An open letter to My Mexican Cousin

UPDATE: please find the reaction to this post here.

Melbourne is a city in the grip of a culinary phenomenon where any new “so hot right now” restaurant seems to have a cuisine angle. Specifically, offering dishes and cuisines which are foreign to most Australian palates. “Real” Mexican food has enjoyed a huge resurgence of late and it appears the next progression is cashing in on American comfort foods, such as the New England inspired lobster roll served at Golden Fields, or the  PoBoy which is cropping up on sophisticated menus around the city, despite being a cheap and (literally) poor man’s sandwich.

The thing that really bothers me about this proliferation is the “emperors new clothes” element. I feel as though many chefs are just seeking new ways to claim or describe their dishes to set them apart, without caring if they are in fact staying true to the item’s namesake. I am all for reinterpretation of food and recipes, but there is a responsibility when there is little or no local knowledge of the original dish to honor rather than exploit it.

For example – the PoBoy is a traditional New Orleans sandwich served in a specialised baguette-style loaf. It nearly always contains deep fried seafood, but sometimes has roast meats instead. CBD based eatery The Bottom End are currently serving a sandwich which is described on their menu as a PoBoy, and contains cold cooked shrimp, chorizo and egg. Not one element of their version actually fits the traditional profile of a PoBoy, but apparently simply calling it a sandwich didn’t fit their “Americana” themed menu, so they improvised.

The most recent newcomer to the scene is My Mexican Cousin (MMC), who have touted themselves as a Creole eatery. Creole is an umbrella term for a broad variety of worldwide cuisines (Haitan, Mauritian, New Orleans etc), generally united by a history of slave culture and cooking. It seems MMC have decided to lump all these highly individual cuisines in one basket under the trendy guise of a food style not previously offered in Melbourne. The mere fact that each of these unique food cultures have been carelessly amalgamated into one convenient restaurant is a diservice in itself.

I have little to no experience with Caribbean and African based Creole foods, but I do have a fairly decent understanding of New Orleans Creole. When press releases for MMC started hitting inboxes, the #creolerage began.  The most basic misnomer of New Orleans Creole cooking is that it is spicy. While some dishes can be, it’s generally Cajun food that brings the spice, whereas the refined Creole dishes from New Orleans are rich rather than fiery, with a strong French influence particularly evident in the sauces and preparation techniques. While other Creole foods from around the world may be characterised by their spice, this definition does not fit or accurately represent NOLA Creole.

Let me explain using one solitary dish how I developed #creolerage and why I will not be visiting My Mexican Cousin:

A share item on the menu is advertised as ” ‘boudin’ chicken drumsticks”.

– Louisiana Boudin is a 100% Cajun not Creole food. They are two completely separate cuisines with different characteristics and dishes, and attempting to use them interchangeably is ignorant.

– Boudin is a sausage that is made from pork and rice, and can be either Boudin Blanc or, with the addition of pigs blood, Boudin Noir.

– I was completely perplexed as to how they intended to put sausage inside a chicken drumstick, and what exactly their understanding of Boudin was. When asked, the waiter explained that Boudin was a white sauce with a chicken stock base. They could not offer an explanation of the provenance of this dish, despite the menu reading like an encyclopedia of culinary terms and origins.  I took to Google trying to find if one of the other Creole cuisines was the originator of this mysterious sauce ‘Boudin’, attempting to give MMC the benefit of the doubt, but to no avail. Of the hundreds of thousands of results,  the only definition and references for Boudin were to a variety of sausage. Even the various Caribbean versions of Boudin are all a type of black pudding/blood sausage.  So let me break it down. MMC are trying to serve you a white sauce coated chicken drumstick, and naming the dish after a pork, rice and blood sausage. Yeah, that’s not making a fool of themselves or their diners at all.

– If you really want to see me get snarky, MMC may also want to inform their waitstaff that it’s pronounced “boo-dan” not “boo-don”. It’s Cajun French, chef.

