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Guest Host: Dan Reed
When you think of “cheap eats,” what cuisine comes to mind?
For nearly six years, Washington Post columnist Tim Carman wrote the “$20 Diner” column, which in his case meant he often wrote about the cuisine of immigrant groups of color. Think: Laotian food as opposed to French food. Part of this had to do with pricing: More Laotian dishes in the Washington region fall under $20 than French dishes. But why is that? Menu prices take into account labor, ingredients, presentation –but also our willingness to pay. Why are some cuisines considered high-end when others aren’t?
Starting this year, Carman will still write about food for the Post, but he won’t be writing under what he calls the “cheap-eats rubric” anymore. We discuss how Washingtonians value food, and how that’s reflected in dining decisions and restaurant business plans.
Produced by Ruth Tam
- Tim Carman Food Writer, The Washington Post
- Meshelle Armstrong Co-Owner, Kaliwa
DAN REEDWelcome back. I'm Dan Reed, in for Kojo Nnamdi. When you think of cheap eats, what cuisine are you imagining? For a long time, food writers acquainted cheap food with, quote-unquote, "ethnic food," a term now considered outdated for its ghettoization of certain immigrant food. It's not totally off base. More often than not, the cuisine of recent immigrants of color is more likely to be more affordably priced than cuisine that is considered fine dining. But why? Today, we're talking about how Washingtonians value certain foods, and how that plays out in dining decisions and business plans. Joining us now is Tim Carman, Food Writer at the Washington Post. Thank you for being here.
TIM CARMANMy pleasure.
REEDAnd Meshelle Armstrong, co-owner of Kaliwa, a Filipino, Thai, and Korean restaurant at the Wharf. Thank you for being here.
MESHELLE ARMSTRONGThank you. Thank you.
REEDNow, Tim, there's a lot of consideration that goes into menu prices: rent, labor, ingredients, service, presentation. But it also takes into account what diners are willing to pay. When it comes to diner perception, why are some cuisines in Washington able to charge $30 a plate, while others are often in the 10 to $20 range?
CARMANBoy, you're starting off easy, aren't you? That is a complicated question. And, you know, I think you hit upon several of the issues, and probably the primary ones. But it comes down to, I think, in a lot of diners' minds, perceptions. Like, what is considered a cuisine that they will pay more for? And that perception is built on a lot of different factors. And I focus in my column recently talking about dropping the name on one factor, which is the way the media writes about foods, and puts a lot of, you know, you used the term ethnic eats, ethnic foods, which, of course, I never use that term anymore. I feel it's outdated. It has a sort of marginalization of the cuisine. But I typically call it immigrant food now.
CARMANAnd, you know, foods prepared by recent immigrants that have started restaurants, and writing about these kind of foods under a cheap eats banner, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with after many conversations with chefs and restaurateurs, and felt that I was contributing to this problem of creating a perception in diners' minds that these foods will keep under a certain price point. and will. in a sense. forever stay under that price point. And I just don't think that's the way you have cuisine evolve. It should continue to evolve and should have room to expand. So, that was my role in it. But I think there's other ways that public perceptions are formed on whether or not they'll pay a certain price point.
REEDYou use the term immigrant food. When you think about it, you know, all food in this country is produced by immigrants, and it seems like when we talk about immigrant food or ethnic food, we're usually referring to immigrants of color.
CARMANTrue. But, you know -- and I think we're dealing with 21st century perceptions, right? And I think a lot of the food that people look at as immigrant food now tends to come from, like, Latin America, maybe Southeast Asia. But there were similar issues even, you know, in the 19th century, 20th century with, like, Italian food. Italian food was considered immigrant food or ethnic food, and people wouldn't pay a lot of money for it. But it has evolved, and now you've restaurants charging $40 for an entrée, you know, of seafood pasta. So, things do evolve. But it takes time, and it takes a change in perception on how you view that food.
REEDIt looks like we've got a call from Karl in Arlington. Karl, are you there?
KARLYes. I'm here.
REEDThanks for calling.
