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.
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.
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.