Guest Column: Suzanne Barr on cultural appropriation in cooking

Suzanne Barr, co-owner and chef at True True Diner, on how culinary authenticity comes from respect.

Suzanne Barr, co-owner and chef at True True Diner

On cultural appropriation in cooking

Suzanne Barr, co-owner and chef at True True Diner

In addition to being the co-owner and chef at True True Diner, Suzanne Barr is also the head chef at Avling Kitchen and Brewery, a recently opened east end spot for locally-sourced Canadian cuisine.

I think that cultural appropriation takes a look at whether people are respectful, mindful and are showing gratitude and dignity towards the cuisine they are preparing, and how they offer that to their customers. It’s an opportunity for a restaurant, restaurateur, chef, cook or anyone to create something with the understanding of the potential struggle, commitment, dedication, passion, love and soul, and present that food in a way that’s in line with how it should be represented.

It’s happening quite often. We see people from different cultural backgrounds making dishes that are not native to them. That’s beautiful when it’s done in a respectful manner – and, I think, it’s a missed opportunity when it’s done disrespectfully.

All we have sometimes, for some people, is our food, our culture, our native tongue and our native food. I think it’s important to be able to respect and to honour that.

Does the intention feel authentic to you?

On the diners’ experience

It’s about looking in and finding a connection that you might have with that restaurant. Does it personally feel authentic to you? Not authentic in the sense that you are feeling “this is true Indian food”, but authentic in their intention. Is their intention authentic? Are they just using a fad and running with it?

Ask questions to the servers. They’re the first point of contact. The information that they have will let you know how engaged management is in educating their team.

On staying authentic

It needs to be based on a lot of respect. The approach to it has to come from a very clear place. It can’t come from a place of insecurity, insensitivity or negativity. It has to come from a place of feeling connected and feeling respected. Because when you miss that, then the result is someone who feels that they weren’t even considered.

With all of my cooking, when I’m making anything, it’s a process. This might sound cliché but I do pay homage to my ancestors. I do little ceremonies within myself in reconnecting. I do a lot of research. I have a pretty extensive selection of cookbooks and I go back to these and look at old traditions. I also go back to traditions that I remember from when I was growing up.

I always want to make sure that if I’m making something, I’m thinking about the people who made it first, how it impacted their lives, how it’s going to impact the people that I’m making it for now and how they’re going to enjoy the food. Intention is a big part of it. My intention is to make a wicked dish and sell it at a fair price based on the ingredients that I’ve used. I’ve done the work.

On Toronto’s food scene

My feeling about the food scene in Toronto is that it’s really wicked. It’s exciting to be a part of it in this way ­– not that owning a restaurant or being a chef is the only way to experience the food scene. Just being aware of the cultures immigrants bring to this country is going to give us foresight into what we’re about to experience and what food is going to make statements in the city. Immigration is and will always be a core part of what makes this country what it is.

I think that recognizing the Indigenous people and understanding a lot more about Indigenous food, Indigenous crops and Indigenous ways of food preparation is going to shift a lot. We’re going to see more of that in the coming conversations and new restaurants or dining experiences.