Baltimore has changed profoundly over the past few decades, and so have its eating habits. Food is often our first introduction to different cultures, and the restaurant scene reflects shifts in local tastes and demographics. So as part of our ongoing look at race and ethnicity in the region, we asked the owners of seven popular ethnic restaurants to share their experiences during a roundtable discussion moderated by food editor Hannah Feldman. Joey Chiu, who's run the Bamboo House Restaurant for 32 years, came to Baltimore from China almost 40 years ago; Afghan Qayum Karzai opened The Helmand 17 years ago and has lived in the U.S. since 1970; Kerrigan Kitikul came to this country from Thailand in 1977 and opened Thairish 15 years ago; originally from Jamaica, Michael Lewis and his wife, Shirley have been here for 30 years and have run the Caribbean Kitchen for the past 11; Binda Singh, owner of the Ambassador Dining Room, came to America from Punjab, Northern India in 1992; Matsuri's Bill Tien emigrated to this country 27 years ago and established his restaurant in 1996; Aldo Vitale founded Aldo's Ristorante Italiano in 1998, after living in the U.S. for 35 years. Their candid comments—over the course of an hour-long conversation—offer a unique take on the Baltimore region and its people.
Baltimore: Have Baltimoreans' attitudes toward ethnic food changed over the years?
Tien: Yes, more ethnic food has come to Baltimore, and Baltimoreans now accept more than before.
Karzai: Baltimore is becoming more cosmopolitan in what it accepts, in terms of food and different cuisines from various countries.
Baltimore: Are there certain dishes you're able to have on the menu now that you could not have had when you started?
Karzai: No, we were fully authentic when we opened. We were on the breaking edge of introducing whatever we could to Baltimore.
Vitale: Baltimore always had talent, in terms of cooking and chefs. Years ago, the people were not sophisticated, but they really have changed. Now, they are sophisticated, and they know what they want. They're very familiar with ethnic foods because of exposure on television, the Internet, or traveling in general. That opened a big market, because supplies are now better than they were before. In the old days, I always complained that I couldn't find an authentic Italian dish anywhere in the state. But ingredients are available today that allow you to make authentic Italian dishes. If you can't get it locally, you can import it from Europe, and we can make the dishes we always wanted.
Baltimore: One of the things about Aldo's is that you don't just do the red sauce and spaghetti and meatballs.
Vitale: We purposely got away from that.
Baltimore: I imagine when you first opened that had to be a little difficult, because, for a lot of Americans, that is their idea of Italian food. How do you go about educating people that there's something other than lasagna that they could check out?
Vitale: In the beginning, it was tough. People would ask, "Can you make me this? Can you make me that?" Now, they don't ask anymore. They accept the menu for what it is, because they realize there are things other than what is considered typical Italian food.
Chiu: Now, more people in Baltimore eat out. Besides Chinese food, more and more people like sushi.
Baltimore: Was it surprising to you when people started requesting sushi?
Chiu: Eighteen years ago I started sushi, and at that time, it wasn't busy. People would say, "Eww." But now, I have two restaurants that all have sushi. People have become more educated—a lot of people now eat sushi.
Lewis: Over 11 years at the Caribbean Kitchen, I haven't seen much change. After people go on vacation to Jamaica, they expect to find that kind of taste at home. That's why we have to be consistent with how things taste, and we stick to the basics—jerk chicken, curry chicken, curry goat, ox tail. And although we operate a Caribbean restaurant, 80 percent of our customers are Americans. Why is that? Because people from the Caribbean know how to cook the food—and they do. The Americans, who don't know how to cook it, come to me.
Singh: Education plays a huge part. It used to be just ethnic foods, but it's gone upscale and become ethnic cuisine. As an example, at Hopkins right now, a large percentage of their students are from China, India, and all of Southeast Asia—and they demand their own foods. So we have to provide that. Ten or fifteen years ago, teenagers didn't go out for Indian food on first dates. Now, I think it's a cool thing to do. People are not afraid of it, and most people had it when they were young. If someone didn't have it, it's almost like, "Where have you been living?"
Kitikul: If you go to a Jamaican or Indian restaurant, that means you want to eat that kind of food. But I see some people who want Chinese food, and they go to a Thai restaurant and ask for it. If you do the way the customer asks you, that's the wrong way. My restaurant is small, and I don't kiss [my customers]. If you don't like something, you don't have to order it. I'm serious. If you want to eat at my restaurant, you have to get it the way I want to serve you. I want to serve everyone the same way. I don't want to cook differently. [Points to others] You agree with me?
Lewis: You have to be consistent.
Baltimore: How do the rest of you feel about changing things for American tastes?
Lewis: It's like [Kitikul] said. When you walk into a Caribbean restaurant, you expect to be served Caribbean food. If you're going to change how you prepare your food from one person to the next then you're not going to have that unique taste that the customer is coming for. When a customer comes to me and orders ox tail or jerk chicken, it's because they like the spice and seasonings we use. Most people will like it that way. You can't please everybody, but you have to go with the majority.
