On any given day, it seems there are as many people angry with Netflix as there are subscribers.
Obvious hotspots for controversy, such as cancellations, political documentaries, and 13 Reasons Why shenanigans, receive coverage from the press and, on occasion, attention from Netflix directly. But there are also subtler debates, the sort you won’t find discussed outside threads posted by passionate viewers. That’s where Street Food: Latin America, the latest project from Chef’s Table creators Brian McGinn and David Gelb, found itself after its July 21 release.
Most people don’t think of culinary TV as a catalyst for political and social tensions; covering , I certainly didn’t. But search “Street Food Netflix” on any popular social platform and you’ll find a wide array of reactions to the docuseries. Sure, there are plenty of fans gushing over its and , but many others have criticized the show for its perceived ignorance and insensitivity.
I’ve talked to a lot of friends in the food industry here in Buenos Aires and NO ONE identified with the story told by @netflix Street Food and many expressed being tired of this foreign gaze and erasure of story. If the story isn’t meant to reflect us, who is it meant for?
— Kevin Vaughn (@iamkevinvaughn) July 25, 2020
Described in its first season as an opportunity for viewers to “explore the rich culture of street food all over the globe,” Street Food documents unsung culinary heroes by visiting international cities and studying what chefs’ kitchens say about local culture. It’s a model for food-centric storytelling used in plenty of projects, including Gelb’s acclaimed film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and it’s widely revered as one of the most lasting aspects of the late Anthony Bourdain’s legacy.
“Both David and I were really impacted when Tony died,” McGinn tells Mashable over the phone. “What we saw in Tony’s series was the way that he engaged not with the most ‘famous’ people in the places he went, but with people that were dealing with the issues of the day in their cities and countries.” It’s what Gelb and McGinn, during the call, describe as their “character-first” approach.
Most critics agree the creative pair do this well. On Rotten Tomatoes, Street Food: Asia and Street Food: Latin America hold 100% and 83% ratings, respectively. Elsewhere, it’s not uncommon to find TV fanatics and foodies entrenched in digital discussions of their favorite chefs from the series, uniting over a shared appreciation for cooking, wanderlust, and good people. Expressing shock that one can be brought to tears by a recipe and the family history it grew out of is not uncommon in these spaces. Not uncommon at all.
If you’re looking for a good distraction, I highly recommend, the Street Food Latin America show on Netflix. I love that they focus on women owned businesses & showcased so many stories of grit &resilience. When this all ends, I’m traveling to Oaxaca, Mexico to eat from this lady pic.twitter.com/GSrbG5RBGZ
— Ashanka Iddya (@aiddya) August 4, 2020
Of course, big reactions are what Gelb and McGinn, as storytellers, are hoping to get from their audience. For each place Street Food visits, the Netflix team works with local networks of journalists and writers to find food that’s not only fantastic to eat and look at — but also tells a story authentic to the location and its history.
“I don’t think we’re doing anything other than highlighting what’s already there and adding a little slow motion to it,” McGinn says of some fans’ emotional reactions to the series, emphasizing his and Gelb’s roles as outsiders in these communities. “We’re just trying to share the passions and talents of these people, so when it comes across that way, it’s really because of those amazing vendors.”
“The elements are really the character, the location, and the city,” adds Gelb. “Those things come together to produce the cuisine [and consequently, the story]. For street food especially, the history of that city and the influences that come from, for example, immigration to that city, or whatever it is — those factors are what come together to make the dish.”
Gelb and McGinn are both eager to praise their subjects’ ability and willingness to explain such historical influences to viewers. After all, trusting those experts is a huge part of what makes Street Food’s sleek, cinematic style enjoyable to watch even with no Bourdain-style narration.
But in getting to know their stars so well, Gelb and McGinn often face friction with audience members who do not feel those interviewed, be it chefs or scholars, adequately represent their cities. Since the premiere of Street Food: Latin America last month, two main areas of contention have formed online.
The first centers on an explanation given by food writer Silvina Reusmann in the Buenos Aires episode, in which Reusmann describes Argentina as being “more similar to Europe” than to other Latin American countries. She goes on to say “there aren’t many native people” in Argentina, but that it is predominantly a “culture of immigrants.”