KARLGood afternoon, everyone.
KARLSo, my comment is, when you're talking about immigrant foods you're generic -- I say generally speaking, you're talking about a poor man's dish. So, I'm Latin American, for example, and a big -- you know, a very common dish for us is rice, beans, and some sort of protein, whether it be chicken, steak, whatever the case is. And I can -- you know, I have a pretty hefty dining-out budget. But I will not go to a restaurant that has that sort of dish for anything north of, I would say, $12, because after $12, it just -- at least in my opinion, it just comes off as a bit abusive.
REEDThank you very much, Karl. Tim, you started a column six years ago called "The $20 Diner," focused on dishes under the price point that Karl is talking about. What was your thinking about that? Was it something echoing what he just said, that these are foods that have a certain price point attached to them, or was it something else?
CARMANWell, you know, I think in a city like Washington, where, you know, the cost of living is high. I think we all know it, and it keeps getting higher. I think there's always been a broad and big audience for people who want to eat more affordably. And, you know, there's always going to be that audience. And I think my column caters to that audience. And it's not to say that, you know, the last caller who said he would only pay $12 for a dish of rice and beans with maybe a protein on top, it's like, "Yeah, of course." You know, we all have our sense of what our budget will allow. But I think, from my perception, it's like that can't be where it stops. Like, can -- do you allow the cuisine to evolve? Maybe that rice and bean dish, you want to put organic chicken on it, or maybe you want to shave truffles over the top, or maybe you want to add another element.
CARMANOr maybe you want to put it in a fine dining context and try to, you know, change the whole shape and form of that dish and have a chef reimagine that dish. Are you going to allow that to happen. Or are you going to, let's say, "No, I'm only going to eat that rice and bean dish in one form and one form only"? And I think that's what I was trying to get at, is to allow the cuisine to evolve and grow.
REEDOpening any restaurant is a challenge, but trying to challenge people's expectations of fine dining is an additional hurdle. I'm also here today with Meshelle Armstrong, Co-owner of Kaliwa, a fine dining restaurant in the Wharf. Meshelle, when you opened Kaliwa last year and served Filipino, Thai, and Korean food in a fine dining setting, what were you hoping to do?
ARMSTRONGWell, it's funny. When I read Tim's piece, I was, like, "Hallelujah," because, like, I've often scratched my head wondering, like, why it is, like, the mainstream diner places a cap on how much we're willing to pay for -- and I'm air-quoting -- "ethnic food. " And it's funny, because even when the food is made with the same fresh ingredients, the same local love, and the same, like, intricate techniques as, like, you know, the French, the American or Japanese, it's, like, why is it so different? So, I mean, it's funny, because I didn't get it. But I saw it first hand when we opened Kaliwa, like, the difference in how people perceive, you know, the food. And suddenly, people are, like, "Why is this so expensive?" And I'm, like, "What do you mean why is it so expensive?" It's the same chefs. We do everything the same. So, it was surprising to me.
ARMSTRONGAnd I think that -- I mean, honestly, I was trying to figure it out. And I was, like, "Why is there such disparity in this food pricing?" And I think, like, number one -- there's two arguments to it. One is, like, business is, you know, as usual, where you're located, your sourcing, your price. I mean, the restaurant is the sum of its parts, and if some parts are costly, well, then hey, guess what? You know? And number two, I didn't want to say it, and I don't think anyone wants to think of it. But I think like bias and prejudice, like, really, you know, has a play in, you know, ethnic food.
REEDWe actually have an email alluding to that, from Nishi. They write, "In discussing the subject, we are also participating in the larger debate on how 19th century imperialism and colonialism have still colonized our minds. We are shackled to the world over into believing that Western concepts, Western foods, and Western everything is superior." How do you all react to that statement?
