IT WASN'T A SURPRISE to most die-hard Top Chef fans that speedracer Hung Huynh, the 29-year-old Vietnamese American chef from Las Vegas, won season three's title. Of all the contestants, Huynh's classic Asian and French training, along with his cutting edge ideas-i.e., the coconut froth that he served on one of his final winning dishes-made him a cut above the rest. Huynh might have been this season's shark, but in the end it didn't matter.
Asian Americans have made quite a splash on the show. Season one's Lee Ann Wong has gone on to work behind the scenes of the show, and season two's Josie Smith-Malave can be spotted as a celebrity chef on Olivia Cruises. And of course, how can you miss hostess Padma Lakshmi? On other shows, there's Mary Ann Salcedo, Gordon Ramsey's sous chef on Fox's Hell's Kitchen.
But the abundance of Asian American chefs on reality television only serves to highlight the complete lack on the Food Network. That's right-the only regular Asian faces on the cable network's 24-7 broadcast schedule seem to be from the Iron Chef series. And of these powerhouse Japanese chefs, not a one speaks English. Yet, search for 'Asian' on the Food Network website and hundreds of recipes come up, like Sara Moulton's Asian fish sticks or Bobby Flay's Asian lamb chops.
Asian American celebrity chefs on television have never really found their niche, especially on the Food Network. While both Ming Tsai and Martin Van claim that airing their shows on public broadcasting is a better fit, is it more about mainstream America's restricted television palate?
Martin Van began his cooking career with an apprenticeship at a popular Hong Kong restaurant at the age of 13, then went on to the Overseas Institute of Cookery in Hong Kong, and later pursued a master's degree in Food Science at the University of California, Davis. He began teaching in the university's extension program, and it wasn't long until he had a local cooking show on San Francisco's KQED, the ubiquitous Van Can Cook, that went on to be syndicated worldwide. Some 26 years later, Van continues to work with PBS.
"My style fits the PBS network more than the Food Network," Van said. "I'm not sexy or as fashionable as some of the hosts [on the Food Network]."
Van says he has been satisfied with his long-term relationship with PBS because of ownership. "The Food Network owns the show and all the rights," he said. "I don't want to be owned by anyone else. Our show is broadcast in 59 countries around the world."
But he also admits that the lack of Asians on the Food Network has to do with the bigger picture. "It has a lot to do with who controls the mainstream media," he said. "Look around and see how many Asian actors are being principal actors in television shows. Very few. That's why Bruce Lee left Hollywood!"
While Van is seen as-and often criticized for-being the perpetual foreigner, Americanborn Ming Tsai was supposed to be the new model, bridging the gaps with his show East Meets West. Tsai's show aired on the Food Network from 1998 to 2003, and now he too calls PBS home for his new show Simply Ming.
Professor Martin Manalansan, a sociocultural anthropologist who teaches at the University of Illinois, has been looking at the way mainstream Americans and immigrants parse Ming Tsai for the last seven years.
"There's a thing with audiences where it's either too Asian or not American enough," Manalansan says. "They tried doing that with Ming Tsai-they tried creating this all-American persona." Manalansan points to the opening credits of East Meets West, which shows an image of Tsai playing tennis in bright whites, which then morphs into an image of Tsai in silk pajamas doing the lotus pose.
"Asian flavors are okay when they are domesticated," Manalansan says. "But there is a limited novelty to Padma and Ming. America cannot take them home as one of them. It's not like Paula Deen, the Southern woman at home, or the Barefoot Confessa, the wealthy woman in the Hamptons. These people are the chef next door and that next-doorness can be accommodated into the mainstream American home. Ming Tsai is more anxiety-producing."
Ming's new show is trying to be less gimmicky about the fusion of flavors. Laurie Donnelly, Simply Ming's executive producer, says Tsai was influenced by his parents who ran a Chinese restaurant in Dayton, Ohio. "Ming is very aware of what his identity as an Asian American means," she says.
Manalansan argues that at a moment when things are supposedly fusing globally, there is a resistance to that in the way people think about food. "It's like fusion food can accommodate Asian flavors as long as they don't take over," Manalansan says. "The same way enemies or immigrants might take over."
Professor Anita Mannur, who writes about Asian American literature and food, agrees. She points out that Asian Americans are much more likely to have shows where they travel back to their supposed homeland. "We're still not in a place where Asian American identity is available," Mannur says. "They want to see Chinese-ness represented in a typical form. They want a passage to India."
Mannur notes out how even Hung fit into the Asian stereotype in the way they portrayed him on Top Chef. "He was very good with technical skills," she says. "The whole machine-like, robotic Asian image."
Then there's Padma Lakshmi: supermodel, famous ex-wife and cookbook author. "Padma does nothing on the show. What is the message she sends?" Mannur asks. Her new cookbook, Tangy Tart hot and Sweet, is aimed at a young, cosmopolitan crowd. "It has an erotic appeal to it," Mannur adds.
Mannur hypothesizes that part of why the Food Network stays away from Asian chefs is because there isn't enough product buy-in like with Rachel Ray-partially because mainstream Americans shy away from cooking Asian food at home. In the fine dining world, French cuisine is king and most Asian cooking is still a mystery.
"It's not fine dining. It's not even home cooking," Manalansan says. "It's seen as a supplement. It doesn't become part of your home. We have takeout Sunday night because mom doesn't want to cook. The Chinese takeout is so foreign that it becomes a way to represent failed domesticity."
Manalansan points out a scene in Sex and the City when Charlotte, the series' most domestic character, is preparing dinner, and she is in the kitchen surrounded by takeout cartons. She says: "I'm a bad housewife, I ordered Chinese." Then her husband comes in and says that he, too, has something from China-which alludes to their adopted baby.
"There is this slippage that people think is harmless, but it stabilizes the idea of Asians as foreign," Manalansan says.
As food programming goes more towards reality programming, maybe Asian Americans will take over by default. But until then, our celebrity chefdom will remain relegated to public broadcasting, hot models and, say it with me now: Van Can Cook!
Donna Tam contributed to this article.
Writer Neelanjana Banerjee