American chefs appreciate French tradition, but are increasingly inspired by ethnic communities in their own backyards.
By Roger Grody
Photo courtesy Antonio Diaz
There was a time when young chefs in America were primarily influenced by French masters like Paul Bocuse or Joël Robuchon. While classic technique remains important, eclectic global flavors have become equally influential. Conveniently, chefs no longer need to travel the world to discover exotic fare, because it is simmering in the diverse ethnic neighborhoods of most American cities.
The practice of incorporating ethnic elements into familiar dishes used to be referred to as “fusion,” a term that has fallen out of favor with contemporary chefs, and today’s cross-cultural combinations are more nuanced and less frivolous than in the 1980s. Today, chefs tend to use local ethnic cuisines as accents or pay tribute to their own families’ immigrant roots. The presence of Middle Eastern falafel on a French menu or a dusting of Japanese togarashi seasoning on potatoes at an all-American steakhouse does not compromise the integrity of their respective cuisines, but certainly makes them more interesting.
A master of infusing local ethnic flavors into his dishes is celebrity chef José Andrés, who borrows Latin American and Asian elements at The Bazaar by José Andrés in Los Angeles. In multicultural Miami, he incorporates Caribbean elements into his menu at The Bazaar South Beach. Given his own Spanish heritage, incredible versatility and expertise with complex molecular gastronomy techniques, most Andrés menus feature some unusual culinary mashups.
At South Beach, Andrés honors the local Cuban community with colada Cubana, a play on Cuban coffee turbocharged with foie gras, and pollo al ajillo (garlic chicken) slow-cooked with black garlic. As a tribute to South Florida’s Jewish community — largely comprised of transplanted New Yorkers — the chef offers a clever riff on bagels and lox: dill cream cheese-filled bagel cones topped with salmon roe. And for dessert, Andrés playfully deconstructs another local specialty, Key lime pie.
Bazaar South Beach chef de cuisine Tito Vargas, a native of Puerto Rico, says he and Andrés draw inspiration from a wide variety of Latin American and Caribbean cultures. “It’s important that I keep true to José’s vision, showcasing the main ingredient and transforming it without sacrificing the flavor and integrity of the product,” he says. Vargas notes that even when applying high-tech culinary tricks, the essence of a dish is respected and preserved. “In no way, shape or form does it look like a Cuban sandwich, but when you bite into it you get all the flavors that compose a Cuban sandwich in a more fun, inventive way,” says the chef of The Bazaar’s molecular gastronomic version.
Despite Los Angeles’ reputation as a bland, immense swath of suburbia, its location — on both the Pacific Rim and threshold to Latin America — ensures diverse ethnic communities that constantly fuel the imagination of local chefs. In L.A., where California Cuisine has morphed into a more global fare, crossing culinary borders is almost routine. At Wolfgang Puck’s celebrity-favored Spago in Beverly Hills, for instance, the menu includes elements from nearly a dozen cuisines.
Bryant Ng was trained in classic French cuisine — he cooked with celebrated chef Daniel Boulud in New York — but at his own restaurant, Cassia in Santa Monica, California, he cooks French brasserie fare with an ethnic twist. At first glance, Cassia’s menu looks like it was borrowed from a Parisian brasserie, but the young chef tweaks traditional dishes with accents from his father’s Singaporean roots and his wife’s Vietnamese heritage.
Ng’s charcuterie platter includes items like Singaporean candied pork and Vietnamese meatloaf, while escargots are scented with lemongrass. Cassia’s take on the French comfort dish of pot-au-feu has a pho-inspired broth and the bistro staple of steak frites is bathed in a Phú Quôc Island peppercorn sauce. Kaya toast, a signature of Singapore’s street vendors, is not likely to be found in a 14th arrondissement brasserie, but is a specialty at Cassia.
“It’s a very personal menu because it combines the food of my heritage, but also has influences from my professional experiences,” explains Ng. “Understanding the ‘soul’ of a cuisine is the greatest challenge,” says the chef, who dismisses the practice of simply adding a single indigenous ingredient. “Trying to incorporate multiple culinary influences requires a lot of self-editing and discipline,” adds Ng, who believes any composition must respect the referenced cultures.