ARMSTRONGI mean, I think it's accurate. And it's wild, because I remember when we were opening Kaliwa, my mother said to me, "Be very, very careful, here. It's not going to be the same experiences as you, you know, as with, like, your fancy fu-fu restaurant -- or your other restaurants." And I'm, like, "No. Don't be crazy. People love food." But then, like, experiencing it myself, I was, like, "Whoa. My gosh, this is true." And then, like, her voice rings, you know, in my ear, like -- she said to me that -- I mean, being Filipino herself and coming here, you know, at the age of 22, she warned me. She was, like, "You know, when immigrants come in from a particular region, they're seen as poor, and also seen as, like, cheap labor." And she was in the medical field, and she was intelligent. And she was even here legally. But she was like paid far less than her, like, puti, you know, her white friends.
ARMSTRONGAnd then she warned me. She's like, "Before you open Kaliwa, remember this. People were generally unwilling to grant prestige to our culture and much less pay for our cuisine." And I didn't believe her. But it's really true.
REEDWell, and it's really interesting, because, you know, Filipino food is still relatively new in the mainstream of American dining. And, you know, you all, like, elevated it quickly to a fine dining context with Chef Kahal. And that, you know, it was only, what? Five, 10 years ago that you started to really see Filipino food start to enter the United States mainstream. So, I think it's still one of those cuisines that hasn't had a whole lot of, I guess, attention put on it yet. And so people still probably still are trying to understand what Filipino food is and the complications and the many influences that go into Filipino cooking.
ARMSTRONGOh, yeah. I mean, like, it's wild. Years ago, my family owned a little restaurant. It was called Little Quiapo. And it was a little dive, hole in the wall, and, see, people get mad at me when I say that. You know, but that was the intention. That's who we were. And I remember going there, and, you know, family dinners and everything. And it was fantastic. And then it was awesome, because, you know, Phillis Richmond from the Washington Post, she wrote about it. And suddenly, like, oh, my God. All these people started coming. But the difference was, suddenly, there was bunch of white people coming, you know. And I remember, you know, working there and my mother working there. And there was a connotation of -- they were, like, "What is this? This is weird, you know." And I remember feeling really sad about that. Like, "What do you mean, you don't like our food?" And so I said to myself, "You know, one day, if I ever open a restaurant, I want to showcase it in a different light.
ARMSTRONGShow people like the beauty of, you know, this food and this cuisine and that there's art and there's culture. And it's not just street food. And it's not just dive food." And it takes a lot to change that perception, you know. But like with Kaliwa, that's what we're trying to do. But it's amazing. Like, it still happens. Like, a lady came in the other day, and she said to me, she's like, "I'm not going to pay this much for Halo Halo." Halo Halo is a Filipino dish. It's made out of, like, you know, coconut milk and shaved ice and plantains. But then she's, like -- she went to Ben and Jerry's next door and paid 12 bucks for, like, ice cream cone. And then she came back and she's, like, "I hate this ice cream. I want my Halo Halo. I just didn't want to pay for it."
REEDWe've got a call related to that, I think, from Alyssa in Mason Neck. Alyssa, are you there?
REEDThanks for calling.
ALYSSAThanks for having me. I just wanted to expand on what Karl had said earlier, that I think we all grow up with our own version of poor people food. I grew up in the Deep South, so soul food is mine. And I don't want to go pay a lot for collard greens. But I would love to pay a lot for Filipino food, because I don't know anything about it.
REEDHmm. Well, thank you very much. Tim, you know, one of the reasons I think you have brought up in why you're no longer calling your column "The $20 Diner" is because there's this value difference changing in how people perceive food, right? Like, Southern food was once considered poor people food, as Alyssa said, but is also -- served in more fine dining environments. Are there restaurants in this region that are changing people's expectations of what high-end cuisine can be?
