Culinary PoetFor Chef Miranti, Unapologetic Feasting Is a Gift and a Goal

Chef Miranti (Photo courtesy of Miranti)

I first met Miranti, founder of The Joy of Feasting, almost a decade ago in New York City’s burlesque scene. At the time I was twirling tassels, swallowing fire, and otherwise finding my feet in the world while Miranti, a.k.a. Dame Cuchifrita, was earning much-deserved recognition for her use of fashion and performance as a medium to challenge the Westernized standards long imposed on both. Her appearance in Brown Girls Burlesque’s 2011 Culture Classics show struck a chord because she called out National Geographic and other travel publications that traffic in “Indigenous nudity.” She then took her passion for cooking to the first season of Food Network’s Cooks vs. Cons—in which judge Graham Elliot dubbed her a ”culinary poet”—and later to Bushwick’s Mad Tropical, where she and culinary partner Diavanna set the weekend brunch menu.

That food plays an integral part of Western hypocrisy is hardly a revelation. We don’t mind stuffing our faces with immigrant fare, but we still keep immigrants at an arm’s distance. There’s an “othering” that takes place, which in turn keeps walls, both solid and metaphorical, firmly intact. Given that as of 2017 nearly 60 percent of American chefs or head cooks were white, coupled with a rapid rise in regressive far-right values the world over, now more than ever is the time to connect with and legitimize foreign cuisines—and the people from whom they originate.

I recently sat down with the Indonesian-born, self-described ‘stylish nymph, culture connoisseur, stage ham, and dinner mistress’ to discuss the complicated nature of cultural appropriation, the power and potential of narrative, and why grandma always gets the final say—whether it’s Olive Garden or hot Sambal.

Can you tell me a bit about your family and background?

I lived in the United States for the first time from ages 9 to 15, and then went back to Indonesia to finish high school and college. I returned to America to study fashion design at the Rhode Island School of Design, [and then] moved to New York City at the age of 28. My family comes from what I would equate to the intellectual class: wealthy in terms of knowledge, but not quite Crazy Rich Asians. Our upbringing was pretty balanced and progressive. My dad was very much into giving his children choices; he believed that choice is a form of wealth. My parents’ goal was to expose us to living in both the East and the West; we were able to choose how and where we ended up living. It’s very rare to find Indonesian families like ours. [Laughs.]

You ultimately chose the States?

Yes. I had a hard time living in Indonesia. The conservative culture just wasn’t a fit for my brand of feminism—something I’d cultivated since birth. At “marriage age,” after graduating college, you’re supposed to marry your college sweetheart. I was in a relationship with a man who was a rich uni drop-out designer and abusive fundamentalist, and the thought of being with him for the rest of my life scared me into an exit plan. I knew that the world I wanted to live in had to be customized for me, and ’80s Indonesia wasn’t cutting it.

How have things changed in Indonesia since then?

Progress in Indonesia is pretty good these days. The kids are now screaming about the stuff I screamed about 20 years ago—rape culture, toxic patriarchy, LGBTQ rights, etc. It wasn’t easy living there and voicing how wrongly women were treated. We’re second-class citizens, not so much by way of law, but by way of customs and traditions. But back to having choices, I got to choose which parts fit me and discard the ones that don’t, which is the ultimate privilege. I have a clear identity in terms of ethnicity and culture, but I also have the freedom to adopt and adapt.

Is there a connection between fashion, art, and food for you? Have you always pursued them collectively, or did one inspire the urge to explore another?

The cooking thing is just in my blood. I was selling homemade cakes at 14 and using the money to take myself on summer trips in Bali to further learn classical Balinese dance, which I’ve been studying since I was 5. I’ve also seen pictures of myself at 6 cutting pounds of green beans with a dull knife. [Laughs.] After I graduated from my first university, I was going to either stay in Indonesia and open up some kind of food business or go to the United States to pursue fashion design. I ultimately chose design because it was much harder to attain, and it was a way to experience NYC. Cooking has always been a good fallback plan.

 

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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about personal narratives. Everyone, especially in competitive creative fields, has one, and it’s often enhanced for optimum sellability. What are your thoughts on how origin stories have become a requirement

Selling narratives in America highly depends on who you are, [and] it doesn’t mean you get to tell your own story. If you are of an idealized class, you get to tell your truth because your story will make money. If you’re marginalized, your truth will only be used if it furthers a particular agenda. America is built on myths and dreams, and sometimes you have to succumb to how your narrative fits into that. Selling myself as a burlesque performer of color was a microcosm of what casting is like in much bigger industries. One day I lost about $800 worth of gigs because I refused to be cast as a Latina. They thought I’d pass and refused to offer me the Asian role because I wasn’t the kind of Asian they were looking for. When it comes to the gatekeeping of immigrant stories, people are looking for whomever helps perpetuate the America-as-savior myth.

Did you experience any of that on Cooks vs. Cons?

Cooks vs. Cons was a great experience, actually. It was very challenging and I learned what it was like to compete on a professional cooking show. Overall they treated me really well, [though] I was fed lines, and my winning Moroccan-inspired dish was changed at the last minute. I wasn’t allowed to say what the dish’s origins were. I literally had to change the name of the dish seconds before the cameras started rolling. Their excuse was that someone from Nebraska would be very confused. [Laughs.] My personal take is they already had a strange-looking girl with a weird name—a percentage of freak factor helps cultivate an audience—from a country that most people have no clue about, making a Moroccan dish. People couldn’t accept that. When you look at other seasons, there is always a slot for a tiny femme girl who no one thinks can kick everyone’s ass and then they do. I recognize the formula now and can almost always peg who they cast as ‘that’ girl right away.

What came after Cooks vs. Cons?

