Italian chef Gianluca Gorini issued an apology Wednesday after a controversial photo of his team posing with a slant-eye gesture prompted many social media users to call the group out for racism toward Asians.
Gorini, who runs the Michelin-starred restaurant daGorini in the Italian town of San Pietro In Bagno, came under fire after his team took the selfie, performing the racist pose and wearing what are commonly referred to as rice picker hats. The team had been celebrating its participation in the international culinary competition the Gelinaz! Shuffle, in which chefs swap and interpret recipes. The Gorini team had been assigned to trade with chef Victor Liong of new style Chinese restaurant Lee Ho Fook in Australia.
Gorini, who eventually deleted the photo, shared his apology on social media claiming that the picture “was dictated by the excitement and enthusiasm that the confrontation with a new culture has generated in our daily work.”
“It was not my intention to offend anyone, much less discriminate against other cultures,” he said.
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“So please Victor, I would love to invite you to come in Italy and spend some days here in my restaurant as my guest, to celebrate the meaning of the relations between different cultures and make a four hands dinner together.”
Neither Gorini nor Liong responded to NBC News’ request for comment.
Gelinaz! organizers have since addressed the controversy, explaining in a statement provided to NBC News that the group was “deeply shocked and stunned” by the offensive photo. The organization wrote that it will “no longer call on him for [Gorini’s] future events” but will support a meeting between the chef and Liong in April 2020 at their restaurants where they’ll cook together “in order to create dialogue and overcome ignorance.”
“Dialogue and true communication are the best weapons to defeat prejudices and show that cuisine can be a bridge linking cultures and lifestyles across the globe,” the statement read.
While the problematic photo has been replaced with a picture of Gorini appearing embarrassed, many Asians on social media platforms, including prominent chef Edward Lee, have continued to slam the team for its racist pose, as well as Gorini’s apology.
“Funny thing is the most racist people I know always insist that they aren’t … as if that corrects it all,” Lee tweeted.
Gorini may have felt his team behaved in jest, however the gesture itself has painful roots, Adriel Luis, curator at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, told NBC News. In the United States, anti-Chinese propaganda was perpetuated during the Chinese exclusion era of the late 1800s. Chinese people, many of whom had arrived in the U.S. to build the transcontinental railroad, were depicted with slanted eyes, buck teeth and long fingernails “to make them come off as subhuman or other,” Luis said.
Later on during World War II, exaggerated caricatures of Asians were used to “help” Americans differentiate between “enemies,” the Japanese, and “allies,” the Chinese, with propaganda parsing out physical differences in even eyes and nose structure.
“Even if this chef’s intentions may not have come from the same place, it’s rooted in a painful global history,” Luis explained.
He added that with social media, behavior that may not be interpreted as insensitive or offensive in a particular country could be scrutinized globally, citing the backlash against the Spanish men’s Olympic basketball team for their own slant eyes gesture as an example.
Gelinaz! itself has faced criticism surrounding social issues in the past as well. In 2015, more than 90 percent of chefs who participated in the shuffle were men, Eater noted. Organizers Andrea Petrini and Alexandra Swenden rationalized the gender disparity, telling the outlet that "they don't want to feel socially pressured about this question.”