CARMANNo doubt. I mean, I think Kaliwa is a good example. But, I mean, think about 20 years ago, how people perceived, say, Indian cuisine. Indian cuisine was maybe something you went in and had a curry in a small take-out container that you would eat in your car or eat at home. And now we have Rasika and Rasika West End. And we have -- and the chef of Rasika won a James Beard Award. So, in a matter of a couple of decades or maybe one generation, you've taken a cuisine that maybe people didn't even really know very well, didn't know, you know, how it was put together or what the primary dishes were. Or that there was even regionalism within India. You know, maybe Americans thought all Indian cuisine was one type of food. It was all curries. But now we've got multiple restaurants, not just Rasika, but multiple restaurants that take a fine dining approach and have taught us so much and have put the cuisine in a really white table cloth environment. And it has redefined how many of us think about Indian cuisine.
REEDWe have a tweet from Kristen, who says, "Ask Tim about who informed his thinking on this topic?" She specifically refers to David Chang. Could you tell us about your experience with him?
CARMANOf course. David Chang, of course, is the chef and restaurateur behind the Momofuko empire. And when he was opening his restaurant in Washington -- for his first one in his hometown, or at least his home region -- he was talking about all his frustrations. And he was really in great form that day. And he was complaining about a ramen that was costing him a lot of money in both ingredients and time and labor to put together. And he was going to have to charge $17 or $18, and he didn't think people would pay that. But he said -- he was complaining to me that if he called it, like, an Italian brodo, like an Italian soup with brisket, people would pay $27 and not blink. And, you know, it really caught my attention, because I think he's right. I think there was -- there is a perception in -- that we will pay, you know, certain prices over $20 for cuisines that we're familiar with and that we perceive as more valuable than others.
REEDYou're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Dan Reed of Greater Greater Washington. We'll continue our conversation about the meaning of fine dining in a moment. Stay with us.
REEDI'm Dan Reed of Greater Greater Washington, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking about the meaning of fine dining with Tim Carman of the Washington Post and Meshelle Armstrong of the restaurant, Kaliwa. We have a Facebook comment from Loida, who talks -- responding to another caller who said they weren't going to pay for a meal of rice, protein and bean dishes priced above $12. "Too funny," they say. "So, what if the ingredients are all fresh? The meat is fresh and grass fed. The vegetables are from local farms. You're saying immigrant food shouldn't be made with the freshest of ingredients, and if so, they can't be priced accordingly?" Elizabeth tweets, "Traditionally, the idea of costs for these foods also factors in our expectation that these families will work 10 to 16 hours a day, 24-7, relying unpaid family labor to run a restaurant. Unfair, and again, the result of ideas of ethnic privilege." And, finally, a tweet from Nemo from Luigi, "Regarding the diner who went to Kaliwa and didn't want to pay $$$ for Halo Halo, as a Filipino, I get this, but because when I was a kid, it was a cheap treat."
REEDMeshelle, your understanding of Asian cuisine comes from your family. What was your understanding of Filipino restaurants and food growing up?
ARMSTRONGI guess, like I said, we owned, you know, a Filipino restaurant, and it was wonderful. And it was -- I mean, it was inexpensive, you know. Everybody worked there together. It's just odd, though. And I think the memory is, you know, I think why people won't pay for it, it's like it comes from that concept of, "My grandmother makes it at home. Like, why would I pay more?" That's the perception that we're trying to change. And I was trying to say, "Okay, well, Lola, doesn't pay market rent, use heritage pork, fancy crystal and plate it on Korin plates." So, it's the perception that we're trying to change. I want my own people to celebrate our culture and know that there's value in our food, you know. It's intricate. The spices and the technique is just as, you know, as detailed as, say, like, bougie French or the Japanese, and to be proud of it.
REEDYou know, before Kaliwa, you also co-owned a French restaurant in Alexandria called Restaurant Eve, which brought you and your chef husband national acclaim. Did you ever receive complaints about the prices there?
ARMSTRONGYeah. See, here's what's crazy. And I think this is where I realize -- I didn't realize that this was happening until we opened Kaliwa, and then I used Restaurant Eve as an example. Maybe I even forgot who I was, because, you know, I never experienced it, and I was, like, "Ah, everyone loves food." But like here's the thing at Kaliwa, here's an example. The (word?), you know, at Restaurant Eve and the (word?) at Kaliwa, it's pig head, right? So, it's basically like the same process, right? You purchase it from said local farm, okay. You brine it. You braise it. You pay someone so much money to dice it by hand. It takes hours. It's the same dish. But for some reason, at Restaurant Eve, everyone is like, "Oh, it's so delicious." And at Kaliwa, it's like, "Oh, it's so expensive." "It's so expensive." You know, and it's wild, because you've basically just paid for the same dish. What's the difference, you know?
