Food and Drinks

Chefs and cultural appropriation: Jamie Oliver not the only one in the firing line

British TV chef’s launch of a product whose name includes ‘jerk rice’ provokes pushback from a UK legislator of Jamaican heritage. It’s not the only example of chefs and retailers being accused of appropriating another culture’s food

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 August, 2018, 6:33pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 August, 2018, 6:32pm

Recently, British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched a new rice product, and gave it the name Punchy Jerk Rice. It didn’t receive universal acclaim. Politician Dawn Butler, the British opposition Labour Party’s spokesman for women and equalities, used social media to accuse Oliver of cultural appropriation.

“#jamieoliver @jamieoliver #jerk I'm just wondering do you know what #Jamaican #jerk actually is? It’s not just a word you put before stuff to sell products [ …]” Butler, whose parents come from Jamaica, wrote on Twitter.

Cultural appropriation has become something of a buzz word of late, especially in the worlds of fashion and food, as these examples show:

1. Can non-Hispanics make burritos? 

In the American west coast city of Portland, two white women opened a food stall selling burritos, after visiting Mexico and falling in love with its cuisine.

In an interview with local newspaper the Willamette Week, the pair recalled how difficult it had been to learn the process of making authentic burritos, having observed and documented the process during their trip.

Yau ja gwai: you know, Jamie Oliver's 'doughnuts in congee'

This got a strong response from Jamilah King, race and justice reporter at Mother Jones, a progressive magazine. King – who at the time was working for the millennial-focused website Mic – wrote a column headlined, “These white cooks bragged about bringing back recipes from Mexico to start a business”.

She used her column to argue that this was a form of exploitation and an example of “white folks profiting off the labour of people of colour”.

King’s column drew both praise and criticism, and had a real-world effect: the stallholders closed down their business not long afterwards.

2. Marks & Spencer curry

British retailer Marks & Spencer came under fire in some quarters after it began selling new varieties of curry sauce.

Its Bengali Turmeric Curry Kit, whose ingredients include celery, coconut and tamarind, didn’t go unnoticed among social media users. You won’t find any such dish if you go to West Bengal, India, or Bangladesh, some pointed out. One online critic went so far as to call the fusion product “offensive and callous”, while others complained about the company’s “lack of respect” for customers.

Some food historians sided with the critics, but others said curry was part of Britain’s culinary landscape, not just India’s, and that Marks & Spencer was within its rights.

3. Gordon Ramsay’s TV show

Gordon Ramsay Uncharted, a National Geographic show, is going to take British celebrity chef and TV star Gordon Ramsay around the world, plunging him into diverse food cultures where he will offer his often straightforward opinions to locals.

Sejal Sukhadwala, a cook and writer, criticised the new programme for giving scant voice to natives from the countries Ramsay will be visiting. Let’s not forget the bit about ‘local food heroes’ – but why not ask the said heroes to front their own TV show? Why does it take a white chef to ‘discover’ their cuisine and present it as if it were a spectator sport?” she wrote in the British tabloid Metro.