The social costs of expecting cuisines to be ‘cheap’

By Corey Mintz - Published on May 9, 2016
person in a restaurant kitchen using a wok
A recent report says 43 per cent of Chinese restaurant workers are paid less than minimum wage.

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Toronto loves to wear its multiculturalism hat so much that we haven’t noticed how the cloth is frayed, and the stitching is loose.

A recent study on Chinese restaurant workers by a Toronto legal clinic reports that 43 percent of Chinese restaurant workers are paid less than minimum wage, with many working more than 40 hours per week and often denied overtime, vacation pay or statutory holidays. When we read about rampant labour exploitation like this, we’re often shocked, as if the large public has had no hand in it.

The truth is, we sort of do: at least partly this is the natural result of devaluing “other” cuisines. If we expect whole continents’ worth of foods to be cheap the savings have to come from somewhere — and if there’s one last area where money can be saved, it’s labour.

When people come to Canada, their international degrees and certifications unrecognized, the usual options are to drive a cab or work in a restaurant. New to the country and often lacking access to resources, they are ripe for exploitation and can be worked for less than the legal minimum, denied the overtime pay that is the right of any Canadian.

For all the wonderful and different foods you can find in Canada — and the fact the cultural makeup of just about any Toronto restaurant kitchen puts any corporate diversity program to shame — there’s a division in restaurant kitchens environments.

One restaurant world is the one you read about on top ten lists. The cooks in these celebrated restaurants typically work for two or three years in each kitchen. They’ll learn butchery at a well-respected nose-to-tail restaurant, cross-pollinate that knowledge with wok frying at the latest posh, pan-Asian spot, along with an infusion of their own cultures, bits of Filipino, Guyanese or Nova Scotian making it onto menus.

Then there’s another restaurant world, largely comprised of family-run, first- or second-generation immigrant-owned businesses. The cooks in these kitchens tend to stay for much longer periods of time. While working on a story, I was recently in the west Toronto kitchen of Korean Village, where chef Sang-Kum Suk has been working for 30 years. The owners told me loyalty is a prized component of their relationship with Suk, and key to the restaurant’s overall success. I’ve been in Korean, Chinese and Indian kitchens where the cooks have stayed 10, 20, even 30 years.

These kitchens, where the home country language is often the only one spoken, can also have a silo effect. Since cooks usually stay in these kitchens for such long stretches, they don’t cross-pollinate techniques between restaurants. A cook who works for a decade in an Indian kitchen is not only unlikely to go work in a Chinese or Peruvian restaurant — they’re also unlikely to work in a different Indian restaurant.

Within this division of working environments, a harsher distinction is grafted; the assumption that there are cuisines that the public is ready to pay good money for, and other cuisines we expect to be cheap.

For example: what’s the difference between a bowl of handmade Italian noodles and a bowl of handmade Chinese noodles? About $10.

In a downtown Toronto Italian restaurant like Terroni, a bowl of handmade cavatelli (or even the pastas they don’t make by hand) costs $19. Meanwhile, at nearby Anne’s Magic Kitchen, a northern Chinese restaurant where you can see the titular Anne rolling noodles from scratch, a bowl of dandanmian goes for $8.

While both dishes require skilled labour, restaurant prices are also a reflection of food cost, décor and rent. “Cheap and cheerful” is an often-employed descriptor, meaning, “hey, it’s an ugly room but you ain’t paying for ambiance.” That’s one logical area where any restaurateur can save overhead costs. Another is real estate: a suburban strip mall location will cost a tenth of the price for downtown, foot traffic heavy real estate.

There’s also food cost. We all make the tacit agreement that the beef in our tacos, in our lamprais and bulgogi, is not the hormone-free, open pasture beef that we agree is worth the cost at the upscale butcher shop, for health and ethical reasons.

But there’s no reason why Chinatown’s restaurants can’t be beautifully decorated and lit with something other than neon. And they could also take up the same expensive real estate as pricier restaurants.

Really, prices are about what the market will bear — and diners expect Chinese, Mexican and Caribbean cuisines, basically all food that doesn’t originate from a European menu, to be cheap.

In recent years it’s become fashionable to celebrate certain types of cuisine, alternately touted as “ethnic,” “international” or “diverse.” It’s been seven years since I wrote a restaurant review, and while I don’t think I ever used one of these terms, I did a lousy job showcasing all this city had to offer. In the ensuing years, Greater Toronto Area food writers and food tourists, who for a long time shunned the suburbs, have been engaging in intra-municipal travel to taste Hakka in Etobicoke, Sri Lankan in Scarborough, Taiwanese in Markham. This is a good thing: discovering a food you haven’t eaten before and sharing it with friends is great — even if it’s been in your neighbourhood and available to you for a long time.

Less appetizing is how people refer to these cuisines. All the terms listed above are nonsense. What is ethnic food? Are bagels ethnic? When you say international food, do you mean French? Every cuisine is all of these things, and none.

When people use terms like this, what they really mean is “other” — it’s a slow, unconscious process of separating and subordinating anything that diverges from accepted mainstream culture.

I’m Jewish. And while some Jews dispute the whiteness of this identity, I’m pretty sure I’m white: the police have only ever stopped and questioned me for no reason once — and it was while I was lined up for a Star Wars. So coming from a position of relative privilege, maybe I’m talking out of my butt. But look at menu prices and tell me I’m wrong.

However we may advertise Toronto on the world stage, there is still a food pricing hierarchy in place, handed down from colonialism. Because the one adjective that always accompanies these “other” cuisines is cheap. That’s why we have to refer to Dailo as “modern Chinese” or Los Colibris as “upscale Mexican” (it actually says that on their website). Do French restaurateurs have to tell you their food is upscale to charge what it’s worth?

We’ll pay $12 for mediocre eggs Benedict at brunch, but if the prices on a Chinese menu increase by $10, the response is often, “This better be amazing.”

I like a deal as much as the next person. But when we celebrate certain cuisines as necessarily cheap, what do we expect?

Corey Mintz is a Toronto-based food writer.

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