(On “New American Food” — Part 2 of 3)
By Kelly Hartman
In my last post, I discussed the “New American” food movement, expressed my dismay with the tendency of some restaurants and chefs to apply the label to cuisine which is generally unfocused, poor attempts at authentic food, and posed the question of what can be done to redeem the movement. Let me start by saying that I feel that most, if not all, food trends start with the honest intentions of creative Chefs or restaurateurs seeking to put they’re own distinctly original spin on food they love to eat and to prepare. I am thankful for this innovation, because without it, we’d be looking at the very bleak prospect of deciding which strip mall chain or fast food restaurant to go to on our big Saturday on the town. It is chefs like Rick Bayless, Tom Collicio, and Roy Yamaguchi who have managed to bring their own very unique and delicious styles into vogue through the years by being so creative and inspirational that others, either following their passion or for want of a quick buck, attempted to emulate them (with varying degrees of success).
Now, let me get one thing clear: I don’t know a single person (Chef, “Foodie”, Blogger, or otherwise) who can give a clear and concise definition of what “New American” means. It is endlessly debated, credit is taken or offered for it’s popularity by and to dozens of chefs, and none of them seem to agree about what the term means either. Bill Daley of the Chicago Tribune seems to get it right when he says, “…The lack of consensus reminded us of Justice Potter Stewart’s classic definition of pornography: You know it when you see it. And even that old adage was gently challenged.” Some think it was started in the 80’s with the convergence of Asian Fusion and California Cuisine, others think it started much earlier, while others think the movement is simply too broad and diffuse to name a source or single influence. You can read countless articles and blogs by countless food writers and chefs that ramble on and on about the issue (some even more poorly written than my own), but few arrive at a discern-able or concise definition. Most agree that it celebrates the cultural plurality of America using contemporary techniques, presentations, and flavor combinations in (usually) an upscale dining milieu.
While this common ground seems like a good starting point, I’d argue that it is still incredibly unfocused. If I put Chinese-style Pork Sticky Buns on the same menu as Lobster Macaroni, is my restaurant New American? What if I am serving Cajun Food in the form of small plates at a bar? And if I serve a mish-mash of cultural concoctions on bamboo skewers in a snazzy, modern dining room, is that New American?
I think the best way to go about this is to examine what New American is not, or can’t be. By disqualifying certain types of restaurants, we can narrow our focus a bit. In order to do that, we need only look at the term: “New” plus “American”. There is an obvious distinction: It’s not “Old American,” so traditional institution restaurants, (places like Tavern on the Green or Delmonico’s in New York, Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, The Griswold Inn or Durgin-Park Cafe here in New England) that have historical significance in American cuisine, are not to be considered. While these spots may be distinctly American, the restaurants themselves have been around long enough to have Daguerreotype original staff photographs, so they can hardly be considered “New”. I would argue that restaurants serving specifically and distinctly ethnic food of a specific variety are obviously out too, since their attempt is to recreate an international experience within their walls which is by intent not “American.” Also out would be restaurants, whether old or new, following a specific tried-and-true theme, American or not (Steakhouses, Deli’s, Burger Joints, Diners, and Seafood Shacks come to mind here). And because this is my definition, I’m going to take the liberty to disqualify any restaurant with a corporate office in which “Units” are discussed on a “National” level by men in ties at board meetings as I don’t believe they have the passion or influence when it comes to food to be considered part of a “culinary movement”. And if their menu is tri-fold and laminated with lots of pictures, and prices that end in in ninety nine cent increments, that disqualifies them too.
So, now that we’ve knocked out about ninety five percent of the restaurants from consideration, I think I’m starting to arrive at a frame of reference, or at least basis, on which to make some distinctions. From here, we just need to continue to hone this definition to a fine, exclusive, and distinct point, and since we’ve trimmed much of the “fat”, this shouldn’t be too difficult, right? (I have a feeling that it won’t be so easy, but I will spend the next few weeks in solemn contemplation of this.) In this time, I’ll arrive at a final definition for the term by rigorously passing various restaurants through various proofs in my next blog, which I intend to get out fairly soon (no promises this time…) One way or another, we’ll get the riddle of “New American Cuisine” figured out, so we can finally move on…