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WHERE WORDS FAIL, CAN FOOD SPEAK?

We’ve been thinking a lot about using food as a method of translation this past couple of weeks.

A few Fridays back, we had the great pleasure of having both breakfast and dinner with the founder of La Cocina, Caleb Zigas on a flying visit to London. Caleb, Leticia and the team’s success with La Cocina is in no doubt a reflection of their intelligent creativity and genuine passion for both food and people, and we were delighted to hear about it in person.

One nugget of wisdom that Caleb shared with us was that ultimately everyone who worked at La Cocina was a translator.

He meant that literally (because they nearly all speak fluent Spanish and actually translate complex regulatory rules for a large Spanish-speaking community in San Francisco); but he also meant that culturally, by helping minority ethnic women present and prepare their food in a way that made it really desirable for the Bay area’s gentrifying consumer tastes.

Dan Germain, the Head of Creative at Innocent, who we also met that same week, had said something similar to us. As a major architect of Innocent’s irreverent brand and voice, he told us about in their international expansion, how carefully his team worked to select the right people, so that they can translate what Innocent really means to different cultures – Germany, Austria and farther afield. (Sidenote: The Austrians are, apparently, hilarious. Can’t wait to see the ads.)

Working where we are, at The Exchange in London Bridge, beneath London’s very own Tower of Babel, we’ve been thinking about the challenge of genuinely connecting people through food, and not just reinforcing our differences. Part of our job is to make sure great food has the platform to really translate to new audiences, who might never have come across anything like it before. And part of what we’ll try to get right, working with all our mentors and advisors has to be to be able to communicate what good food, good taste, good presentation and good hospitality means, to very disparate and sometimes disconnected groups who live in London.

We re-read this piece from the NY Times recently, mulling over the question of translation:

When it comes to selling the food, it certainly helps that American-born chefs tend to know the mainstream American audience better. Presenting a cuisine from afar is “fundamentally an act of translation,” said Krishnendu Ray, a professor of food studies at New York University. “So you have to be attuned to two cultures. It’s a kind of bilingualism.” On one level, that means they may have an easier time with the language — telling the story of their food, or knowing how to make obscure dishes sound sexy in menu descriptions. But that sense of translation also carries over to flavor; these chefs can more easily intuit what might impress or intimidate mainstream customers. Frontera Grill or Pok Pok NY can serve food that is true to the original because they can choose dishes that don’t have to be diluted to appeal to their clientele. By contrast, for immigrant chefs who love all their native flavors, it’s not necessarily obvious that a guest is more likely to become friendly with fried shallots than, say, fermented beans. Figuring out the customer can be a painful process if it involves orders being sent back and bottom lines taking a hit. And so, many cooks quickly determine what seems to be the safest bet: toning down the spice, amping up the sweetness, frying a whole lot more.

 

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