Vitale: If you present it in the right way, people will go for something authentic because they are more sophisticated and open-minded about these things. They'll try anything, because they've tried everything else. The more they get into it, the more they like it.
Karzai: I think, as an ethnic restaurant, we have a larger responsibility to inform the customers and have dialogue. But to change a recipe because someone doesn't like the dish, means you become less authentic. Customers are very understanding, if you tell them there are many varieties of dishes to order from. We should go the extra mile to tell them that. We are in the service industry, and my principle of business is that the customer is first.
Baltimore: When you first opened your restaurant, did people in Baltimore have any experience with Afghan cuisine?
Karzai: When we were putting together the restaurant and renovating the space, I used to sit in the window and watch the sidewalk. I used to have nightmares because there was such little traffic on Charles Street at that time. I'd think, "Who's going to come here?" But it was quite remarkable. Since the day we opened, we were behind to serve customers. Not the other way around. We had an incredible response from Baltimore. Early on, I heard discouraging comments, but as a businessman, you take these risks.
Baltimore: For a lot of Americans, one of the first ways they get to know about other cultures is through food. If you talk to people about Thailand, they may not know anything about the politics, but they've had pad thai. Do you feel a responsibility to be something of an ambassador for your country?
Karzai: I believe you do. I do find that people who go to ethnic restaurants are often quite informed. They come for a meal, but they do talk about current events. They would like to know from you about your version of events. There is one thing about America that is perhaps different from other countries. Americans do tend to find you. They come to you, and they try things. Americans are the most experimental people. They give you a chance, and then you better be good and on your toes and treat them with courtesy. They are very quality-oriented consumers, and if you do your job, they will reward you.
Lewis: As I said, 80 percent of my customers are American. So I try to bend backwards. If you are American and you haven't tried something before and you come in and say, "I would like to try your jerk chicken," then it's incumbent upon me to let you taste it. Because I want to have you as a customer, I'm going to go get you a piece and let you taste it. If you say you don't like it, I'll say, "Well then, taste the curry goat." If you say, "Oh my god, I couldn't eat goat," I'll say, "Do you eat pork? If you eat pork, I think you could eat goat." Then, I'll give you a little piece. That's what I do. I have some people who said they would never eat goat meat, and now, that's all they order when they come.
Karzai: When I said "Americans," I meant consumers, so that means us, too.
Chiu: In America, the older people will get the same dish all the time. But young people want a choice, and they change all the time.
Karzai: The younger generations are willing to break barriers.
Vitale: But it's our responsibility to be ambassadors of our nations. We represent our country with pride.
Karzai: Maybe in America the ethnic food will serve as a stepping stone for peace. Remember the ping-pong diplomacy?
Baltimore: It would be great to have some kaddo borawni diplomacy. Do the rest of you ever get asked questions about China, or India?
Singh: The truth is, we have left the country but we still have family there. Sometimes, the customers know more than we do, because we are so caught up doing our jobs and getting things done. It really makes you think, think about your home country. It brings you back to reality.
Vitale: We should change our sign to Aldo's Restaurant and Travel Agency. Not only do we give lessons in Italian, we also tell people where to go when they're in Italy. I know some of the places, but I'm supposed to be expert on every corner of Italy. But we do it, and we give some representation of the country. It's what we do. People ask those questions all the time.
Lewis: The thing I hear the most is, "I just got back from Jamaica. It's so beautiful there. Why are you here?" I tell them, "Where you went is not a real representation of Jamaica. You went to a tourist area where everything is so nice because that is what they want to portray to tourists. But most of Jamaica is different from where you went. It's a big country, and people are really suffering." I have to educate them. I don't know about other people, but I came to this country for economic reasons. If it was just about the climate and scenery, I never would have left Jamaica.
Baltimore: I'm curious about your situation, Mr. Tien. You're running a Japanese restaurant, but you're not Japanese.
Tien: I'm a third-generation restaurateur. My grandfather owned a restaurant, and so did my father. As a minority, you face a lot of things to open a business—things like capital, the language barrier, and the insurance. I'm lucky. Since I'm a third-generation restaurant owner, a lot of my friends are excellent chefs. I go to New York and Philadelphia. I just went to California. Everywhere I go, I try different food. Then, I come back here and try to add something special to the menu. I don't want people to get bored of the same menu. In Maryland, we have a lot of seafood, so we try to create something special with it, so people have another reason to come to Baltimore.
Baltimore: Do you find yourselves pressured to find ways of incorporating crab into your menu?
Vitale: You have to have it. I have crab cakes and a crab cocktail. It's not traditional Italian, but it's traditional Maryland. We just give it our own touch.
Chiu: You're right. I have a crab cake and sell a lot, too.
