Over the past few years, New York City has celebrated David Bouhadana as one of its youngest and most talented sushi chefs. And the Florida native has the résumé to prove it.
Bouhadana has trained under Japanese sushi masters both in Japan, where he lived for three years, and at the L.A.-based Sushi Chef Institute. He became the head chef of a restaurant at 19, nabbed a chef gig at Morimoto at 23, opened the Sushi Dojo restaurant at 26 and landed a spot in Zagat’s 30 under 30 at 28.
Now, just after making headlines for opening an omakase-style shop named Sushi by Bou this spring, the 31-year-old chef is facing heat from his fans for reportedly mocking Japanese accents while talking to his customers.
Eater reported Friday that tipsters and the websites’ staffers have heard him in the act.
During service, he casually moves from speaking Japanese, to speaking English with a fake Japanese intonation, to speaking English in his natural American accent. For instance, he might present a fish in English, say “oishi, oishi” (Japanese for delicious), and then follow it up with “dericious, dericious” in his version of a Japanese accent.
Bouhadana, who learned to speak Japanese while interning in Japan, admitted to the site that he did use the accent as “little fun jokes.”
“Maybe in my mind I think I’m Japanese,” Bouhadana, a French-Moroccan-American born to immigrant parents, told Eater. He also described himself as an ambassador of Japanese culture in the U.S., a role he took on while hosting videos, including an entire Eater video series, on Japanese cuisine.
“You’re probably wondering why a white guy is teaching you how to use chopsticks, but this white guy has lived in Japan and his inside is Japanese,” Bouhadana once said of his appreciation for Japanese culture in a Zagat video on how to use chopsticks.
He did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on Eater’s article on Friday.
Bouhadana didn’t become a famous sushi chef overnight.
After training in American restaurants at a young age, he dedicated three years to studying sushi under real masters of the craft in Japan. Old YouTube videos show Bouhadana speaking the language, pickling barrels of vegetables with an elder Japanese woman and cutting tuna with his master chef.
He took the time to immerse himself in the culinary community and has a clear appreciation for the art of sushi, but his accomplishments and appreciation don’t excuse him from being offensive.
It doesn’t give him a pass to insult Japanese people with a mocking accent or freely use “I am Japanese” statements.
As a celebrated chef in New York, Bouhadana has a responsibility to present Japanese culture to other Americans in a respectful way. He has a responsibility to present Japanese people in a respectful way. Mocking their accents is the opposite of that.
“Asian accents lump us all into one category, they mock us, and they simplify us.”
– Celeste Yim, Vice
Bouhadana has more appreciation for Japanese cuisine and culture than the layperson, so why do his jokes, however allegedly innocent, matter?
Asian accents in America have always been a laughing matter, unlike the romanticized British and Italian accents, as Taiwanese-American comedian Jenny Yang pointed out to Celeste Yim, a Canadian-Korean journalist for Vice.
The apparent comedy of the accent, whether it’s Japanese, Korean or Filipino, is proof that many Western cultures still find Asian people and culture inferior, Yim wrote. And when one’s accent is singled out as a joke, it diminishes and shames the speaker. It reminds the speaker that they are not yet accepted in this country. It reminds them that they’re different and that their differences make them a joke.
“Like bringing a smelly lunch to school, our accents are one of the many signifiers of our decided hodge-podge Asianness that are paradoxical,” Yim wrote. “The Asian Americans I spoke to seem to agree, albeit for different reasons, that Asian accents lump us all into one category, they mock us, and they simplify us.”
When Bouhadana mocks the very same people who taught him his craft, especially in front of his customers, he gives people the impression that it’s OK to insult Japanese people. It’s a signal to his customers that being Asian is still a joke, even if you do appreciate the food.