A fellow Chicago chef is once again accusing Top Chef alum Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat, Duck Duck Goat, Cabra) of irresponsible cultural appropriation after she posted a recipe for bibimbap earlier this week on Instagram. A photo posted Thursday using Izard’s social media handle showed a bowl with beef and topped with cilantro and mint. The post — which has since been edited — was sponsored content created for New Zealand Beef & Lamb. Izard issued an apology Friday morning.
The dish, full of green herbs, looked more like a Thai or Vietnamese dish; at best, it’s Pan Asian, Korean-American chef Won Kim (Kimski) tells Eater Chicago. But it was not originally described as fusion — the post only called it “bibimbap” without any cultural context or sign of the dish’s hallmarks including the crispy, charred rice from a stone pot produced by one of the dish’s variants.
In response to Izard’s post, Kim posted an essay on Facebook Friday morning sharing his experiences as an immigrant growing up poor in a small apartment in West Rogers Park. He wrote that he encountered racism, enduring taunts for bringing Korean food to school and while grilling food during picnics in the park. Food gave Kim a sense of pride that he couldn’t celebrate publicly until the white mainstream accepted Koreans, he explained.
“The embarrassment, frustration, shame I felt for something I grew up eating almost every day up to this point was something I felt shame for,” Kim wrote. “I would struggle with this for a long time.”
Kim’s post never mentions the phrase “cultural appropriation” as he shared stories about how his mother fed the family. Kim says his concern isn’t about anyone cooking food from another culture. It’s just that white chefs with an audience have a history of mislabeling international foods, something that frustrates BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), like Kim, who grew up eating their favorite dishes almost in secrecy, trying to avoid racist bullying from classmates and other people who aren’t use to different ingredients and the smells that come with them. Typically, BIPOC chefs don’t have the same opportunities to share their stories, especially compared to well-heeled restaurateurs who have a platform and can share a dish without having a personal connection to it. This kind of imbalance was part of the criticism directed at Fat Rice’s Abe Conlon before his Logan Square restaurant closed earlier this year.
A white chef can be seen as a capitalist, making money off a culture without investing the time to understand the source of their inspiration. BIPOC chefs, on the other hand, often struggle to find opportunities in the industry and risk being labeled as lazy for cooking their own food. Meanwhile, white chefs are hailed as explorers for “discovering” that same food. As Kim and others struggle for acceptance, Izard is held up as a tastemaker by her fans. If she approves a dish, then it’s safe for consumption and hailed as a trend.
Kim also took issue with other chefs who supported Izard’s approach instead of encouraging conversation, such as fellow Top Chef alum Spike Mendelsohn, who commented “Yassss so good Steph” on Izard’s post. That prompted Kim to ask Mendelsohn on Instagram, “what’s so good about this? The gross misinterpretation of a beloved Korean dish? At least call it a remix or something else completed because that’s what it is.” Mendelsohn, the D.C.-based chef behind the Good Stuff Eatery chain, responded by blocking Kim on Instagram, Kim tells Eater Chicago.
Kim’s issue isn’t cultural appropriation, as he cooks Polish and Korean fusion food at his own restaurant. Cultural exchanges, he believes, are integral: “I don’t want her canceled and I don’t want her to stop making money,” he says. “Some of this stuff really resonates and clearly, judging by the comments, it’s very personal to me and others.”
Some industry members — many who are white — view critiques from Kim and other BIPOC chefs as complaining. Kim received such feedback on his own Facebook page. Industry veteran Max Mora writes that Kim is “virtual signaling”: “Koreans have assimilated. Take it or leave it but this is long-winded whining.” Mora adds: “Sorry you had it tough growing up. I’m Jewish they snickered at us too. Get over it.”
Mora’s comments led to mostly jeers, as support for Kim extended beyond Chicago. Seattle chef Eric Rivera writes this that Izard needs to put more thought behind her actions: “Staying on brand to open a Peruvian place called Cabra and not realizing that’s also slang for the word bitch in Spanish.” Cabra has several meanings, including goat, which is part of Izard’s brand.
Izard has long used Korean flavors in her cooking; in addition to running her restaurants, she sells sauces and spice mixes inspired by Korean, Japanese, and Indian food. On Friday, her team played defense while other Chicago industry members shared their support for Kim. Izard, who helped organize a gala to raise money for an anti-racism charity earlier in December, amended her original Instagram post. “I see and hear your comments,” she wrote, adding that the dish was a mix between a Japanese beef bowl and a Korean bibimbap: “It’s not intended to be an authentic interpretation of either dish. This is my interpretation/homage.”
That latter assertion follows the same train of thought Izard offered when she was asked about appropriation before opening Cabra, her Peruvian rooftop restaurant that debuted in April 2019. “I’m not trying to be authentic in any shape or form,” Izard told Eater Chicago. “I’m not Peruvian, I don’t think I can make Peruvian food as well as anyone in Peru.” Later that same year, Mexican-American chef Jonathan Zaragoza (El Oso) criticized Izard when she opened a taco stand at the United Center. Zaragoza questioned how whether, if Izard could land a lucrative deal making tacos at the arena, a Latinx taco maker could find the same opportunities. Izard also opened a Chinese-inspired restaurant, Duck Duck Goat, in 2016 in conjunction with James Beard Award-winning Boka Restaurant Group.
In addition to the edited Instagram post, on Friday morning, Izard’s team provided a statement from the chef to Eater Chicago:
This was a misstep on my part that spun out of control and I am sorry. When I was originally brainstorming recipe ideas for this project, I thought of Bibimbap as an inspiration and jotted the recipe idea down as that – from there the recipe went through many variations and channels and ended up very far from traditional [Bibimbap]. I should have made sure the name was changed before it went out to the public and I apologize that it wasn’t. It has since been changed to “Strip Steak Rice Bowl.” I am not a traditional chef and nearly all of my dishes are inspired by flavors from around the world that I love – this experience has helped me realize that I need to be very careful and thoughtful about how I refer to dishes and I will make sure to do so in the future.
Izard’s camp also asked for Kim’s contact information, stating that they wanted to connect with the chef for a conversation. Kim says Izard knows how to to find him, but he’s not interested in pandering.
“I have nothing to say to her,” Kim says. “She realizes her mistake. That’s all I ever wanted.”