Tien: I have soft shell crab, jumbo lump crab, and a double crab roll. People come to Baltimore and want crab. Baltimore stands for crabs.
Vitale: You adjust to what's available. I don't find bronzini—I have to import it—but I can use rockfish in an Italian dish.
Kitikul: But everybody has their own way of cooking it. We all make the crab differently. You can go to seven restaurants and order the same dish, and it will taste different at each one. Isn't that right? If you try and like it at a certain place, you go back.
Baltimore: How difficult is it to get supplies, to get groceries? Has it gotten easier to get things like Thai ginger or lemongrass?
Kitikul: It used to be difficult. Now, it's not.
Vitale: So much is available now. Fresh vegetables, truffles—years ago, people thought they were chocolate truffles—porcini mushrooms, anything you can think of. As a result, we can create authentic dishes. It used to be an imitation in the old days, but now you can create exactly the same thing that you'd find in the old country.
Baltimore: I grew up in Seattle. . . .
Vitale: They ever hear of Maryland crab cakes over there? [Laughter]
Baltimore: In Seattle, you could get fresh chow fun at the supermarket. Out here, it took me forever to find a place that sold chow fun.
Chiu: I've had chow fun on the menu before. But I can't sell it. People don't know what it is.
Baltimore: Have there been dishes that the rest of you have tried that have been hard sells to Americans?
Chiu: Traditional chow fun was not easy. I could not sell.
Singh: It never happened to me. But I would never say never.
Baltimore: Have you ever had anyone ask you to cook their sushi?
Chiu: [Shakes head] Yes.
Tien: When you think of sushi, you think of raw fish. Sushi equals raw fish, right? But a lot of items on the sushi menu are cooked and not raw.
Chiu: Half might be raw, but the other half is cooked. Actually, only maybe 30 percent is raw fish. The rest is all cooked, like smoked salmon, shrimp tempura, and soft shell crab. They're cooked. If somebody wants tuna cooked. . . .
Kitikul: There's a reason why you cannot do that. The customer may not know, but we know how it's going to turn out if you do it that way.
Vitale: It's tuna salad, not sushi. [Laughter]
Baltimore: There's also the question of spiciness. Do you have to tone down the spiciness a bit?
Kitikul: This is a true story. When I first opened my restaurant, I had two customers order the same dish. They both came back the next day—this is true, I don't make it up—and one said it's too spicy and the other said it's not spicy enough. It's different for everybody.
Chiu: Spicy food I've cut down a lot. I've had some people say, "You want to kill me?" If you want it spicy, no problem—just tell the waiter.
Kitikul: You can always make it spicier.
Singh: You can't take it out. You can always add.
Baltimore: Finally, is it a priority for you to have employees that share your ethnicity?
Vitale: Not for me. In fact, I'd rather have someone who doesn't have a lot of experience. They just need to have a passion for the kitchen, and I'll teach them everything. I prefer to take them from scratch and give them lessons, so they have the same habits that I have. This way, people cannot say, "Oh, I know who cooked tonight."
Chiu: You're right.
Vitale: I found it's the easiest way. If you get somebody with experience, they try to apply their knowledge and it can ruin your whole concept, your whole dream about recipes and everything. Then, you get into arguments, and one or the other has to go. And you know who it's going to be.
Tien: It's not easy.
Chiu: It's not easy to find good help.
Singh: When everybody's set in their own ways, it's hard to change people. When I go out to eat, I'd rather have a waiter who doesn't speak English and is willing to work with you instead of somebody who's so professional that he thinks, "Oh, you don't know what you're getting." And you're almost told what to get—like it's forced on you. It can be intimidating, but it should be simple. You should be able to talk and ask questions if you want to. I always prefer someone who's sweet and willing to do pretty much anything. I don't want somebody who's like, "What can I get you?" You shouldn't feel uncomfortable asking for some more water.
Vitale: Somebody who comes and says, "This is the way we did it [at another restaurant]," that's the worst thing they can say. As far as I'm concerned, they didn't know how to cook it. This is my experience and my vision, and this is what we have to follow.
Chiu: You're right. I know the owner of a restaurant chain, and when a new cook comes, he stands next to the cook for at least two weeks. So they can learn his way.
Vitale: I tell them, "You can ask me any question you want. You can call me in the middle of the night, I don't care. Don't worry about bothering me 10 times a day." That's the only way to succeed in what you're promoting.
Singh: The way I see it is you run a business like a big family. Everybody's part of it. The job becomes part of you, and you forget that it's a job. We're supposed to make our customers happy, so our employees, from bottom to top, have to be happy.
Tien: I treat people how I would want to be treated. I let them do their job and treat them like friends and family. Sometimes, we become very good friends.
Baltimore: Gentlemen, it seems like we've come to a good stopping point.
Vitale: Yes. We're all hungry now. [Laughter]