Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Chinese Restaurants: The Customer's Always Right?

Tuesday's class brought up the interesting connection between consumer demand and a restaurant's identity. Though this relationship (in some practical sense) may be apparent, it provided a stark alternative to just viewing heritage and history as elements of a restaurant's validity. But then this raises the question- at what point (if there is one) is a restaurant no longer able to classify itself as a Chinese Restaurant?

I'm not sure if everyone is familiar with the chain of restaurants known as P.F. Chang's China Bistro. It is owned by a Caucasian male named Paul Fleming, hence the "P.F." The "Chang" comes frm the surname of one of the co-developers Fleming worked with during the production phase of his restaurants. The P.F. Chang's back in my homestate of Virginia does have a wait staff primarily composed of individals of Southeast Asian heritage; in addition to this claim of authenticity, it also boasts an interior, which one of the waiters slyly told me was in tune with feng shui. To a general restaurant novice like myself, the atmosphere seems appropriate. But is this a chinese restaurant? Can it claim this if Paul Fleming lacks the heritage and history of the owners emphasized in the assigned films? Well, in many peoples' minds, including myself, it is. The sad truth is, when I sit down to eat at a restaurant, its particular history may be one of the furthest things from my mind. I am too overwhelmed by the food in front of me to look past the perhaps superficial asthetics of the atmosphere. And yet suppose, there were more consumers like me- too preoccupied with the food to dig deeper into the question of whether this food is "Chinese" or not. In our minds, there is no doubt to the chain's credibility. And if enough people believe PF Chang's as representative of their definition of Chinese food, who's to say it isn't so? Is there some universal truth that takes priority over the business of consumption? It is kind of depressing to think that something as practical as supply and demand might shape a population's view of a certain culture; in a way this makes me wonder whether exploitation can be a term ever used to describe food culture, a culture whose identity is so intertwined with consumer demand.

Heather mentioned in class that Asian American restaurants used to serve both Asian food and American food such as hamburgers and fries on the same menu, emphasizing this dichotomy of being of Asian American. This reminded me of an all-you-can-eat buffet back home owned by a Chinese couple. They are in the process of handing ownership over to their son and his wife. The restaurant primarily serves traditional american dishes (pancakes,eggs,bacon for breakfast and deli sandwiches for lunch and dinner), yet most of its clientele is made up of asian americans. It is also located in a mall that mostly consists of stores that are thematically tied to Asian themes. So again, can it be considered a Chinese restaurant? Well it depends on who you ask. Many of its loyal customers believe so. After all the restaurant is owned by a Chinese family; certainly it has more of a credible claim to "Chinese restaurant" than Paul Fleming's restaurants. However, there are also many who just don't think of the food itself as Chinese, thus discrediting the restaurant of its claim. Each consumer has their own view and nothing can really sway them from their different degrees of authenticity imposed onto the restaurant.

1 comment:

Dan said...

It's not owned by Paul Fleming. It's a public company owned by shareholders now. Why didn't you mention the other co-founder Phillip Chiang, where "Chang's" comes from in the name?