Last week a virtual mob sentenced the soft-spoken Philadelphia cook to crucifixion for the pho he served at his restaurant, Stock.
Here's a quick recap:
A writer at Bon Appetit liked it. Then, in the sad and endless pursuit of internet clicks, her editor turned that appreciation into an internet-sized article and a two-minute video of Akin describing how he likes to eat the soup he makes.
Lastly, and perhaps most egregiously, Bon Appetit fired packaged it all as a public service announcement about how everyone should be eating their pho.
Despite the fact that Akin qualified his every statement with the phrase “to me,” the internet quickly decided he was telling Asian people how to eat their pho. The video, it seems, constituted some kind of thought crime—something between “Columbusing” and “cultural malpractice.”
One of the more thoughtful accounts of this episode—ironically published by Cosmopolitan—pointed out that Stock has since been savaged by one-star reviews on Yelp. Bon Appetit reacted by taking down the video and alerted the internet that it is “listening.”
More recently, the magazine apologized for misrepresenting Akin as a pho authority “something he never claimed to be.”
Instead, he's someone who was kind enough to give us a day of his time so we could film a video in his small, independently owned restaurant, opening himself up to an avalanche of criticism. He is not the one to blame—that’s on us for not doing our diligence as writers, editors, and video producers.
Akin has only said that he never meant to offend anyone.
But that didn't stop the digital star chamber from prosecuting his offense.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Huffington Post regurgitated the most pretentious and offensive chapter of his inquest--an essay entitled This Food-Bro is Gentrifying Vietnamese Food.
In the screed, Khanh Ho suggests that a video about how Akin eats phở should have included a Vietnamese American with an advanced degree, such as himself. Ho labeled Akin a bro “who looks like he could totally hang out with you at a frat house kegger but totally object to the use of rohypnol.”
After picking apart the chef's ethnicity and appearance, Ho absolves Akin of having done or said anything actually offensive.
Akin didn't (like so many white people before him) suggest that French people somehow taught Vietnamese people how to make pho. He didn't even mention (as is likely true) that Chinese immigrants likely introduced pho noodles to Vietnam.
Ho seems to imply that Akin's greatest infraction involved agreeing to be filmed, alone, discussing pho. Other critics before him have suggested Akin should have declined the opportunity without ensuring the film featured a genuine Vietnamese or Vietnamese American person.
Sitting here in Ho Chi Minh City, all of this feels deeply weird.
After all, a guy in District 4 serves the best sushi in town on a sidewalk. And everyone knows that the best pizza in the country comes from a man named Yosuke Masuko whose delicious menu of Neapolitan-esque pies includes teriyaki chicken and okonomiyaki.
Pizza 4P now boasts three locations in Saigon and two in Hanoi.
In the wide open foodscape of Saigon, it's almost impossible to imagine a group of Italians impeaching his ethnicity or insisting an Italian person appear in a film about his pizza.
More unsavory, still, is the thought of an Italian American ridiculing Masuko for his appearance and then implying he'd transgressed some unwritten racialist coda in building the world's greatest farm-to-table pizza empire using information he mined from YouTube.
Perhaps that's because pizza belongs to everyone.
Load it up with squid rings and clams on the half shell, then paint it pink with tương ớt and mayonnaise, why dontcha?
Then again, nobody cared when Korean American Chef and media impresario David Chang opened a Manhattan restaurant called Nishi, which he described as “a 'f**k you' to Italian food.”
No one mistook Chang's disdain for food purity as an insult to Italian people or Italian culture -- perhaps because no one ever mistakes Italian food for Italian culture.
Pretending that Vietnamese culture somehow lies at the bottom of a bowl of noodles is simply reductive and dumb. One could spend all day eating them and learn nothing at all about Vietnam. Alternatively, someone could make a very delicious bowl of pho without saying or thinking anything significant about Vietnam—as was the case with poor Tyler Akin.
One could argue that pho hasn't, in fact, entered the cultureless consumerist mainstream of fad food -- that it's actually a cherished heritage of the distant past that may only be discussed by those who share a direct blood linkage to the Red River Delta.
But what would be the point?
When delightful cartoon-person Diane Nguyen tried to remind her family, in 2014, of their Vietnamese origins, they balked.
“Step off,” her brother cried. “We're American as pho.”