There's been some volatile tit-for-tat accusations of cultural appropriation in the Auckland restaurant scene. It has led popular Auckland eatery Coco's Cantina to consider changing its name after 11 years as a staple Italian restaurant and bar on K-Road. It all started when yet-to-open seafood restaurant kingi was accused of culturally appropriating the Māori language. Tom Dillane talks to cultural experts and restaurant owners.
There was a slightly bitter tone in the voices of Auckland's tops chefs when asked whether cooking cuisine from a culture other than their own was problematic for them.
It wasn't anger, but rather a reluctance to answer a question that was unpalatable.
Perhaps even a question that defied the culinary ethos of influence and inspiration that guided the city's best restaurants to create a new dish.
"I believe cooking is a skill and like any skill it can be mastered by anyone willing to learn about a cuisine or heritage," said Sid Sahrawat - the owner and chef of culturally polar opposite Auckland restaurants - Sidart, Cassia, and the French Cafe.
Half-Chinese Kiwi restaurateur Lucien Law owns 10 prominent Auckland restaurants spanning Parnell's Non Solo Pizza to Ponsonby's Azabu.
His answer immediately revealed how fraught it is to hold restaurant owners and workers to such standards.
"I'm half-Chinese, I don't have a Chinese restaurant. I'm lucky to have Yukoi Ozeki [head chef of Azabu]. He's born and bred Tokyo. We've worked together for nine years," Law said.
"But I don't think it matters. People vote with their feet. I guess I have an opinion, I think it's fine, whether you're from that country or not, you're trying to represent it, give it a twist.
"I wouldn't have a problem with a Japanese guy having a cafe, I think it's great."
'Kingi' stoush: Māori cultural appropriation, or simply a fish?
Coco's Cantina considers name change after claims of appropriating Latin culture
Even if you want to bring numbers into this murky stew, things didn't add up.
According to the Restaurant Association of NZ, 42 per cent of Auckland's 133,000 hospitality workers are migrants - many presumably cooking up and serving menus equally foreign to them as their diners.
The cultural angst began when Coco's Cantina co-founder Damaris Coulter accused fellow young restaurateurs Tom Hishon and Josh Helm of appropriating the Māori word for king in their new restaurant venture.
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Today The Sunday herald did a story on the naming of restaurant @kingi_britomart and mentioned the concerns that our co-founder and ex owner Damaris had bought to them around the naming of their restaurant. One of the Kingi advisors asked us to respond to his concerns around the name of our restaurant, as he and others find it offensive. “Cantina” is a internationally used name that describes a pantry, wine cellar, kitchen store room, wine bar, food store, or food and drink establishment and many more. “Coco’s” is a female figure who took inspiration from french women Coco Chanel, as we wanted to give the Space a feminine energy. (Please note: Coco Chanel & the perfume were only part of the Coco’s feminine energies that we took some inspiration from, there were many different elements and contributors to our name). If our eatery name has ever offended anyone, we are deeply sorry, we have never intended to ever upset, offend or disrespect anyone, and it’s important that we understand if we have. We understand the world is changing and we need to change with it, maybe this means we need to change our name? This isn't a fight between Coco's Cantina & Orphans Kitchen, we loved their breakfast crumpets & shared hospo yoga space & like us, they have worked hard as owner-operators in this ruthless hospo scene, its not even about restaurants, it’s highlighted a much bigger conversation that all of us need to engage in and we welcome this conversation. We’ve always been vocal about social justice, equality and advocacy so we invite these conversations and are happy to sit at the table to discuss these critical issues and find positive ways to move forward. Maybe some of you can help facilitate these conversations?? Maybe @eat.newzealand @thespinofftv @nzhviva @metromagnz @deconstruct_nz @_annyma @radionewzealand @ngaarahuink @tekurudewes @actionstationnz @nzhumanrights @purenewzealand could help us engage a wider conversation? Send us a message if you have any concerns or want to be of this wider conversation 🙏🏽🙏🏽🙏🏽
A post shared by Kitchen🍝Bar🍹Happy Hour 👨🏾🍳 (@cocosischange) on
Hishon and Helm had always maintained the name kingi was a colloquial shortening for kingfish used by fishermen the world over, and they had deliberately left the Māori macron out of its spelling.
Coulter's Instagram barrage led to some reciprocal accusations by Auckland-based Māori graphic designer, Anzac Tereihana Tasker, who had advised Hishon and Helm in their kingi name choice.