I have no interest in eating in a restaurant with such a high pedigree of chefs and owners who are making such erroneous menu claims. I appreciate that this may in fact be a delicious and well executed dish, but Creole it is not. Melbourne’s discerning diners deserve to be aware of this.

Really, I feel like Melbourne is under attack from the adult-version of theme restaurants, punctuated by menus which require a glossary. Perhaps soon someone will be confident enough to open a restaurant with excellent food that speaks for itself, without having to rely on the gimmick of exploiting a theme.

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Posted on Nov 13, 2011

31 Comments

  1. Bravo! I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets all ragey about this sort of thing!!
    Particularly for lesser known cuisines in our neck of the woods, like Creole and Cajun.

    Great post. Well written, well said. I still blame Masterchef for the poncey attitudes and laziness of some chefs and diners out there. but hey, that’s just my pet hate ;-)

    • BurgerMary says:

      Thank you. Not all American cooking is trashy and preservative laden. There’s a rich heritage which deserves to be respected. It’s nice to know I wasn’t the only one with irrational #creolerage! hehe

  2. Katja says:

    Hmmm… I would’ve been confused by the name. Thanks for the heads up. Though not a connoisseur of Louisiana cooking, I reckon I could even create something more authentic than what you wrote. Then again, I shouldn’t really say anything, as before I came here, I had no idea what a meat pie really was. I figured it was more like an empanada. I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong.

    I still don’t get the name My Mexican Cousin if they are trying to go for Creole… shouldn’t it be called My Gumbo Cousin or My Backwater, Gator-Huntin’ Cousin instead? (Kidding.) What about something as silly as Se li chwal?

    • BurgerMary says:

      I am totally confused by the name too! Maybe there’s a deeper connection that I am missing, but on the surface it would appear to be another cheap attempt to cash in on the Mexican craze? The whole concept seems a little unfocused.

      Jess from That Jess Ho suggests it should be called “food we stole from slaves”. I like that idea best.

  3. Brian says:

    Melbourne needs to stick to shite 4&20 meat pies and VB. If restauranteurs feel the need to exploit a culture to garner customers they either need to spend an extended amount of time in the area the food is comih from or hire a chef that has vast knowledge in cooking the cuisine. As an American I am appalled at the “Mexican” offerings of such places as Mama Shita as well as the “American” frozen food slopped onto plates at Misty’s diner. With such unique and exquisite offerings that native Australia can offer in terms of gastronomy I’m shocked that I can’t find a good nay great bush tucker establishment or restaurant specializing in such ingredients. Australia the land far away from everything but wanting SOOOOO bad to be some other country.

  4. BurgerMary says:

    Don’t even get me started on the place in the city that is doing VEGAN red beans and rice. The ENTIRE historical provenance of the dish is based on the ham bone left over from sunday dinner, made more economical by being reused to flavour beans and cooked overnight. A dish so iconic, most of New Orleans serves it specifically on a Monday. A dish who’s entirely backbone rests upon the inclusion of meat. And yet, this place is doing a MEAT FREE version so that they can serve vegan customers.

    I cannot express how inherently wrong this is.

    • Diem est says:

      Because vegetarians don’t deserve to eat out–not even a dish that can be EASILY adapted to cater to them, and which is called by the name of its principal ingredients. Staying exactly true to the original version of said dish is more important. Right. Gotcha.

      I’m all for attempting to create faithful representations of local variations in food, and I agree that a “Creole” restaurant serving Cajun food and calling itself ‘My Mexican Cousin’ is bizarre at best, but I don’t believe that traditionalism trumps inclusion. And, um, “Vegan red beans and rice” isn’t even calling itself by the same name.

      • BurgerMary says:

        Firstly- the dish is simply presented as “red beans and rice”, the word vegan does not exist on the menu. A diner asked about how the kitchen made it because they found it so bland, and thus discovered the vegan story. Also, this dish was NOT at My Mexican Cousin.

        Secondly – Vegetarians can have a salad. And they won’t make friends.