ARMSTRONGAnd it's funny, because, like, in Tagalog, it sounds like this. (speaks foreign language) "Oh, my gosh, it's so expensive, you know." (speaks foreign language) But at Restaurant Eve, it was like, "Oh, we love it. We love it." It's amazing how it was just -- it's the same dish, you know.
REEDRight. We've got a call from Pavel, who owns a Polish Ukrainian restaurant. Pavel, are you there?
PAVELYes. And thank you for taking my call. You said before that most foods from immigrant restaurants now, people of color, that maybe it is true. What I want to say, also, is many restaurants from especially Chicago, New York, Los Angeles from Eastern Europe, we have in Chicago, Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, many such places. We opened this restaurant for 25 years. My wife and I, we're immigrants. Also, immigrants in kitchen. But at first, Polish, Ukrainian, they don't want to cook. They want to do construction. So, I start work in my restaurant. I come to this country, (unintelligible) find Mexican, Guatemalan, and I said, "You can learn this food." Yes, we can learn this food. So, 25 years, they work hard in my kitchen. They're impressed, because they know you move Ukraine, you open Ukrainian restaurant in Ukraine, you surprise everybody. On Christmas, kitchen manager said, "The day of Christmas we have big party for everybody. We make the food." Guatemalan, Peru, El Salvador.
PAVELThey make big feast and (unintelligible) restaurant for everybody. And it is wonderful. This is why I said, president is crazy. He wants to build wall, because only together, we can do such things.
REEDThank you very, Pavel. Tim, you know, that's a crucial difference between the D.C. area and other parts of the country, is there are a lot of European immigrant food cultures in other parts of the county. And because you largely cover local restaurants, you know, most of your readers are Washingtonians. Do you feel that because of this, diners in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia have a different view of these cuisines than in other cities?
CARMANIt is interesting, because you think about the evolution of Washington, D.C., and, you know, we don't have a lot of strong communities where there were immigrants from certain countries. Like, you have Little Italy in Baltimore or New York. We have a Chinatown. But, I mean, I think we all know, at this point, Chinatown is not what it was. It's really more of almost a corporate area now. So, we don't have a city where there is in the D.C. border proper, a lot of neighborhoods where you would go for a typical style of cuisine. We have to go outside the borders. And I think given the sort of transportation issues that we have in D.C., younger generations don't have cars. They have to use Uber. You can't take the metro everywhere like you can in New York. It creates real pockets.
CARMANSo, I mean, like, do a lot of people go to the Eden Center? And Eden Center is really one of the great gems of the Washington, D.C. area. It is the epicenter of Vietnamese culture and cooking. And if your listeners haven't been to the Eden Center, I would highly encourage it. There's some great restaurants there, large and small, from a Pho restaurant, Vietnamese soup, noodle soup, to, you know, a restaurant that really presents Vietnamese cooking in a more refined setting. And that's what we have. We do have pockets of great immigrant cooking. But you have to travel for them in the D.C. area.
ARMSTRONGI mean, I hope people's mindset change. I guess that's what I want people so much to understand with the concept of Kaliwa. It's, like, I really want people to remember that while, like, you know, the cuisines come from a Third World country, it doesn't mean that there can't be complexity, beauty, and passion in it. And that's a mindset that we have to change. You know, and here's the thing that people also I think forget when it comes to pricing. Like, you know, we can easily buy, like, a $10 bucket of fermented Korean spice paste. You know, it's, like, way cheaper. But out of the respect of the culture, you know, like, we make our own (word?), and it takes months. Why? Because the procedure has been practiced for hundreds of years, and it's our duty as restauranteurs to promote the cuisine and the craft to a new generation of chefs. I mean, otherwise, we lose it.