Tasker suggested Coco was a derogatory term for black people and Pacific Islanders, and that the Coulter sisters had appropriated the concept of a Cantina as they weren't Spanish.
Many other people online pointed out what they saw as the hypocrisy of Damaris Coulter's comments, but most stopped short of suggesting the name Coco's Cantina was a genuinely offensive appropriation.
Outside social media, the feedback from most Māori cultural experts contacted by the Weekend Herald has been far more sympathetic to Hishon and Helm's efforts to culturally consult Māori over the name kingi.
Māori cultural adviser Karaitiana Taiuru argued that the kingi restaurant name was actually "promoting the Māori language" and that legitimate culinary or linguistic appropriation of Māori culture was a very short list.
"A non-Māori using Māori words for the business is fine as long as they know what the word means, and the word isn't a sacred name or a person's name, or associated within an event," Taiuru said.
"So if it's just a normal word it's not appropriation. But it certainly is if you're using sensitive words, and it just boils down to just a bit of consultation."
Appropriation of Māori cuisine was also fairly simple in Taiuru's mind.
"Pre-colonisation, food was either eaten raw, roasted over a fire, or steamed - the hangi," he said.
"Some restaurants I am aware of, they just use different New Zealand species, [like] kina. I don't see any issue with that.
"I would if there was maybe a non-Māori person with a hangi. I think that would be a bit strange."
Te Aroha Grace has served as the general manager of Auckland iwi Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei and was brought into consult over Hishon and Helms' new venture.
Grace said there were no hard and fast rules over Māori cultural appropriation. The determining factor was the extent to which a business has engaged with the local iwi over a name, image or product.
In this case it should have directly been Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei iwi as the local authority.
"To me, the cultural appropriation is only if Tom [Hishon] never convened anyone," Grace said.
"If he just went ahead and did this of his own volition without any vocation to engage and convene the cultural energies that were involved. That's the tragedy that lots of Pākehā are suffering from. They just don't know how to engage."
"It's treacherous ground right now because cultural appropriation is a trend. That's because of Black Lives Matter, all of these things which we know.
"Even Māori, everyone's got to be careful that they think they've got a monopoly on the truth."
University of Auckland co-head of the school of Māori and Pacific studies, Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath, was less accommodating of the kingi name if it had been a direct reference the Māori word.
"My first gut reaction is that's not cool," Tiatia-Seath said. "Kingitanga, you kind of don't go there."
"Me being in the business of decolonising lots of narratives that I work on daily and I guess these little things do get under your skin a little bit.
But in light of Hishon and Helm's claim they didn't mean to reference the Māori word kīngi, Tiatia-Seath softened.
"As long as a business is completely open about it having no cultural connotations then I suppose that's fine," Tiatia-Seath said.
"If there was consultation, it wouldn't really matter who was fronting the business as long as local iwi felt good about it."
Massey University Professor Paul Spoonley is a social sciences academic with expertise in race relations and echoed the Māori cultural advisors in prioritising engagement.
But Spoonley acknowledged - just as the Herald found - that notions of appropriation are problematic amid the diversity of viewpoints within the Māori community.
"The difficulty comes in that even among those who have some sort of cultural claim, they might disagree on how important it is," Spoonley said.
"So it becomes both difficult to have a conversation, and to resolve the issues when you've got so many competing viewpoints.
"I think it's really important that we don't misuse or mispronounce names. But we use borrowed language all the time and language itself is changing. So we need to be pragmatic in this.
"I think we're in a process of negotiating what's appropriate and what's not, and these are incredibly sensitive discussions. But in the process, you don't want to veto or close off options."
And then there are the chefs themselves, who above all else ended most conversations with the overarching wish their business just survive the year 2020.
Rebecca Nelson is co-owner of newly opened Ahi restaurant in Commercial Bay with chef Ben Bayly.
Neither of the pair have Māori heritage but decided on the te reo name for fire, ahi, to acknowledge "the people that were here first".
To bring it full circle, the pair did meet Damaris Coulter, among a number of other Māori consultants.
"We took very seriously what she was saying to us, to make sure nothing on our social media or website was offensive," Nelson said.
"I was mortified to think that we were trying to benefit financially from jumping on the Māori bandwagon so to speak.
"That was so far from why we called it Ahi. It was very much as a nod to New Zealand."