The definition of American cuisine is shifting again. Today’s descriptors signal this shift: reinterpretation, reinvention, eclectic, inventive, mash-up. Although American cuisine is always evolving, the shift happening right now is worthy of careful attention. It’s important to understand the dynamics at play. While modern consumers continue to seek a memorable culinary experience, the path to getting there has morphed over time, with new expectations setting the bar at loftier heights.
When attempting to define the modern take on American cuisine, there seems to be a consensus that it is actually ours to define. Taking liberties, mixing and matching elements, considering ingredients and influences from different cuisines is all fair game. Indeed, when a group of ingredients is brought together to create a dish that cannot be categorized into one specific region—Italian, Peruvian, French, Korean, Spanish or otherwise—the category of New American cuisine seems completely acceptable. This is a new phenomenon. Up until now, the industry has labeled dishes that borrow from the pantries of other cuisines as “global mash-ups.” New American cuisine doesn’t need that caveat anymore. The mash-up is no longer jarring, or something in need of labeling. It’s simply part of the New American cuisine.
At the leading edge of this conversation are the U.S. chefs who are thrilling consumers with their takes on New American cuisine. In fact, it’s changing how we view food today and prompting us to say that the rules and categorizations of restaurants no longer apply. It’s now truly a personal conversation between the chef and the diner—one that is reminding us that the goal is to create inspired food done right, whether at a casual neighborhood spot or a fine-dining establishment. As diners become more savvy and knowledgeable about ingredients and regionally inspired cuisines, they still yearn for a moment of discovery, and, much to their delight, find that this moment can come from anywhere.
The New Intersection
The path to a modern definition of New American cuisine can be traced back to the influences of nouvelle cuisine, if not further back in culinary history where many mentions of “new” and “modern” can be found. The innovators of this time recognized that a new kind of cuisine was possible by taking control, taking a risk and owning the outcome. While this turning point has been repeated multiple times in the last 50 years, we now find ourselves at the perfect crossroads for the next modern cuisine to form. Many chefs are willing and capable of risk, and many consumers are seeking something new, inevitably eager and curious to take on some of the risk as well. But let’s be clear—New American isn’t a catchall. It has loose parameters that stretch with a chef’s interpretation, but stay within a playground that sees eclectic builds, American regionality and global influences.
Culture is a crucial part of the conversation around New American cuisine. Our individual culture—where we were born, how we were raised, the people we know, the stories we’ve heard, the food that nourished us, the artists that influenced us—plays a role in forming who we are. And, time and time again, these influences are used as inspiration in a restaurant name, in the decor and on the menu. The intersection of culture and food is stronger than ever, providing a common ground that we can all share and experience together, regardless of our background, our ethnicity or our lifestyle. This informs New American cuisine, which recognizes and embraces these cultural touchstones and weaves them into its narrative.
The New Kid on the Continuum
Common through lines can be found between today’s version of New American cuisine, the roots of fusion and examples of culinary mash-ups. Global influence, inspired ingredients and surprising pairings all play a part along the continuum of fusion to mash-up to New American. The opportunity is huge, with New American cuisine granting permission and extending an invitation to almost any restaurant concept. Dabbling is welcome. Global pantries are open. Exploration and creativity are the only set rules.
Everytable in Los Angeles is a great example, illustrating cultural connectivity and modern dishes. The menu offers a selection of bowls inspired by the cultures and flavors of Los Angeles, introducing flavor profiles from multiple global influences in a casual format. Diners will find Puebla Chicken Tinga, Jamaican Jerk Chicken and Pozole Rojo on the menu. At the same time, they have set out to tackle gentrification through a pricing model that considers the neighborhoods they serve, offering a story and experience for their guests and their community and making food affordable.
While fusion has lost the appeal it held in the ’80s, the purity of the intent may have been ahead of its time. Even as it lost appeal, the groundwork was set for a new version. Roy Choi has received a lot of credit for the revival of modern fusion, with his Korean taco, served from an L.A. food truck. It offers a twist on a familiar format, packed with authentic, fresh ingredients, and inspired by his Korean heritage. The talk of mash-ups began around this time—the literal mashing together of a taco with Korean barbecue—and a metaphorical representation of the mash-up of cultures and populations that has created our multicultural reality. A revolution came soon after, and today there are an estimated 3 million food trucks on the streets of the United States, propelling the narrative of casual, authentic, mashed-up food into the culinary zeitgeist.
