence, RI. “Authentic food does not exist — authentic experiences do.”

These chefs spoke against an expectation that Asian and other immigrant cuisines exist in a “time capsule” in America, while this distaste for creative freedom doesn’t seem to apply to European fare.

“I think it’s very hard to be in a position that a lot of us chefs of immigrant cuisines are in, because it’s one thing for like non-Asian people to sort of diss on you, but when your own people diss on you, it’s like, hey, we deserve to have all of those things,” says Mistry.

“The truth is that all minority groups have this to some degree, and in turn white people have also co-opted authenticity into a weird badge of honor as well,” says Mark.

The resolution of Always Be My Maybe comes when Sasha opens a new restaurant devoted to Marcus’ mom’s home cooking. Yes, people always have something to learn about their roots and where they came from, in food and in other creative endeavors. But moralizing over mom’s cooking — and confusing that for authenticity — reduces the nuances of the real Asian American experience. It’s a rather regressive theme for a film that’s progressive for Asian Americans in many other ways.