Viva Les Fusion

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I have a slew of favorite chefs who I look up to, not for their celebrity status or sex appeal, but rather, for their truly inspired notions of cooking and the philosophies around eating. Within that canon is a quintet of Asian chefs: Filipino Paul Qui, a past Top Chef winner who brings a Zen minimalist’s flair to the manly food scene of Austin, Texas; Edward Lee, a Korean-American form of the hearty Marlboro Man delivering up a Southern hybrid of Asian spice in Kentucky; also Korean, Kwang Uh with his exciting vegetarian fermentation lab in Los Angeles; David Chang whose latchkey kid, stoner skater food creations border on the brilliant with their everyday cabinet ingredients elevated to gourmet plateaus, and my very own Cute Gardener who brings the most Japanese refinement to everything he touches even if that means country fried chicken, Austrian noodles, Italian pastas, or Michelin-star status macaroni and cheese. What I specifically love, though, about these five chefs, is the way they have taken the techniques and cuisines of their nationalities and expanded upon them via exploration and practice into defining their own versions of what it means to eat American.

On the latest season of Mind of a Chef, Lee is profiled as saying that one of the greatest things about the contemporary American food scene is the proliferation of fare inspired by the multitudes of dishes from all over the world being made on this vast continent that so many different ethnicities call home. Fusion is no longer a tres chic restaurant description but a true method of cooking for today’s national palate teethed on so much more than mere hot dogs and hamburgers.

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Take the taco for instance. There aren’t many neighborhoods in the states where you can’t find a simple strip mall counter serving up standard street tacos. Simple pastor, carne, pollo and even lengua meat on tiny disks of authentic masa are par for the course and whether fifty cents or five bucks a pop, rather guaranteed to always be good. What’s exciting though, are the myriad ways chefs and home cooks are co-opting the concept of taco and making it their own. Think of the tortilla as a blank canvas; strip away the typical Mexican connotations, and the possibilities become endless.

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The Cute Gardener recently served up a fusion style taco of Italian Milanese-style, breadcrumb coated and fried skirt steak with a smattering of sliced red cabbage, pickled shallots and cotija cheese on warm corn tortillas. Recently, I have been having a blast with tostada shells, discovering all the various ways I can fit my health food-bent lunch palate onto their crisp, corn crunchiness. My favorite so far has been a topping of turmeric and olive oil roasted sweet potato, melted Monterey Jack cheese, purslane from the garden, strips of basil and cherry tomatoes, dotted with Vietnamese chili garlic sauce. No origin story, no historical precedent, no label of identifying cuisine—just pure yummy goodness.

There’s been lots of debate recently about cultural appropriation and whether it is right or not for people to dabble in identifications non-indigenous to their own. Thank goodness the food world is absent of these arrows because, to me, one of the most beautiful things about being human (and eating!) is being able to discover for one’s self the things that most lick our fancies and then creating a world of our own not relegated to such a narrow act as the pigeonhole. In my eyes, today’s American cuisine is a broad field not confined by definition and boundless in its ever-expanding permutations.

Girasol Reignites My Foraging Fire

IMG_1480Marinated and grilled pork satay with caramelized onion puree,
California olive oil, grilled lemon and fennel pollen

The Cute Gardener and I enjoy seeking out and trying the food of Top Chef contestants whenever we get a chance. Not only are we avid fans of the show, we tend to come away each season with favorites like Paul Qui (whose food we have yet to taste) and Stefan Richter (whose food we tasted and liked but whose restaurant service was highly dissatisfactory). I liked CJ Jacobsen when he appeared on the show but not as much as others so when I saw us slated to dine at his Studio City restaurant Girasol recently, I was only mildly anticipating the meal. After all, the menu seemed rich with dishes I’ve seen an overabundance of lately on the California cuisine landscape. Was I wrong.

IMG_1483Rabbit rillettes with moist roasted carrot, root veggies, green almonds and sweet buckwheat tuile

What I learned very swiftly after receiving our first dish was that CJ’s artistry comes not so much in orchestrating the wildly creative entree or the ground-breaking and new appetizer, but in treating common dishes with such whimsy and foraging fervor that you are introduced to delightful flavor combinations and gleeful mouthfuls that you were not expecting in the least. Each plate was articulated in what is clearly the chef’s own voice—an earthy and casual simplicity built through completely complex and extraordinary ingredients found in the Angeles National Forest and our own backyards.

IMG_1481Dried fava bean puree with house chorizo, cherry tomato, parsley and grilled flatbread

Everyone who knows me knows how much I am fond of foragers. I constantly make the CG pull over whenever we encounter wild food along the road. It was very cool to see the fruits of Jacobsen’s own treks into the woods on our table such as a slight dusting of citrus yellow fennel pollen on succulent, light pork or the slivered, tart green almonds that spiked and livened our chunks of tender rabbit. A buckwheat tuile immediately had me wanting to think of other ways to use the slightly sweet ingredient in other applications back home like crepes, crusts and spreads. It didn’t surprise me to learn that CJ spent time working for one of my favorites—acclaimed Chef René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma Restaurant—a hero in the soulful, foraging department.

IMG_1482 Whole fried snapper, crispy greens, fermented Fresno chili,
sauce of kumquat, sorrel and citrus

A highlight of the evening was the whole fried snapper, which arrived with a curved tail as if plucked mid-swish from the lake. Atop a pile of bitter fried greens and alongside a mild sweet sauce, it was a refreshing departure from my fried fish oeuvre of late at Asian restaurants that seem to favor too hot sauces and heavy oils, all of which typically compete with the flakiness of the fish. I would order this one again.

IMG_8222Cute Gardener-grown arugula flowers

After dining at Girasol I spent a Saturday afternoon chomping on arugula flowers in our garden, suddenly seized with the propensity to look at every specimen as a potential ingredient. Much like the leaves, the flowers were peppery but had sweetness mingled with bitterness and smelled slightly like peanut butter.

IMG_8225 My kale, swiss chard, arugula flower, arugula, and mushroom salad with
walnut oil and foraged grapefruit vinaigrette.

That joyous discovery landed in our salad bowls later at dinnertime. CJ’s passion for finding in the field has definitely infected our household in the most positive of ways. It also made me realize that you can find new things constantly, even if you think you are looking in all of the same old places.