Now, extreme mash-ups can be found on grocery store shelves, on fast-food menus, in food news and on food blogs. Pies have been baked into cakes, burgers have been carried between doughnut halves, and ramen noodles have replaced buns. From cronuts to Doritos Locos Tacos to Cinnamon Bun Oreos, these creations often froth up immediate buzz and a corresponding sales lift.
While remnants of fusion still exist and crazy gotta-try-it mash-ups will continue to hit shelves and menus, today’s culinary exploration is not as easily categorized by a broad, sweeping definition. Yes, culinary blending of cultures is more relevant than ever, but the language and the rules have changed. Now, it can be defined as an extension of the chef or restaurateur rather than a deliberate blending of cuisines. It isn’t fusion. It isn’t a mash-up. It’s much more refined and thoughtful.
The New Normal
If there ever was a time when we were being asked to embrace a new normal, it’s now. Consumer drivers influencing the new normal can be summarized in one word: change. In fact, according to The Futures Company, 75 percent of consumers across all demographics are demanding change from life, from politics, from society and from business. Luckily, the restaurant industry has already started moving away from business as usual. Consumers have indicated that they want to be released from expectations of others—58 percent, in fact, according to 2016 U.S. Yankelovich Monitor Data. In turn, the implication is that this freedom will bleed into brands and offer permission for businesses to buck the expectations as well.
“It is a great time to be a chef because we now have more creativity than ever,” said Kevin Gillespie, Atlanta chef and founder of Gunshow and Revival restaurants, in a Fast Company article. “We’re no longer constrained by the rules of fine dining; we can literally create any kind of restaurant that we want—upmarket, downmarket, a food truck, or maybe even something in between that hasn’t been invented yet.”
In this time of desired change, we’re also seeing consumer preferences shift from authenticity to include “real,” giving us the opportunity to consider all that “real” entails: experiences, ingredients, of course, but also connections, communication and honesty.
The new normal is defined by information—when consumers can see through the hype. According to Kantar Futures Marketplace Monitor 2016, 73 percent of Millennials claim that it is “very or extremely important” to be seen as someone who can see through the exaggeration and hype. It’s no surprise, then, that we’re seeing a return to the basics from many chefs in the New American category, in ingredient selection, service styles and modern restaurant formats.
Staplehouse in Atlanta describes itself as a “casual neighborhood restaurant.” It is a perfect expression of New American cuisine, where Southern staples like benne seed and okra meet global ingredients like furikake and fermented shrimp broth. The casual vibe of the place encourages sharing and warm hospitality, and there’s an inherent honesty in how the food is menued, marketed and presented.
The New Approach
Today’s take on New American cuisine, no matter how it’s interpreted or presented, offers a familiar starting point for diners. The approach is now grounded in personal connection and less connected to a price point, service style or specific cuisine.
The measurement of a restaurant’s success has clearly changed. Chef Maximillian Petty of Eden Hill in Seattle, may have said it best when interviewed for the James Beard Foundation blog, “How Nine Rising Star Chefs will Cook Up the Future.” He likened the future of culinary to music: “The way we ‘sing’ will continue to change, not what we sing. You can’t change the fact that basil and tomatoes pair so well, or fried fish and malt vinegar, and you never will. Those stories can never be untold. But they can be told in a different language, or from a different stage. The future holds a lot for this industry. I can express myself through food and I don’t have to answer to anyone. I can sing as loud as I want or plate from a burnt alder log with sticks for utensils. It doesn’t always work but that’s okay. It’s about trial and error, and singing your heart out.”
The New American cuisine is reminiscent of what we know, where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s perhaps the greatest reflection of this great experiment, this melting pot, as it truly embraces cultural, culinary and emotional influences, morphing them into a thrilling, new normal.