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Renovating ethnic identity on Restaurant Makeover

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Food can be a novel way of understanding and explaining some of the pointed paradoxes of multiculturalism and the ‘management’ of ethnicity. Many studies of culinary culture are attentive to the exoticization of ethnicity in and through food media, which now includes a vertiginous array of cookbooks, travel literature, magazines and, most important for our purposes here, television series. Among various programs is Restaurant Makeover, a popular Canadian reality series broadcast on Home and Garden Television (HGTV) as well as the Food Network Canada. In each episode, dining experts are hired by struggling restaurateurs (often ethnic) to ‘spice up’ the existing menu, ‘modernize’ the d├ęcor and, by extension, ensure the welfare of the (immigrant's) family. While the series is not explicitly directed at ethnic restaurants, it seems to be increasingly interested in ‘non-white’ establishments (i.e., Mexican, Chinese, Thai, etc.). This participation in culinary multiculturalism may be symptomatic of wider political changes in immigration and ‘diversity’ in Canada. Based on the authors analyses of specific episodes this paper argues, firstly, the growing interest in ethnic cuisine on Restaurant Makeover can be read as a (neo)liberal response to an emerging conservative ‘multicultural’ agenda that recognizes migrants predominantly as laborers (as opposed to citizens) and, secondly, that behind its rehearsal of liberal benevolence is a skewed set of power relations that authorize the experts’ (re)construction, cultivation and containment of ethnicity.
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Keywords: ethnic authenticity; food television; liberal benevolence; multiculturalism

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Kinesiology and Physical Education, University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, Canada 2: Human Kinetics, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

Publication date: March 1, 2011

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