Expensive Chinese food, and thinking differently about value.
An intermission to talk about restaurants.
Earlier this month a friend and I went to MIMI Chinese, a new restaurant from the team behind the coveted Sunny’s Chinese pop ups. The menu pays homage to the diversity of China’s regional cuisines, spanning everything from Cantonese char-siu (glazed with wild honey and laid on a bed of caramelized soybeans) to a single four-foot belt noodle from Shaanxi (served with a side of theatre, as your server cuts it up for you at your table, pausing to give you ample time to Instagram it). We ordered far too much and raved about everything we had. Yet, when the bill came, I felt a strange feeling in my stomach.
What follows might sound like a criticism of MIMI, which it isn’t. Of all Chinese restaurants fronted by a white executive chef (David Schwartz, formerly of Rasa and DaiLo), this project feels not only respectful, but reverent. I am not used to seeing the origins of a Chinese dish spelled out so clearly on a menu, or a page dedicated to immigrant-run restaurants in the city serving similar fare. And I am optimistic that a portion of MIMI’s diners will find themselves falling in love with regional Chinese cuisines they might not have tried otherwise. In fact, it would be a wholehearted recommendation, if the immediate success of this upscale Chinese restaurant didn’t come at the heels of a pandemic that made being Chinese very difficult.
The feeling I have is murky and hard to make out clearly, but here are a few of its facets: a team awarded ‘best takeout in Canada’ when so many immigrant restaurants have been putting out equally delicious food for decades without any critical attention; a fancy Chinese restaurant booked up months in advance in the same year that saw countless others shutter due to lack of business and racist attacks; an opulent dining room filled with affluent Yorkville clientele, mostly white, served by Asian waiters; a bill that came to close to 3x what I’m accustomed to paying for the same amount of food, made with the same amount of craft and attention; knowing that the people sitting around me would happily pay $62 for a Hunanese steamed fish at MIMI, but would never do so at a restaurant in Chinatown.
So much of this narrative around cost has been internalized, even by those from Asian immigrant communities. I think of Eddie Huang’s “No Coupons” speech, and how his restaurateur dad believed “immigrants can't sell anything full price in America.” I think of this profile of Brandon Jew, and how the writer’s Chinese mother dismissed the prices at one of his restaurants: Twenty-two dollars for dumplings? Over a hundred for Peking duck? Those were white-people prices. I think of my own immediate reaction to the bill at MIMI—“How much? For Chinese food?”—which surprised me. I’ve never balked at the price of a meal at a French restaurant, or a Japanese omakase. Why now?
From cheap labor to cheap food
The history of cheap Chinese food prices in North America stems back to the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and the racist labour practices put in place for Chinese workers then. According to this article from the Huffington Post,
The earliest Chinese restaurants in America were created for Chinese railroad laborers. […] With Chinese laborers earning an estimated two-thirds of what white workers made, owners had to keep restaurant prices low, Beatrice Chen, programming vice president at the Museum of Chinese in America, explained to HuffPost.
“This perception of Chinese restaurants has stuck, even though high-end Chinese restaurants in Asia are common and popular,” Chen said. “The mainstream American consumer mindset is that there is a ceiling to how much we’re willing to pay for Chinese food.”
But why does this ceiling exist for Chinese food, but not something like Japanese food? For once, racism isn’t whole full answer.
Cuisine backed by capital
In “The Future Is Expensive Chinese Food,” journalist Joe Pinsker lays out a sound theory on this very question: why certain international cuisines can charge a high price tag when others can’t. In short, it’s about how that culture is perceived in terms of class:
“The shortest answer would be cultural prestige, some notion of an evaluation of another culture's reputation,” says Krishnendu Ray, an associate professor of food studies at New York University. In a book published earlier this year, The Ethnic Restaurateur, Ray expands on this idea, sketching the tiers of what he calls a “global hierarchy of taste.” This hierarchy, which privileges paninis over tortas, is almost completely shaped by a simple rule: The more capital or military power a nation wields and the richer its emigrants are, the more likely its cuisine will command high menu prices.
So to go back to my question, here’s why there’s a price ceiling on Chinese food, even in my own brain: while Japanese culture has been lauded for its prestige—and Japanese cuisine known for its precision, craft, high quality ingredients—Chinese culture continues to be mired in harmful stereotypes about the low quality of its labour and exports. I, for one, await the day when “Made in China” is no longer a punchline. But until then, I need to start checking my own internalized prejudices.
This Foreign Policy report on the changing landscape of Chinese restaurants in America suggests that the time is nigh:
“Even if general customers are still not used to Chinese cuisine priced similarly to Japanese and French options, deep-pocketed young Chinese living in the United States are able to hold up the market alone. The 360,000 Chinese students studying in the United States contributed $13 billion to the U.S. economy in the 2017-2018 school year. Asian Americans’ purchasing power topped $1 trillion in 2018, driven by the spending of young people, according to a Nielsen report.
So MIMI selling out every night? Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s a sign of change to come. Or maybe it’s the natural trajectory of a Chinese restaurant made palatable by a white chef and a Yorkville address. I’m not sure. But I’m hopeful. And if you want to treat yourself to a fancy meal, they are absolutely worth checking out. Get the shrimp toast.
This isn’t about elevating immigrant food from cheap to expensive, by the way. It’s about giving still-marginalized cuisines the same nuance, the same price range, that we give to those in the mainstream. Today, we readily accept that Italian food can be delicious at every price point. When will the day come for Chinese, Indian, Filipino restaurants?
Thanks for coming to this TED Talk. I have yet to cook anything of merit. Will I ever cook again?