When Bobbi Jo Rice opened her food truck in 2012, she settled on the name "Com Bun Yeu," Vietnamese for "rice noodle love," to reflect her passion for that country's cuisine.
But Rice, 34, a white woman from Brooklyn, soon found her branding was misleading customers.
"The food was far from authentic and my business was not meeting people's expectations for traditional Vietnamese fare," she told VICE.
At the end of 2014, she started fresh with a new truck and a name that left no room for confusion: White Girl Asian Food. The Austin, Texas-based business serves up "Chinese/Vietnamese inspired" banh mi sandwiches, "Korean bbq-inspired" bulgogi rice boxes, "Thai-inspired" noodles, and the like.
Rice's cooking has earned three stars on Yelp with extreme reviews on both ends of the spectrum e.g. " I'd rather burn my tongue than eat at this place" versus "Wow, just wow, what a sandwich!" But some are claiming the name itself is a blatant display of cultural appropriation by "privileged white whores," as one post put it.
"The oblivious tone-deaf white privilege here is astounding," said a post on the blog Angry Asian Man that was widely shared over the weekend.
VICE reached out to Rice to ask just WTF she was thinking with this concept:
VICE: Why Asian food?
Bobbi Jo Rice: Growing up in Brooklyn, New York with a mother who was an adventurous eater gave me the opportunity to be exposed to a cultural melting pot of foods. However, I found myself drawn to a particular restaurant, which became like a second home to me, named Joy Kitchen. When I finally had the opportunity to open a food truck in 2012, I was madly in love with the combination of fresh, rich, deep flavors and textures I found in Vietnamese cuisine.
Why did you choose to market it as White Girl Asian Food? Explain the 'white girl' part of the concept.
The original name, Com Bun Yeu, implies traditional Vietnamese fare. When rebranding, I wanted to get the point across that our goal was not to make traditional Asian food. I am a white girl cooking my rendition of Asian cuisine. Couldn't think of a name that was more honest and straight to the point.
Asia is pretty big, which cuisines from Asia are represented in your food?
Asia is an incredibly diverse place and we could never hope to represent all of Asia (or even most of a single country). We do, however, have loves from almost every different cuisine in Asia, and some of those loves make it into the food we cook every day. We borrow a little bit from everywhere, and while we cook far from traditional dishes, we rely heavily on the umami of Vietnamese, Thai, and Korean food, but we reserve the right to visit, borrow from, and celebrate other food cultures as well!
Is the menu more tailored to a suit a white person's palette?
Our hope is to reach everyone who loves great food. Our customer base is diverse as is our personal backgrounds. We wouldn't have it any other way! We hope our love of food shines through, and in our opinion, that is perfect for any palette.
Did you ever worry that this might be considered offensive, in terms of the fact that you're taking cuisine from a different culture or cultures and labeling it as "white"? Take for example this comment: "How many Asian people have had to be told their food was weird only to see white people turn around and charge ridiculous prices for it. My culture should not be a gimmick for making white people rich." How do you respond to that?
Unfortunately, I cannot report that opening White Girl Asian Food has made me rich :). I'm also not entirely sure I can solve that problem. The reason I say that is a lack of cultural acceptance of other people's food culture is a problem that only exploration of other food cultures can help resolve. Throughout my voyage as a chef, a minority small business owner (did you know only 26 percent of food establishments are owned by women? Booo!!!!), and as someone who is passionate about other food cultures than my own, a greater understanding of "weird" or different than my own has been not only largely enriching, but truly life changing.
But did you think the name White Girls Asian Food would offend people?
I didn't really ever think of that. I am a white girl making Asian food. If anyone was offended by my choice of name, I apologize. This was never my intention. If anything, my hope is to celebrate those cultures through food.
I noticed you were wearing an Action Bronson T-shirt on Facebook, are you a big fan of his?
Of course!! I'm originally from Brooklyn! We have Action Bronson Day every month at White Girl Asian Food.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.