REEDGot an email from Ann, alluding to that. "I pay for the whole dining experience. Table cloths, interior design, artwork, service, not just the food. For that, I'm willing to pay more, no matter the food ethnicity. I've been to Kaliwa several times, and no one at the table ever complained about the price. I'm not willing to pay $18 an entrée if it's at plastic tables with self-bussing, no matter how good the food." Meshelle, do you feel like some of the criticism that your restaurant may have received comes from diners having different expectations for dining, food versus experience?
ARMSTRONGI think, yes. People who think that it's just the food and really put emphasis on just the food, they're missing the whole experience in what we're trying to show. Like, that's the whole thing with, you know, Kaliwa. I was, like, "I'm going to make sure that we have beautiful, you know, chandeliers imported from the Philippines. And, you know, the table that you're eating on and the music and the vibe, I mean, just contributes to the whole experience. And, you know, people need to realize that if they're coming here and just saying, "Uh, I'm not here to, you know, fill you cheaply and fast." You know, I mean, sure, I mean, there are places that we all love that we can do that. But people need to also understand that, you know, there are new experiences, and they should be open minded about them and trust the restauranteur to show that this is what we're trying to share with you, you know, and raise sometimes the level of your expectation. And that's what, you know, unites us and understands each other's culture.
REEDTim, when you decided to retire "The $20 Diner" column name earlier this very young year, what was the reaction from your readers? How did they feel about it?
CARMANGenerally, I would say it was really positive. I think the majority -- and, you know, obviously, the people who read my column are familiar with its concept and its approach. And I think they got it. Did I get push back? Yeah. I got push back. People who seem to think that the "$20 Diner" name in and of itself was not offense. And that may be true. But it's one of those things were I think you don't quite understand or they're not quite understanding why putting this under a cheap eats banner can sort of handicap a cuisine or the type of restaurants I'm writing about. But I think, generally, it was very positive and they understood. And I think one of the things that I was most heartened by is the response from readers that said it made them rethink their own biases, because we all have biases, you know.
CARMANAnd I was reminded of this in New York just recently, where I went to a fine dining Mexican restaurant, and it's considered one of the best 25 -- or best 50 restaurants in the world. And I paid $69 for a tlayuda, which is a Mexican pizza. And you can pay, you know, $15 to $20 for a manhole-sized version of it in Los Angeles. And this one was maybe the size of, you know, a small tortilla, and it was $69. And, you know, I had to remind myself that these are different experiences, and that there is room for all sorts of expressions of Mexican cooking, not just the cheap $3 taco.
REEDWe have time for one last question. You know, Tim, you won't be replacing your column name with a new one, now that you're not writing with a specific price point in mind. What'll change about your food coverage?
CARMANWell, it shouldn't really change at all. We are debating whether or not to put just a label on it just to sort of differentiate what my approach is from, like, Tom's Eats. So, we're debating just putting a label, not a title on it, and label something like maybe casual dining, so people understand that there is a difference, without putting any sort of price context around it.
REEDTim Carman is Food Writer at the Washington Post. Thank you so much for being here today.
REEDAnd Meshelle Armstrong is the co-owner of Kaliwa, a Filipino, Thai and Korean restaurant at the Wharf. Thank you so much for being here.
ARMSTRONGThank you so much for having me.
REEDToday's food conversation was produced by Ruth Tam, and the show on Maryland's Guardianship laws was produced by Monna Kashfi. The federal shutdown is still in effect, and we know many of you have tried to get on air to talk about your experiences. For those of you who are furloughed, record a 30-second voice memo about the unexpected ways that shutdown has affected you and your family. Send it Kojo at wamu.org with the subject line: Shutdown. We'll play them on air. Tomorrow, we're doing a deep dive into D.C.'s opioid crisis. What does the epidemic look like here, and what does city leadership plan to do about it? That's tomorrow at 12. I'm Dan Reed, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi.
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