  5. Winston says:

    You are absolutely right. I liked how you didn’t hold back to truly speak your mind and totally honest in what you shared. As a paying customer, I’d HATE to be eating and served something which is not and not know anything about it. If I found out the truth, I’d feel really cheated. I really hope for a Melbourne food scene that’s true and full of integrity in what they do. This article really opened my eyes, thanks!

    • BurgerMary says:

      thanks for taking the time to comment! I suppose I may be taking it a little seriously, but it does seem to be a bit irresponsible to be misinforming people. Perhaps you will still check MMC out, but take the menu descriptions with a grain of salt…

  6. Winston says:

    No, no you have every right to. And we have every right to know, as you said. I like trying new and authentic food but because of my lack of knowledge or experience for something totally unfamiliar, I take things as it is. And can only hope that they’re as true as they say. Not particularly outraged or anything, but just a bit more wary that it all. Hopefully this article makes restauranteurs realise that customers aren’t as “dumb” as they think and they actually need to do their homework, haha! Have a great start to the week. Glad to have come across your blog, will be tuning in =D

  7. Thanks for standing up for our Cajun Cooking and for noting that there is a difference between Cajun and Creole cooking. Shame on any restaurant that simply calls something Cajun or Creole to attract customers. It happens here in the USA, too.

  8. njba says:

    Goodness me! I hate to be the lone voice of dissent, but—Surely the only criteria that really matters is deliciousness. Good service is nice, too, but deliciousness matters. Restaurants aren’t quasi-educational institutions after all. Food is constantly adopted, reinterpreted and changed. There is no static conception of food and nor will there ever. And that’s a great thing—otherwise we’d be eating flame licked woolie mammoth, or perhaps the moss that grows on rocks.

    • BurgerMary says:

      Sorry, but I think if it were just a matter of the taste of the dish, the whole point of presentation, restaurant fit out, service, visual food blogs etc would all be redundant. It’s clearly not that cut and dry. It’s important in this instance to note that MMC provide a full explanation of Creole food in their menu, including a summary, glossary and information about where the dish originates. In this sense, they are aiming to provide an informative and educational experience with their food, one which in this case is incorrect. If there is no quasi-educational element, then why are explanations and definitions necessary?

      Had they not been so adamant about clarifying their food style and literally defining their cuisine on paper, then my whole article wouldn’t even make sense. But they did, and so it does.

      Food history and provenance is significant, and its as important to continue producing classic dishes as it is to keep evolving them.

    • Yannick says:

      Deliciousness is important, there’s absolutely no denying any of that. But it’s not reinterpretation or adaptation if none of the original elements of the dish are even present. It’s one thing to give a classic dish a new twist, but merely using the name and offering something completely different (boudin v/s chicken stock sauce in this case) is unacceptable no matter how good it might taste and that’s what you fail to understand.

  9. Paul says:

    Mmmmmm, flame licked woolie mammoth….. :)

  10. Elisa says:

    Great post, very interesting read. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Catherine says:

    A great read and too true!

    At any mention of Mamasita I haven’t been able to resist telling people that they’re only buying into and eating hype. What I find unbelievable is people who know nothing of Mexican cuisine saying the restaurant serves “authentic” fare. I cringe every time.

    I would have been wary of My Mexican Cousin (knowing little of Creole food), but I would have certainly given it a go. Now I’m not so keen. Like “authentic” Mexican food, it looks like the closest I’ll get to Creole and Cajun food in Melbourne is by attempting to make it in my own kitchen.

  12. epicureaddict says:

    Yay! Someone said something…and MMC definitely isn’t the only guilty party… Great post, thanks!

  13. […] of you read (and reacted to) my critical post on new Melbourne restaurant My Mexican Cousin […]

  14. It’s frustrating, I agree you’ve gotta learn he rules before you can break ‘em. Nothing wrong with a new twist on an old favourit IF it is advertised as such. I’m only after delicious food, not that fussed if its authentic, unless you’re using authenticity as a selling point and it is just NOT. That drives me nuts.

