Anja Madhvani discusses the controversies surrounding The Ivy Asia that opens in Leeds this year

In times like these, I do my best to look for the good, to approach all people with compassion and the belief that more unites us than divides us. 

I try to give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to navigating the challenging discourse surrounding race. I can see how it may be an overwhelming time if you haven’t had these conversations before, and I believe that when we are overwhelmed it’s easy to become defensive or to disengage. 

Leeds is a multicultural city and we have a whole bunch of restaurants that showcase a breadth of cuisines from Asia.

Whilst liberally minded and left leaning in my politics, I don’t subscribe to reductive discourse. I believe that to knit a truly integrated society we need to search for nuance, we have to lean into the uncomfortable conversations, and engage in good faith and with a desire to learn.

As such, I have ruminated for some time on the subject of cultural appropriation in the food industry, going back and forth, trying to figure out where I stand. The imminent arrival of Ivy Asia Leeds has given me cause to put some of these thoughts into writing.

What is The Ivy Asia?

The Ivy Asia is a chain of restaurants owned by Caprice Holdings, a company owned by Richard Caring. Caring’s story is one of rags to riches, he has grafted from a young age to change his fortune, and indeed to become a multimillionaire. Interestingly one of his first business endeavours was International Clothing Designs, a company which imported mass-produced clothing from Hong Kong - where he and his family lived for some years - for sale to the UK market. The company supplied a vast majority of highstreet retailers, from Topshop to Next. We’ve seen enough about fast fashion in recent years to understand that these prices aren’t usually conducive to good pay and working conditions for those in manufacturing.

The Ivy Asia is an “Asian-inspired restaurant and bar”. The concept troubles me on a number of levels, not least the fact that its name assumes the identity of the largest continent on the globe, while presenting a menu which mostly consists of Japanese ingredients, with a Massaman curry (Thai) and a light spattering of gochujang (Korean) thrown in for good measure. 

Where is the influence from India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Syria and the many other countries that make up the continent? Even if every country were represented, there is no recognition of the regionality of foods, Cantonese dishes for example differ greatly to Szechuan ones, there is no one “Chinese cuisine”, just as there is no one Italian cuisine. The word “Asian” in so many contexts is irksome, because what does the user even mean? It’s a homogenous word that holds no descriptive information at all.

Appropriation vs appreciation. What’s the difference?

In early August 2021 The Ivy Asia Chelsea released an advert that was culturally insensitive at best, outright racist at worst.The advert rested heavily on dated Japanese stereotypes. An elderly man tries to transport two giggling Geisha characters to The Ivy Asia in his rickshaw. He isn’t strong enough for the task, and a hero steps in to save the day. He delivers the ladies swiftly, and in their haste to enter the restaurant, they fall through the doors where they are mocked by a room full of sophisticated Western folks. 

The advert was heavily criticised by all manner of people who, aside from slamming the ad as being reductive, out of touch, and culturally insensitive, listed numerous issues with the restaurant as a whole, namely it’s appropriation of various Asian cultures. Perhaps one of the most grating items on the menu was the “Zen Stack”, presumably “inspired” by Zen Buddhism. 

This was highlighted by many as being both ironic and offensive, as Zen principles reject materialism, attachment, and greed. This item has since been removed (or renamed) from the menu. Perhaps a step in the right direction, but it’s worth noting the restaurant group is currently cashing in on the Lunar New Year with its “Year Of The Tiger” cocktail menu. Do you see a pattern forming? 

 Major news networks reported on the advert and The Ivy Asia issued an apology, stating that it had been “culturally insensitive” and had a “complete lack of understanding”. This begs the question: “If you are this disconnected from the cultures you are using, what business do you have in generating profit from them?”. What was most alarming was the realisation that the advert must have been through several rounds of proofing and sign-off, which highlights just how out of touch those in decision-making roles must be.

I don’t believe in gatekeeping, I don’t subscribe to the idea that a “white guy” cannot cook Asian food. But if you do not have a connection to the foods of a particular culture, I believe you should undertake some serious learning before cooking them for customers to increase your own wealth. Learn how to cook something authentically, learn to respect someone else's food culture before you present it to diners, and certainly before you play around with it. 

Chef Tim Anderson
Chef Tim Anderson spent many years in Japan Image: Fantastic Food Festivals

Culinary appreciation done right

Tim Anderson is a great example of a chef who does this well. Tim is an American-British chef who spent many years in Japan learning to prepare all manner of dishes. His cookbooks provide a gentle but culturally-sensitive education to the uninitiated cook. I particularly enjoyed his myth busting about Katsu in his book Vegan Japaneasy. He uses his platform to speak about important issues in food and culture, and often highlights the work of chefs and food writers from different backgrounds. This is what appreciation looks like. Leeds’ very own Ben Iley has a similar background, living in Japan for 9 years and learning about ramen. I believe his food at House Of Fu has been well received thanks to his years dedicated to learning.

