Eddie Huang on the Oppressive Whiteness of the Food World

Is New York's food scene too homogenous?
Is New York's food scene too homogenous? Photo: Burke/Triolo Productions

Last summer I had the distinct privilege of being thrown in Sicilian jail for an altercation I had, over a plate of arancini, with a few guys from Forza Nuova, a far-right-wing political group belonging to the European National Front. I was filming my Viceland TV show Huang’s World, and the meal was meant to be a debate: We were eating arancini in an effort to show the guys from Forzo Nuova that, whether they wanted to admit it or not, the things they saw as purely “Sicilian” — like arancini, sesame seeds, or pistachio gelato — were actually North African in origin. Anyone who’s ever seen True Romance or Othello undoubtedly knows this history and recognizes that Sicilian food, culture, and identity are the product of mass migrations and diversity. But Forza Nuova didn’t want to hear it, and as the guys started to spew their anti-gay, anti-Semitic, anti-immigration rhetoric, a Sicilian passerby with a woman and a child overheard the conversation. He shouted out, “You people of Forza Nuova, who do you represent?!? Less than zero!” One of the interviewees responded by trying to fight the passerby, and ultimately he and his friends called some friendly plainclothes cops, who showed up and tried to take our footage. When we wouldn’t give it up, we were thrown in jail until the United States embassy got us out.

In jail, the question the cops kept asking was “How do you make a real hamburger?” I took a pen and a piece of paper, and did my best to draw a bun roughly the size of an In-N-Out burger and a patty similar to the Apple Pan. I noted that tomatoes and onions are mandatory, but lettuce, relish, and cheese are optional. I told them that for this style a griddle was the best cooking surface. If they had access to their own proprietary ground beef, then I suggested they make a restaurant burger resembling Corner Bistro or Peter Luger’s, which they could broil. I also told them about Carl’s Jr., which serves a $6 restaurant burger in a drive-through. They were enthralled. Jail wasn’t so bad.

I figured that would be the last time I’d mix food and far-right extremism — it’s a pairing that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue like lettuce, tomato, and onions. But last Thursday, on a public message board, it was revealed that Nick Solares, the restaurant editor at Eater, had been a member of a right-wing skinhead Oi! band called Youth Defense League. If you don’t know, Oi! bands are a subgenre of the hard-core punk scene that veers way off at times into fascism and white nationalism. Video of Nick Solares acting as the front man of YDL in the ‘80s was circulated to various media outlets and Eater staff. Eater did not send an official response and claims it did not know of this past.

None of the information being brought to light is clandestine. And it’s pretty fucking awful. A simple Google search yields a Youth Defense League Wikipedia page that quickly lays out, “The group has been accused of racism and possible neo-Nazi sympathies. The band’s usage of nationalistic slogans and struggle for the downtrodden white, working-class man has garnered much support from fascist groups worldwide … ” There is a very telling WNYU radio interview with Youth Defense League detailing skinhead unity, nationalism, and the formation of Youth Defense League, and here are lyrics to the Youth Defense League song “Voice of Brooklyn”:

Fought for this nation, is this what they get back?
Risked their lives for Brooklyn
Now Brooklyn belongs to crack dealers
‘Bout time the Brooklyn skinheads
Took their Brooklyn back!

According to Google Books, Solares himself was quoted in White Nationalist Skinhead Movement by Robert Forbes: “We are definitely a pro-American, Nationalist, [and] anti-Communist band.” Forbes then mentions that YDL’s political influences ranged from the U.S. Constitution and the Founding Fathers of America to David Duke’s National Association for the Advancement of White People. Another top hit is a 2014 post on the hard-core site No Echo with a photo showing Nick Solares in YDL, clearly stating the band was a Brooklyn Oi! band and informing us that his bandmate Rishi opened a tapas bar in Brooklyn and that Nick is now a renowned food writer and photographer.

As crazy as this sounds, it actually all makes sense to me that a guy like that would end up in a position like he did. First of all, food is an industry people recognize as democratic and forgiving. Restaurants and bars are places where you can work with a criminal history, without a high-school diploma, even without email or a bank account for some of my guys. It’s kind of a utopia that way — an environment that can be a model for how to deal with global issues at a small scale, and where you can taste, feel, and digest perspectives on a plate that may be indigestible in other forms. They are places where a Taiwanese-Chinese-American raised on Dipset can sit with Forza Nuova and argue over arancini. They are places where former skinheads seek refuge via tapas. And I think it should remain that way.