Two years later I tried out for the Great American Baking Show. I got super high up in the audition and pretty much signed the nondisclosure agreement, only to have them drop me at the last minute. I was really heartbroken. They never told me why, but I suspect it was due to demographics. Unlike the British version, the show was trying to cater more to the average white American. ABC is [owned by] Disney, so it’s designed to appeal to soccer moms. [Laughs.] I would have stuck out like a sore thumb. The casting process is an extremely calculated one, and at the end of the day they’re going to pick whomever suits their narrative. By the way, the year after I was cut I got called in to reaudition, and I was like, Nope. Cooking-competition shows gotta learn to take more risks as major networks begin competing with excellent indie content.

That would explain the recent shift in the whole cult of the celebrity chef.

Most celebrity chefs are not that great [in terms] of skills, but fortunately the industry is starting to pay more attention to the cooking rather than just the persona. In truth, my hero is Anthony Bourdain. He was a cis white man, so he got the platform, but he used it for good. All people of color in the food industry, high and low, mourned him on the day he died. His death was very culturally significant.

Many moons ago I performed a burlesque number where my own ABC soccer mom was trying to spice things up by copping aspects of Indian culture, like the cuisine, attire, and Bollywood dance moves. It totally backfired on her. It was supposed to be satire, but was actually insensitive pantomiming. The outcome didn’t meet the objective. This seems to happen a lot in the culinary world as well, as we’ve seen with the Kooks Burritos fail. What are your thoughts on people opening up ethnic eateries that don’t reflect a heritage or lived experience? Is there a way to do it right?

It’s not that black and white. Dominant cultures will always try to dominate; tribalism is part of human nature. Successful cultural sharing is about placing equal value on all cultures. Indonesian history is steeped in colonialism, not only from Europeans but from thousands of years of Indian, Chinese, and Arabic influences. The ethnic diversity runs deep, yet we know how to borrow from each other. There are food courts with every kind of food imaginable: ethnic food rooted in local tribes; [dishes] inspired by Chinese, Arabic, and Indian cuisine; postcolonial Western-style food; and newly developed hybrids that mix every cuisine under the sun. No cuisine is vilified, and root identity is readily exposed by way of name, plating, or branding, with price points averaging out to be the same. Had he been behind Kooks, Bourdain would have had Mexican chefs running that truck, proceeds going back to Mexican people, and he would have challenged average Americans to discover and enjoy real Mexican food. Those two ladies? Not so much.

It was a problematic narrative that I really think they thought would be the selling point; the privilege and whimsy of going to Mexico, picking the brains of the natives, “peeking into kitchen windows” to learn their secrets.

That’s the thing—even if you aren’t giving back to the community, you still have the power of the narrative. So why not be truthful? Don’t just say where it originated from and how you made it better; that’s still treating ethnic food as second-class-citizen fare. So as far as the melting pot is concerned, white Americans still place arbitrary values on other cultures. Until they stop doing that, a white person opening a Guatemalan food truck will always get the side eye.

Dominant cultures will always try to dominate; tribalism is part of human nature. Successful cultural sharing is about placing equal value on all cultures.

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It’s hard to talk about food in Western, namely American, culture and not bring up the damaging effect it can have on one’s allover state of well-being. I witnessed and experienced it firsthand in my own household, where food was used to shame and control, with none of the joy of variety and exploration.

Food in America…that relationship is like a bad lover. I’ve fed enough people to understand that our biggest issue in America is the fact that people have a very toxic relationship with food. Anyone depriving themselves of an amorous relationship with food is missing out on one of the best things in life. Aside from the topic of cultural appropriation, I want to help re-establish people’s relationship with food in a way that is coming more from an empathetic and emotional point of view.

Do you feel the East differs from the West in that regard?

Indonesians, and Asians in general, have a very narrow definition of beauty, but it’s an East Asian ideal. Neo-imperialism comes in many forms. They’re not immune to the toxicity, but most of the girls don’t care if they are a bit fluffy as long as they can eat all the food. [Laughs.] If you freak out about food, then you are more likely to be shamed for being ungrateful than for being fat.

How would you like to change the way people interact with food? What are your approaches to improving that relationship?

Using real ingredients and introducing different types of flavor palates. Never vilifying any food group or ethnicity, as long as it’s not processed. Nature gave us food to be honored and cherished and consumed, not vilified. While I stick to authenticity in the ingredients and methods, I present it a bit differently, a bit updated, to make it more relevant for the audience without sacrificing the food itself. If my granny was here she would say, “Yes, that’s correct and that’s the way it’s supposed to taste, but I would have never thought of doing it that way. It’s a good idea, an interesting idea.”

I still get in fights with my husband over the way certain Italian dishes are “supposed” to be prepared. He’s so radically liberal in all areas of life except Italian food—then it’s, “No, you’re tampering with tradition and ruining it.” I’m like, “Don’t ever visit Olive Garden, y’all…”

[Laughs.] Didn’t they have a thing on the internet where Italian grannies rated Olive Garden? If Nana approves of you doing things differently, that means you have successfully surpassed appropriations. My dad’s mom used to take the baked goods I brought her and put them on the altar for my dead grandpa along with the offerings she made. She said she wanted Grandpa to have the first taste. I imagine all the time that I’m having a dialogue with her in my head. RIP Granny!

On your food and culture blog, The Joy Of Feasting, you suggest educating people starting with Indonesian food philosophy. How would you sum up the Indonesian philosophy, especially in regards to wellness and nourishment?

Food is a gift to be savored in all its glory. The biggest asset we have as Indonesians is being able to recognize the balance of all the flavor components: salty, sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, and umami, often in one bite. Indonesian food philosophy is about balance and restraint, and appreciating food as not only nourishment of the body but also of the soul.

This story has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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by Emily Linstrom
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Emily Linstrom is an American writer and artist residing in Italy.