Reusmann’s analysis, which comes in the first five minutes of the season, garnered outrage from numerous viewers who saw her take as both an erasure of Argentina’s indigenous people and as continued whitewashing of Afro-Argentine history. “Stop asking whites to explain things,” one Twitter user wrote. “They are clueless.”
the beach, everyone is the same. Everyone is there to have fun.” Then cut to a Black woman who sells food on the beach for a living. So there’s no difference in labor? Who are the people who actually get to enjoy leisure? Stop asking whites to explain things. They are clueless.
— I said BLACK (@InADash) July 26, 2020
The second controversy involves similar allegations of erasure, though these focus on what was not included in the series instead of what was. Dozens of Street Food: Latin America viewers have criticized Netflix, and in turn Gelb and McGinn, for not including any countries from Central America in the series, which consists of six half-hour episodes at present. “Central America exists,” one viewer commented on the show’s trailer. “We’ve got street food.”
“Why was ALL of Central America left out of your Netflix: Latin American Street Foods show [sic] when we have some of the best papitas, platanos, sopa de mariscos, pastelitos, yuca frita, tamales and other delicious plates!?” wrote another. “Are we too indigenous for you?”
While Gelb and McGinn stand by Reusmann’s analysis (as clarified in a later email to Mashable), they’re in total agreement that covering more of Latin America is of critical importance.
“Every time we put out a show, people are tweeting at us or writing us on social media asking, ‘Why didn’t you do my country?”” Gelb says on the phone. “But I encourage your readers, even if we don’t have the specific country that you want, the more people that watch the show, the greater chance that we’ll be able to do more and come to the city that you want.”
@netflix so I love the streetfood Latam but man not a single episode in Central America? ☹️ there are 179,788,641 people in Central America and many more with heritage here in the US, missed business opportunity big time
— Terreh N. (@Terenica) July 24, 2020
Criticism like this has inspired discussions about colonialism, cultural appropriation, xenophobia, racism, the preservation of tradition, and plenty of other subjects that perpetually hover around culinary television. If you dig deep enough into these themes and conflicts, you’ll soon find the three hours it takes to watch Street Food: Latin America dwarfed by the colossal history needed to provide the series diligent context. But you may also find that its existence, as imperfect as it may be, offers a critical step forward in mainstream culinary education.
“Unlike with Chef’s Table, there’s not been a lot of long-form journalism done about vendors selling on the streets in these cities,” McGinn says, nodding to the oversaturated market of celebrity chefs on TV that stands in contrast with the often lacking records of local cuisine. “So that has enabled us to enter at a ground level, while trying to find a way to tell stories that are reflective of these places and, hopefully, authentic through the eyes of those characters who are telling us their story.”
It’s this sort of academic service that has inspired many to defend the series, arguing its net good effect outweighs its alleged shortcomings. If it weren’t for Street Food capturing what it does, it’s likely many viewers would not be considering such matters at all.
I’m loving it! We are so desperate for representation, I hope the show continues so we can get more!
— Vanessa (@prlatina44) July 23, 2020
When asked about the educational and historical value of their series, McGinn and Gelb are reluctant to accept praise or, for that matter, too much responsibility. They’re happy to hear people are learning from the show, but have never intended to “present it like a classroom.” They’re more interested in being taught alongside their viewers by the chefs they’ve chosen to spotlight.
Relying once again on the character-first approach perfected by Bourdain, McGinn and Gelb emphasize that it’s the commonalities among themselves, their subjects, and their viewers that drive their love of multicultural appreciation.
“A part of telling other people’s stories is reaching more understanding,” McGinn concludes. “Fundamentally, the same core values are the things that matter to us all over the world. Our families matter to us. Our culture matters to us. Our food matters to us.”
“That’s the purpose of a show like this,” adds Gelb. “It’s opening a door to our audience and saying, ‘Let’s take a trip together because this place seems amazing.'”
Street Food: Latin America is now streaming on Netflix.
UPDATE: Aug. 6, 2020, 9:01 a.m. PDT This article has been updated to correct a slight misquote.