Anita Lo is one of New York’s most honored chefs and her restaurant Annisa is a reflection of the diverse influences inherent in contemporary American cuisine. A second-generation Chinese-American, Lo’s passion for food can be traced to Paris, where she first fell in love with the art of cooking. She polished her skills in revered French kitchens and classic technique has always been essential to her approach.
At her Manhattan restaurant, those French sensibilities are applied to some ingredients from her own family’s heritage, as well as other global influences discovered in New York’s rich patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods. Since Annisa’s opening in 2000, Chinese dumplings filled with foie gras mousse and jicama have been one of Lo’s signature dishes. A Chinese-French mashup way too cool to be called “fusion,” the dumplings are topped with seared foie gras and a beguiling black vinegar reduction.
At Orchids at Palm Court, an opulent dining room in the Art Deco Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza, executive chef Todd Kelly is contributing to getting the food scene of the Midwest — a region often neglected outside of Chicago — noticed. As a boy, the native New Yorker lived in Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar, and that experience, as well as the chef’s naturally curious palate, results in a menu with eclectic influences.
Kelly’s cuisine, built on a solid classical foundation, is laced with intriguing ingredients like Buddha’s hand, lemongrass, paneer, and sudachi. He is adept at making familiar preparations suddenly exciting without excessively altering their essence. For example, a dash of harissa (a spicy North African chili paste) gives a dish of white asparagus with traditional French velouté sauce some zing, while red snapper en papillote, a characteristically South of France preparation, receives an exotic Indian accent with vadouvan curry.
“I like to pull in flavors from my past or things I really crave,” says Kelly, noting that the cultural melting pot of Mauritius and ethnic neighbors on Long Island both contributed to his culinary wanderlust. Recently, the chef has been experimenting with Indian ingredients like nigella, fenugreek and mango powder, insisting they need not distract from the classical roots of a recipe. “The lesson is all about balance and learning that sometimes it’s the simplicity and restraint that controls a dish,” says Kelly.
In La Jolla, San Diego’s chic oceanfront district, executive chef Jason Knibb is known for his molecular gastronomy and globetrotting flavors at Nine-Ten Restaurant & Bar, which celebrates the Golden State’s finest seasonal ingredients. His Jamaican heritage may account for the jerk-seasoned pork belly on the chef’s menu, but his ethnic influences also extend to Latin American, Japanese and Middle Eastern traditions.
“San Diego is a tapestry of rich ethnic diversity, and the local food scene is no exception,” says Knibb. “There are so many chefs who have come to town from other regions bringing their own ethnic influences,” he adds, and makes a point to experience their cuisines firsthand. As a young chef in San Francisco, Knibb lived next door to a quick-service Mediterranean restaurant, and says, “They had some of the best falafels I’ve ever had … I still crave them today.” That unpretentious Mission District eatery was the inspiration for Nine-Ten’s spice-roasted carrots and carrot falafel with harissa yogurt and carrot hummus.
The recently announced James Beard Awards — the Oscars of the restaurant business — reflect a renewed respect for ethnic inspirations. The big winners were Israeli-American chef Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia’s Zahav and Chicago’s Topolobampo, where celebrity chef/restaurateur Rick Bayless is energized by his frequent travels to Mexico.
Photo courtesy Antonio Diaz
Photo courtesy Jason Knibb
Photo courtesy Rick Poon
Photo courtesy Greg Powers Photography
Photo courtesy Todd Kelly
Annisa, New York; www.annisarestaurant.com
The Bazaar by José Andrés, Los Angeles; www.sbe.com
The Bazaar by José Andrés South Beach; www.sbe.com
Cassia, Santa Monica; www.cassiala.com
Orchids at the Palm Court, Cincinnati; www.orchidsatpalmcourt.com
Nine-Ten Restaurant & Bar, San Diego; www.nine-ten.com
Spago, Beverly Hills; www.wolfgangpuck.com
Topolobambpo, Chicago; www.rickbayless.com
Zahav, Philadelphia; www.zahavrestaurant.com