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Customers have more say than you might expect.

What makes a restaurant “authentic”? That’s the question at the heart of a new study by Truman State University sociologist Stephen Christ, who spent two years researching the social organization of Mexican restaurants in the U.S. Christ interviewed staff at 54 Mexican restaurants across the country, including 12 where he worked alongside the employees. His findings, recently published in Organizational Cultures: An International Journal, found that the power to define a restaurant’s authenticity rests not with the cooks, but with the customers.

In the Midwest, where Christ based his fieldwork, the predominantly white clientele had little exposure to traditional Mexican cuisine. Even when they did seek out new, "ethnic" flavors, they were wary of dishes that seemed too exotic or too spicy. To please these uninformed diners—and, more importantly, to maximize profitsMexican restaurants watered down recipes, substituted ingredients, and modified traditional cooking methods.

The impulse to pander to customer tastes is not unique to ethnic restaurants, of course. Chefs of all stripes make similar compromises every day. But the stakes of authenticity—to a particular cuisine or culture—are especially high for an ethnic restaurant serving diners outside the ethnic group. In this case, the perceptions and palates of a mostly-white consumer base determined, to a large extent, what was served.

Christ observed the dynamic firsthand during “taste tests” at Mexican restaurants in the Midwest. At these occasional events, restaurants invited regulars to try and give feedback on new dishes before they were added to the menu. When diners complained that a dish was “too spicy,” the kitchen responded by making it milder—regardless of how the food would be prepared back home in Mexico. “You see, in a very real way, local Midwesterners telling the cooks how to cook Mexican food,” Christ says. “At the same time, that gets marketed as authentic food.” Christ explained to the University of Missouri:

“For the consumer, the most important consideration is ‘how much does this food fit my expectation of what Mexican food is based on growing up and having taco day at high school or eating at Taco Bell?’”

This often led to tension between managers and cooks in Mexican restaurants, Christ says. In many cases, cooks wanted to preserve the culinary traditions of their hometowns, while managers were willing to do whatever it took to woo diners. A restaurant is only as authentic as profits will allow,” Christ writes.

Yet from the outside, all of these restaurants appeared “authentic.” “When you drive down the central road in any city and you see all the Mexican restaurants, they all have ‘authentic’ attached to their name,” Christ tells CityLab. “But that ‘authentic’ is determined by the local community, by the local context.”

There are also regulatory constraints to the pursuit of authenticity. Some customary Mexican cooking tools and practices are forbidden in the U.S. One restaurant owner told Christ that the department of health threatened to shut her down for using a traditional mole pot that didn’t adhere to local regulations. And there is some evidence that health inspections are unfairly biased against ethnic restaurants. In that case, the authenticity that comes with being a hole-in-the-wall “is a mark against you,” says Christ.

Other times, the so-called hybrid inauthenticity of Mexican restaurants comes down to basic geography. While restaurants in the Southwest could easily import authentic ingredients from Mexico, restaurants in the Midwest had to settle for ingredients from Sysco or US Foods—the same stuff that was bound for, say, Applebee’s or Colton’s Steak House. “There's no cheap or easy way to get those resources [from Mexico] to the restaurants, so the resulting product is quite generic,” Christ says.

Deviating from this status quo carries considerable risks. According to Christ, the restaurant that the local Mexican immigrant community regarded as most authentic shuttered in about three months, unable to attract a following among diners outside the ethnic group. Meanwhile, fierce competition among the Mexican restaurants bred a stultifying sameness. “It was a matter of keeping up with the Joneses,” says Christ. Many restaurant managers were recent immigrants, by necessity more interested in making money than in preserving culinary traditions.

The term “authentic” is inherently subjective, but it has very real effects on the livelihoods of restaurant staff. Dining outside your comfort zone can and should be a learning experience—but only if you leave your preconceived notions about an ethnic group’s food or culture at the door. Don’t assume that the cheese-smothered enchilada described as “authentic” on the menu accurately represents the cuisine of any part of Mexico. Chances are that label has more to do with the average customer’s palate than the chef’s.

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