Over grilled cheese sandwiches at a pub on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a friend and I discussed our favorite topic — eating. Up for debate this lunch time was Foursquare; she explained that the review-driven app allowed users to rate restaurants on a multitude of factors. We reviewed our current restaurant to explore how it worked: “Good for Kids?” Sure. “Vegetarian Friendly?” Not really. “Authentic?” Skip. Woah, woah, woah — I asked her to slow down. What does authentic mean in this context? And how do I judge the authenticity of my grilled cheese sandwich?
The term authenticity is everywhere. Pundits claim that millennials crave it, restaurants boast authentic dining experiences, and Foursquare asks us to make judgments about it. These claims, often used as markers of quality, are employed by diners and restaurateurs alike — often used by owners to evoke a homespun or faraway romanticism. Nowhere does that come into play more than on user-based review sites like Yelp.
I would know: I have read and studied 20,000 Yelp reviews — part of my thesis as a master’s student at New York University in the Food Studies program. I can tell you a lot about what I concluded about the depths of the internet, but I’ll start with this one: The word “authentic” in food reviews supports white supremacism, and Yelp reviews prove it.
There are 17 million restaurant reviews on Yelp from over 30 different countries. Of course, not all of these reviews support white supremacy, or even mention authenticity. I narrowed my data collection to reviews from New York, and focused my field even further by picking from Zagat’s top ten most popular cuisines in New York City: Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian, Korean, and Indian, adding Mediterranean and Soul food based on recent dining trends. Over the course of six months, from September 2016 to March 2017, I read 100 reviews (written at any point prior to March 2017) for each of the top 20 Mexican restaurants on Yelp, recording how often commenters used the term authenticity or its synonyms like “legitimate” or the phrases like “this made me feel like I was in Mexico.” Then I kept going, ultimately reading 2,000 reviews for each of the nine other popular cuisines.
Seven percent of the 20,000 reviews I read — or 1,400 reviews — contained some sort of authenticity language. While I don’t know anything about the specific demographics of the reviewers I studied, trends in the reviews I read reflect some of the more troubling themes seen on the internet these days. In particular, the large sample size of reviews reflects the dominant culture: one which is continuously and historically rooted in favoring the white, Eurocentric experience.
When reviewers picture authenticity in ethnic food, they mentally reference all the experiences they’ve had before with that cuisine and the people who make it — and most of the time, reviewers view those experiences, whether from personal interaction or from interacting with media, as not positive. Reviews tend to reflect the racism already existing in the world; people’s biases come into play.
According to my data, the average Yelp reviewer connotes “authentic” with characteristics such as dirt floors, plastic stools, and other patrons who are non-white when reviewing non-European restaurants. This happens approximately 85 percent of the time. But when talking about cuisines from Europe, the word “authentic” instead gets associated with more positive characteristics. This quote from a reviewer commenting on popular Korean barbecue restaurant Jongro illustrates the bias: “we went for this authentic spot with its kitschy hut decor much like those found in Korea” (Celine N. 2016). Even though it’s possible Celine N. liked the decor at the restaurant, “kitschy” is not a descriptor generally used in reviews serving modern Western cuisine. For example, a review from French restaurant La Grenouille reads: “Old elegance at its best! Yes, the ambiance is lovely with all the fresh flowers” (Alexandra C. 2013).
The distinction in tone extends to restaurant staff, too. Tamar G. writes about French restaurant Pardon My French in 2016: “The waiters are so good looking and so cute with their French accents!” In stark contrast, Kenny C. writes about his experience at Chinese restaurant 88 Lan Zhou Handmade Noodles: “One of the [servers] asked a lady (quite rudely in Chinese… as if there’s any other way) to move.” Not only do Yelp reviewers talk about non-Western workers differently, but the difference is racist, rude, and frightfully mimicking of other supremacist trends on the internet and in American life.
However, the distinction in how people talk about restaurants and authenticity doesn’t just fall between Western and non-Western restaurants — there’s nuance within the non-Western cuisines. The restaurants most impacted by this difference serve Mexican and Chinese food, according to my research.
The reasoning for this can be determined by looking at how American culture has viewed immigrant population foods in the past. Historically in the United States, immigration rates dictate not only population wealth, but also cultural cuisine acceptance. For example, as Italians migrated to the United States in record numbers during the late 1800s, becoming the dominant poor and working class, popular sources such as magazines and papers counseled against aspects of Italian cuisine for fear of health risk. As Italian Americans have gained social status in the U.S., we don’t see magazine advertisements advising against eating garlic.
But we do still see signs waging war on MSG. This can partly be attributed to the fact that people from Mexico and China immigrate to the United States with the least amount of money. Reviewers tended to use authenticity language far more to talk about those cuisines, and in doing so, had expectations of authenticity aligned with characteristics that they associate with foreign-born poor. Cuisines from countries with wealthier immigrants, such as Japanese and French, are less beholden to these stereotypes.
While it might seem good to label restaurants as authentic, the usage of the term builds an authenticity trap where reviews reinforce harmful stereotypes that then become nearly impossible for restaurateurs to shake off. Negative traits like “gaudy signs” and decor, as well as price, end up becoming necessary to maintain positive reviews for being “authentic.” But those same traits impact overall Yelp review rating; there’s a negative correlation (-0.17) between star rating and the amount reviewers use the word “authenticity” in Chinese and Mexican food. As people talk about authenticity more online, star ratings decrease, independent of food quality.
It’s a reality that restaurateurs and chefs have spoken about publicly. Amelie Ning Kang, an Eater Young Gun and owner of MáLà Project, was cognizant of these expectations when she opened her restaurant in late 2015, refusing to include dragon decor or more Americanized flavors on her menus. Similarly, Momofuku kingpin David Chang has widely discussed his dislike of expectations for low-priced ethnic food: “It pisses me off that Asian food has to be cheaper. Why? Not one person has given me a reason why,” he said in 2016. Other studies similarly show the dichotomy in the way cuisines are viewed. Yelp reviewers tend to attribute food poisoning to Asian or Latin American restaurants, blaming it on low health grades, but statistically, lower health ratings aren’t tied to food poisoning outbreaks.
This puts restaurateurs — particularly non-European immigrant owners — in a bind that makes it hard for chefs and owners to break out of stereotypes. Bringing in newer decor, sourcing local produce, charging higher prices, or taking creative liberty with a menu might allow non-Western restaurants and cuisines to compete in the larger dining landscape. But then, the restaurant might not meet the expectations of diners who expect authenticity in the “correct” way. Many restaurants end up losing either way: stay “gaudy” and authentic, and receive lower ratings; or update and be “not authentic,” and receive lower ratings.
Of course, there are restaurants that have managed to fight negative stereotypes, including MáLà Project. But my data shows that the search for authenticity is still alive. And when reviewers use “authentic,” they put unfair expectations on restaurateurs to maintain a low set of standards for their establishment — much lower than any restaurant serving Western cuisines. The language directly supports a hierarchy where white, Western cuisine is allowed more creative latitude to expand, explore, and generate profits than its non-Western counterparts.
The use of authenticity in the dining landscape is counterintuitive. It’s usage to promote white supremacist norms furthers an atmosphere that’s antithetical to the spirit of authenticity. The language of authenticity holds up the supremely inauthentic — a single ideology that supports possibly the most powerful social group: white people.
Sara Kay is a cooking and nutrition educator in New York City.