    An example for me would be tapas – cheap finger food eaten at a bar, ordered dish by dish. You bar hop, you share a plate, you go to the next bar, etc. It’s not a fancy expensive meal where we all sit down, order a bunch of stuff at the beggining. Fine, call it tapas but don’t say it’s Spanish or ‘Authentic’ – wont find dumplings on a tapas menu, nor will you find fried polenta squares with chimichurri sauce.

    And I am sick of seeing ‘latin food’ on menus. No such country as Latinland. It’s just lazy cooking, trying to cover all bases. Why not just call the place ‘everything restaurant.’

  15. HK Epicurus says:

    This is also a pet peeve of mine.
    Dishes could be named ‘Chef XXX’s version of a Spaghetti Carbonara’ but I really hate it when it’s been reinvented by being passed off as an authentic dish. Try finding a proper Carbonara in Melbourne? Impossible. I’ve only seen it in Carlton Espresso when they do offer it in winter, and another shop with new Italian immigrants (Maccheroni) tried to make me one but couldn’t find proper guanciale.

    Or D.O.C. Pizza is another fine example. The pizza they serve does not have Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN) status and is certainly not of D.O.C. grade and Naples style, a naming misnomer. 400 Gradi on the other hand is the only VPN pizzeria in Melbourne but doesn’t even get much mention.

    You mentioned Golden Field’s New England lobster roll and as my friends who lived in that area mentioned – the one served there is not the authentic version. I subsequently read that Andrew was unhappy with the New England lobster rolls he had over in the states so he probably re-tuned it to suit, but it’ll be much better to call it a Andrew’s Interpretation of New England Roll to be more accurate to the name!

    There are also no authentic versions of a Spag Bol (as opposed to Tagliatelle al ragù alla Bolognese) – but I completely struggled to find a proper one in Melbourne, even if Florentino’s so-called Spaghetti Bolognese was tasty but not exactly the real thing.

    I’m not so anal as to think chefs should always stick to ancient recipes, but as a person who has lived in Melbourne for more than 20 years and has been ill-informed all this time until I had moved overseas and travelled more, I’m really becoming to see a big issue in how Chefs name their dishes after a traditional recipe but it is a bit too far off the truth. The Movida restaurants for instance do some of their stuff completely spot on, but some dishes resemble nothing like the original. I think it’ll be better if they name it as a ‘new’ version inorder to not mislead the customers : )

    K.

    • BurgerMary says:

      Thanks for commenting, K.

      You certainly do have an broad and in depth knowledge of food and cuisines! I understand that chefs will usually present their version of dishes. Its also difficult without access to the same ingredients to reproduce cuisines from another part of the world. I just wanted to clarify that I was not holding them to the same standards of “replicate or die” as you have listed above.

      What prompted me to write this article was that in this case, it was a matter of the restaurant calling their food Louisiana Creole, and serving something COMPLETELY different, not just their interpretation. Not unlike saying you’re a Thai restaurant and then serving Italian food. The good part is, we;ve been working hard to include several great New Orleanian dishes on the new forthcoming menu.

      Cheers.

  16. […] with their creole menu. Except, it didn’t all go according to plan as a little dissenting blog post by my friend BurgerMary made quite an impact on both the restaurant itself and the wider food […]

  17. […] heard, food blogger Burger Mary wrote a critical post about this venue, titled “An open letter to My Mexican Cousin”  in November last year. She basically said they shouldn’t be calling it Creole food as the […]

  18. […] Northside brunch challenge, and one of them told me about a food blogger, BurgerMary, who wrote an honest and critical review of the menu when MMC first opened. In a surprising and humble response, the powers that be at MMC […]

  19. Mattyt says:

    “PoBoy, and contains cold cooked shrimp, chorizo and egg” WTF?????? The shrimp should be coated in cornmeal and seasoning and fried. Chorizio is not Andouille and egg?????

  20. […] this whole creole contraversy was shaken and stirred when @burgermary started calling the authenticity of My Mexican Cousin’s creole credentials into […]

  21. […] Lab coffee and Sister Bella’s drinks menu. Admittedly My Mexican Cousins struggled at first. A blast from food blogger Burger Mary saw them hire her as a food consultant to improve their authenticity (despite, apparently, […]

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