Is This Social Justice?

It began with a puff piece featuring a small, local restaurant, and ended with acrimony and Yelp’s team stepping in to stem a tide of abusive reviews.

To put it mildly, I have some misgivings about stepping into this issue. There are plenty of reasons I shouldn’t, but I also feel compelled to speak up because I think this entire situation has spun out of control.

Food magazine Bon Appetit ran a profile a few days ago of a restaurant in Philadelphia called Stock. It’s categorized on Yelp as “Vietnamese, Thai, American (New)”. This would imply that it’s a fusion restaurant, and that appears to be exactly what it is. One of the star dishes is chef Tyler Akin’s rendition of pho, a classic Vietnamese dish of broth, rice noodles, and meat. Akin has a vegetarian version that relies on mushrooms and tofu, which is a fairly unusual variation of the pho recipe. Based on the Yelp reviews, this seems to be what attracts a fair amount of his business.

Bon Appetit made a big mistake, though: they ran with the headline, “This is how you should be eating pho.” Second, along with the article was a 2-minute video in which Akin expresses his thoughts about altering the flavor of a dish you’ve just been given, as well as demonstrating his particular chopstick technique to get the most noodles into your mouth in a single go. The former point is not at all unusual among chefs: Akin would prefer people not add sauces to their pho broth before tasting it. Most chefs would like agree with this, regardless of the dish. His chopstick technique is explicitly his own way of doing things–by no means does he suggest it’s the only right way. Indeed, nowhere does Akin make more than suggestions.

The magazine’s more assertive framing ended up painting a target on Akin and his restaurant. The original headline was an unsurprising bit of hyperbole that was eventually replaced with, “We’re in love with this pho.” That’s fair enough. But Bon Appetit also failed in making a white guy the “voice of pho.” Given that there are plenty of other Vietnamese restaurants in the area–run by people actually of Vietnamese descent–this seems like an egregious oversight. Bon Appetit clearly made a mistake here.

What I have issue with is the disproportionate vitriol aimed at Akin, who probably had no idea this kind of shitstorm would erupt just from him talking about the pho he makes and how he eats it, with BA’s prompting. As soon as the story went viral, the restaurant’s Yelp page was inundated with new reviews–some of them 1-star reviews full of insults and attacks, and others 5-star reviews defending Akin and his restaurant, or at least attacking the negative reviewers. Yelp had to take special action to address the situation, which is remarkable given Yelp’s well-known stance against tampering with the reviews people post.

Although a lot of reviews were purged due to Yelp’s intervention, I got to see a number of them before they were taken down. Many personally attacked Akin for things the writer(s) of the BA article said, rather than anything Akin said or did. It was claimed that Akin was telling Vietnamese people how to eat their pho, which he didn’t, although BA’s spin was probably forceful enough to give some readers that impression.

People being nasty online is nothing new, so that part doesn’t surprise me. But I’m troubled by the use of a platform like Yelp to attempt to kill a business because the proprietor was, at worst, a bit clueless. Bad Yelp reviews can seriously damage a business’ overall prospects. My position on what consequences people should face for being openly bigoted has evolved over time. I don’t necessarily have an issue with someone losing their job because they’re openly bigoted–indeed, if such attitudes would in any way impact the job at hand, an employer might be considered derelict in keeping on an employee who might mistreat customers based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, and so forth.

But nothing like that happened here. A local restaurant proprietor was asked to participate in a piece about pho, and so he did. Should he have directed the Bon Appetit staff to a Vietnamese restaurant run by actual Vietnamese people? I have a hard time imagining that being a common practice–almost any business owner is going to take the opportunity to promote their business. So I would suggest that more responsibility lies with BA, in that they chose a single representative of pho: a white guy making what are quite obviously not authentically Vietnamese versions of pho, and then proclaiming them as the way pho “should” be eaten.

There are also broader questions of whether a white man running a restaurant featuring Asian cuisine is inherently appropriative. I have seen compelling arguments in both directions. My own view would be that as long as the proprietor shows an appropriate level of respect for the original culture, it’s not necessarily problematic. I will grant that this can be very difficult to determine, though, and anyone who wouldn’t want to patronize such an establishment due to such concerns is entirely within their rights to do so. Going by the Yelp reviews and other comments I saw, at least, there was no clear consensus on whether Akin’s restaurant is appropriative–there were plenty of comments by self-identified Vietnamese people taking positions on both sides. At best, there is no clear answer here, and it’s certainly not for me to say which Vietnamese people are right or wrong about Akin’s approach to pho.

But ultimately, I think the approach taken against Akin and his restaurant doesn’t make for a positive example of what social justice efforts can be. This was an attempt to ruin one man’s business because he was featured in an article put together by people who didn’t show much cultural sensitivity, care, or respect. Those same writers have apologized (sort of), but never really took responsibility for their role in this mess. Had the article been approached differently and assembled with more diverse voices than just Akin’s, all of this could have been avoided. But I have a hard time seeing Tyler Akin as responsible for the final article, or even the 2-minute video featuring him, since it’s an edited, small portion of what sounds like a relatively lengthy discussion and interview session.

This instance is regrettable, but one I don’t think is indicative of a larger trend of “social justice warriors run amok,” as some hand-wringers like to frame it. I’m sure this incident will be cited by the Jon Chaits of the world as proof that callout culture is out of control. I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s certainly an ongoing risk that should be considered carefully. It’s always possible for well-intended movements to spin out of control and acquire targets who haven’t done anything worthy of that ire. It is my hope that the outcome of this induces some soul-searching in all parties–and that would especially include the Bon Appetit staff, who created this mess, however inadvertently, with their careless approach to what was bound to be a sensitive topic.

I’ll close with a quote from Khanh Ho’s Huffington Post examination of the issues involved:

The larger issue for me is not poor Tyler who is really a pawn in the media game. It is Bon Appetit. Bon Appetit could have used any number of really great Vietnamese chefs, writers, critics to disseminate this message. Why not Andrea Nguyen, who has a masters and actually performed research in Asia about foodways and has several bestselling books on Vietnamese cuisine? Why not Diep Tran, who comes from a Vietnamese family famous for her pho—a restauranteur who has been consistently named to Pulitzer Prize Winning Critic Jonathan Gold’s List of great places to eat?

These people are not only great chefs, they are highly educated. AND they not only speak amazing English but have stage presence. There are literally dozens of great chefs, restauranteurs, writers who are Ivy-League trained and fully capable of talking about the food.

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James
James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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Is This Social Justice?

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