David Bouhadana is the most aggressively cool sushi chef in New York City. After years of steady regard, he upped his profile dramatically a couple of years ago following a well-calculated rebellion against the Department of Health over not wearing gloves while preparing sushi, a fight that led to his firing from Sushi Dojo. Since then, he has seen more acclaim for his sake-soaked omakase dinners, including from Eater.
This upward trajectory has most recently led to a second location of his (quite good) 30-minute, $50 omakase restaurant, Sushi By Bou, weeks after opening the first one. Little wonder that Bouhadana, a white man from Florida, feels sufficiently credentialed to call himself “the new face of sushi.” Maybe this is why Bouhadana feels entitled to freely speak English in a Japanese accent while preparing and serving his omakase.
Multiple sources, including tipsters and Eater staffers, have seen him speaking in the accent during the meal — a component of the party-like atmosphere he’s known for bringing to his restaurants. During service, he casually moves from speaking Japanese, to speaking English with a fake Japanese intonation, to speaking English in his natural American accent. For instance, he might present a fish in English, say “oishi, oishi” (Japanese for delicious), and then follow it up with “dericious, dericious” in his version of a Japanese accent.
When I called Bouhadana to talk about it, he confirmed he does this. He characterized these bits of accented English as “little fun jokes,” which he likened to how the Japanese chefs who work for him use an American accent while quoting Drake songs. “Maybe in my mind I think I’m Japanese,” he said.
As our conversation continued, Bouhadana variously described himself as a teacher of Japanese culture and a bridge between Japanese and American culture. “I want to embrace Japanese culture and any culture,” he said. “I think we do a great job of showcasing that.”
But here’s the thing: That role as a cultural liaison is exactly what makes his “little fun jokes” so galling. Bouhadana is not just an ordinary white person inadvertently mocking Asian people for sounding different, but one who has accrued the visibility and authority to make a legitimate claim as an ambassador for Japanese culture and cuisine. He’s sold himself as a teacher and a translator, making his ignorance of the malicious history of the caricatured Asian accent not just offensive, but harmful. Not only is he demeaning the people whose culture he sells, he’s spreading a message to diners that what he’s doing is acceptable. When someone like him — who apprenticed in Japan for three years, who runs a captivating restaurant, and who has been written up in the Times — feels like he has the right to fake a Japanese accent as a joke, it encourages others to feel that way, too.
What Bouhadana doesn’t seem to know — or care to recognize — is how powerfully loaded the fake Asian accent is, and how it has been weaponized to humiliate and vilify Asian and Asian-American people since at least the early 1900s. Perhaps the most famous modern example comes from the classic film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where Mickey Rooney dons yellowface and speaks in an over-the-top Asian accent as the Japanese Mr. Yunioshi — a bumbling perv with oversized teeth whose mouth hangs perpetually open, much like the racist caricatures utilized in anti-Japanese propaganda during World War II. That propaganda stoked an anti-Asian-American sentiment that the government used to justify putting Japanese Americans in internment camps, and it’s hard to separate that history from Rooney’s portrayal.
In Sixteen Candles, the Asian character Long Duck Dong is as an emasculated butt of the joke, his exaggerated accent used as a comedic tool to turn him into a bad stereotype. Lines like “no more yanky my wanky” eventually found their way into mainstream, used to mock Asian-Americans in real life. More recently, President Donald Trump slipped into a fake Asian accent on the campaign trail when deriding Chinese and Japanese businessmen. The fake accent is so ubiquitous as a tool of humiliation that an approximation of it — the phrase “ching chong” — has been turned into a pejorative all its own.
In other words, Bouhadana is embedding racist behavior into the experience of dining at his restaurant.
Undoubtedly, some people will point out that modern Asian-American chefs have ironically embraced the accent in their restaurants; Eddie Huang once described a restaurant as “dericious” on a sign, and David Chang wrapped Fuku chicken sandwiches in bags that also said “dericious.” It should go without saying that it’s not the same thing — an Asian-American using the word “dericious” is an attempt to reclaim a slur, similar to the way some feminists now use the word “slut.” Nor is putting on an exaggerated American accent, like the one Bouhadana says his Japanese chefs sometimes use, analogous: The “standard” American accent is the mainstream dialect, imbued with cultural capital and power, and adopting it is a matter of survival and assimilation for immigrants who aren’t white, particularly for Asian-Americans. Mocking the powerful is different than mocking the marginalized.
Boudahana told me that he didn’t mean to offend anybody by using the accent. But Mickey Rooney said he wasn’t trying to be offensive when he squinted his eyes and put on buck teeth. Shaquille O’Neal said it was no-offense-intended “locker-room humor” when he used a fake accent to talk about Houston Rockets player Yao Ming. And I bet the kids who screamed “ching chong” at me when I was younger would probably say today that they didn’t mean to be offensive, either.
Bouhadana’s behavior is ultimately one that stems from a sense of entitlement — not just to copy and disseminate another culture (that’s a whole other conversation), but to do so while diminishing the people who created it. As diners, we need to consider what it means when we support someone who disregards history and context in favor of a joke, even if their food is as remarkable as his.
Editor’s Note: Bouhadana worked as host of Eater’s video series, Shokunin, from January through August 2016. It’s no longer in production.
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