But of course a penitent skinhead would seek refuge in food. We are the last frontier of employment. When I was laid off, I sold weed, did stand-up comedy, and then opened a restaurant. It was a place where I could succeed, but I didn’t hide my past. I made it my business, I made it my purpose, and I made it public. When you work in the sphere of public opinion, it is the public’s right to know what past you’re walking out of. Your past should never preclude opportunities, but it absolutely informs your present. I haven’t found any evidence that Nick has tried to deny this past. It’s there in plain view for anyone who wants to find it. For this reason, I don’t blame Nick. It’s his employers’ job to be aware of this past and present it for his co-workers and audience to decide whether they buy into this rebirth or not. The food world did what it does in making a home for Solares. But his employer really should have vetted him better.

Wednesday night, six days after video surfaced on message boards, Nick Solares posted an apology: “I was a British kid who wound up falling in with a group of white-pride American nationalists, and while I was part of this group I believed the hateful things that they believed, and helped spread the message,” he wrote. “I am deeply ashamed by this, and I made the decision decades ago to disassociate myself from far-right politics and fully disavow the bigoted and dehumanizing ideologies they represent.”

As an individual, I think that’s fair enough. I believe in second chances for people who are well-intentioned. But in his apology Solares also said something curious: “I could not work for a company like Vox Media” — which owns Eater — “which strives for a culture of diversity and inclusion, or write about the joyous world of food in New York, if my views were not diametrically opposed to those I held back then.”

That made me think a little harder. Because Eater isn’t a restaurant like the ones I love. Eater is an industry gossip site that feeds insiders snackable, by-the-minute macaron gossip that gives you a sugar rush and crashes your browser with ads. And Eater isn’t forgiving (it doesn’t do it anymore, but it used to doom struggling restaurants by putting them on “Deathwatch”). They have Ryan Sutton, who does an exemplary job with his reviews, but overall the site lacks depth and breadth and, above all, diversity: A look at the photos of dining rooms on Eater’s 38 Essential New York Restaurants shows a collection of curated restaurants promoting the same aesthetic monoculture. Eater is not all-powerful by any means, but the Solares story raises the question: Who is forming the identity of this industry? The people living in this city? The people cooking the food? The people serving us? Or the former skinhead assigning restaurant reviews?

Eater’s response has been curious, too. The site hasn’t responded publicly. Instead, editors invited the Eater staff to speak personally if they had questions. Robert Sietsema responded internally by saying, “I love and support Nick … we all have skeletons in our closet.” In a conversation with colleagues about why Solares might have been motivated to withhold this information from Eater and Vox Media, the site’s executive editor Helen Rosner speculated that even people with personal histories significantly less grave and condemnable than Solares’ might not want to be forthcoming with their employers, offering as an example her own fear of people discovering that she had been caught shoplifting at the age of 25.* There seems to be an unwillingness to examine potential bias or a willful misunderstanding of bias in his position and how it works.

But what makes it all worse is that one of the things Eater has done is help push a kind of restaurant consensus around that monoculture, which goes a little like this: notable chef, must speak English, must be media-savvy, must have design-driven dining room, must kowtow to the scene, must have small plates, must push diverse histories through French ricers, must have toast points, must love dogs. Eater’s not alone in doing this — plenty of others do, too (including Grub Street). But the result is a formula that has basically condo-ized New York’s food culture with some ultimately pretty conservative, even intolerant, values. Which means maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a penitent skinhead near the top of Eater’s food chain. But it is a reason to try and shake things up. Food is so essential to our lives and social ecosystem that this news should be a signal not just to question the people in these positions of power but to question the positions themselves.

Yet and still, I wish Nick Solares the best and believe he is actually trying to change — because working for Eater is the least punk-rock thing he could possibly do.

*This post originally mischaracterized a statement attributed to Rosner. In reviewing the statement further, it became clear that this story was incorrect and that she was making the opposite point. We’ve updated the post to reflect that. We apologize for the oversight and the error.

Eddie Huang on Oppressive Whiteness in Food