House Of Fu Leeds Original Ramen
House of Fu has been popular with the Confidentials team Image: Confidentials

Ultimately if you are able to make money selling food from a particular culture without experiencing the hardships that people of that culture experience, whether that be racism, poverty, or conflict, then you hold a certain privilege. If you’re generating income by honouring someone else's culture, you could consider going the extra mile by helping to educate consumers, tackling racism, raising charitable donations that directly support the culture you benefit from, and highlighting voices from this culture that is enriching your life. I think it’s about being humble and remembering to pass the mic.

Why does it matter?

There are so many reasons, but for me, the preservation of history is a huge one. There are many people in the UK who may never have had the opportunity to visit their country of heritage. Passing down food traditions is a big part of maintaining connection with our roots. I think this is often why people become frustrated by streetfood that dilutes a cuisine, or by food that appears to be authentic but turns out to be a poor imitation. 

We’re hoping for that little bit of magic that connects us to who we are and those that came before us. It is worth noting that many people who first came to the UK shed their cultural identity to assimilate to the country they now call home. As such, the generations that came after them often have to work hard to uncover buried culture and revive it. It’s also a matter of pride. We are so proud of the wonderful flavours and traditions that come with our food that we want you to experience it at its best.

There will be people who disagree with me, who don’t see the Orientalism on display at the Ivy Asia as problematic. Plenty of those people will be of Asian descent. And that’s the beauty of being who we are, right? That despite our commonalities our lived experiences can differ greatly and we can hold our own views. What delights or offends one person may have the opposite impact on another. Perhaps this is what makes conversations around diversity, equity, and privilege even more confusing for those whose characteristics sit outside of “minority”.

But I write the above knowing that this is important to me and a great number of other folk from a great many backgrounds. I am not about “cancelling” people. I believe in restorative justice, in creating space for learning and improving. In its apology, The Ivy Asia said, “We must learn lessons and move forward in a totally new and appropriate way.” Aside from deleting the advert and removing “Zen” from the menu, I can’t see that The Ivy Asia has done much to make its concept more palatable. 

The fact that The Ivy Asia has not provided any follow-up from the culture review they allegedly engaged in, only leads me to conclude that it doesn't truly wish to learn, do better and find new ways to execute its concept. It would like you to forget about it, sup a cocktail, and instagram a photo of its opulent interiors, which incidentally smack of “gee, wasn’t colonialism romantic?”.

2019 12 10 Leeds Bundobust
Bundobust is a brand born in Leeds Image: Bundobust

Spend your money in other restaurants

Leeds is a multicultural city and we have a whole bunch of restaurants that showcase a breadth of cuisines from Asia. Many people working in these restaurants have just survived the hardest two years in business since they first opened their doors. Many have endured a dramatic loss of trade paired with an increase in racism, due to a rise in hate crimes directed at those of Chinese heritage, or those who could be perceived to be of Chinese heritage. 

This is why, despite how dazzling the photos may be, I am asking you to skip the wealth-porn on display at The Ivy Asia Leeds when it opens, and to spend your money with the many wonderful eateries that are as rich in integrity as they are in flavour. Below are just a few. I would love to hear about more of your favourites. 

Follow Anja Madhvani on Twitter @anja_madhvani

Leeds' alternatives to The Ivy Asia

Thai Aroy Dee 120-122 Vicar Ln, Leeds LS2 7NL

Hana Matsuri 580 Meanwood Rd, Meanwood, Leeds LS6 4AZ

Sushi Waka 28 New Briggate, Leeds LS1 6NU

Tharavadu 7-8 Mill Hill, Leeds LS1 5DQ

Bundobust 6 Mill Hill, Leeds LS1 5DQ

Manjit’s Kitchen 333 Kirkstall Rd, Burley, Leeds LS4 2HD / Leeds Kirkgate Market, George St, Leeds LS2 7HY

Bab Tooma 496 Roundhay Road, Roundhay, Oakwood, Leeds LS8 2HU / 1312 Leeds Rd, Bradford BD3 8LF

Anand Sweets 109 Harehills Rd, Harehills, Leeds LS8 5HS

Banh & Mee Leeds Kirkgate Market, LS2 7HY

Yummy Sushi Leeds Kirkgate Market, Kirkgate, Leeds LS2 7JL

Maxi’s Rotisserie Leeds Kirkgate Market, Unit 3 1976 Hall, Leeds LS2 7HY

Wens 72-74 North St, Leeds LS2 7PN

Fuji Hiro 45 Wade Ln, Leeds LS2 8NJ

Viet Guy 159 Lower Briggate, Leeds LS1 6LY

Noodle House 20 Merrion St, Leeds LS1 6PQ

Dapur Malaysia Unit 1, 5 Stainbeck Ln, Chapel Allerton, Leeds LS7 3PJ

Read next: 'A fish restaurant doing it right' – Catch, Holmfirth, reviewed

Read again: The best things to do in Leeds in February 2022

Get the latest news to your inbox

Get the latest food & drink news and exclusive offers by email by signing up to our mailing list. This is one of the ways that Confidentials remains free to our readers and by signing up you help support our high quality, impartial and knowledgable writers. Thank you!