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Counter to “Culinary Colonialism”

By JEREMY ALBEN

The critiques in Austin Kahn’s piece “Culinary Colonialism” are vital in a growing culinary scene dominated by young white male chefs who accumulate wealth and accolades through the sale of “global” and “ethnic” cuisines.

As he rightly points out, Fiasco’s initial menus very much fell into this common, indeed unexceptional, pitfall. In my excitement to launch the venture two years ago I did not think critically about several things: First about the culinary traditions I was appropriating, including regrettable spelling errors in our early advertising materials and a lack of recognition of where are recipes came from. Second about the space and resources I was taking up in my venture as a cis-white man in this community, which could have been distributed more equitably. And third about how Fiasco contributed to the legacy of colonialism at Middlebury by using traditions from marginalized populations for financial gains.

Austin is also right to note the gendered aspect of culinary appropriation. In my time cooking at Fiasco I have been, at times, short tempered, dismissive and condescending to both customers and my own staff. These regrettable behaviors contribute to the cis-male exclusive energy of many professional kitchens as well as my own.

These mistakes and behaviors stemmed from an uncritical and naive perspective on my positionality in a legacy of white supremacy both at this institution and in my upbringing as a monied white kid from Seattle. I’m working on being aware of my positionality and the power I take for granted in my personal life as well as in the kitchen,  a process which is always in development and will never be complete.

I’m greatly appreciative of Austin’s critique, which in many ways voiced concerns I couldn’t or wasn’t willing to confront when I started Fiasco. I hope to continue the conversation about the role of restaurants in furthering systems of oppression and in their dismantling.

Since our initial J-term, Fiasco has partnered with Migrant Justice Vermont, both donating to the organization directly and trying to raise awareness about their Milk with Dignity! campaign. These are commitments that are important to me as an individual who lives and eats off of the labor of migrant workers and as a cook who has the privilege to work with these ingredients and sell them to students.

I have no illusions about reversing or counteracting the racist, colonialist mistakes and assumptions Fiasco operated on from its outset, but I am committed to making the project more equitable, redistributing resources to marginalized communities and paying respect to the culinary traditions we draw from.

In that spirit, I want to be transparent about the way Fiasco functions financially. Anyone is welcome to cook in the Gamut Room kitchen space and we provide a $100 loan for ingredients. After the event, the revenue generated is used first to pay back the initial loan, and then any net profits are split 50-50 between the cooks who put on the event and Migrant Justice. I’m actively looking for people of all identities to use the space and explore their own culinary pursuits in what I believe is an equitable model which pays people for their labor, provides a service to the Middlebury community and supports the farm workers who make the venture possible.

If you have ideas, suggestions, critiques or any other comments my email and Facebook dm’s are open. I’d love to hear from you.

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