The most exciting food across the country today combines elements from all sorts of cuisines. The problem: what to call it, and why a name matters. “New American” has become a de facto term, but what does it mean now? Welcome to The New American Problem, a mini-series exploring how we talk about contemporary American food.
American food has changed tremendously in the last 50 years. In the 1970s, a new wave of American cooking began to emerge from the meat and potatoes of the past. In 1971, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley and cemented her place in the culinary world with her seasonal, global (but largely French) cooking. Dishes were restrained, simple, and focused on local sourcing—lobster salad with artichokes, fennel and watercress soup, garden lettuces galore.
Then in 1986, restaurateur and former Chez Panisse chef Jeremiah Tower released his cookbook New American Classics. It was full of dishes like warm squab salad with okra, grilled sweetbreads with chili butter, and a warm duck salad with a turnip pancake. A cuisine was born.
In the last decade or so, though, New American has gone from describing farm-to-table cooking with mostly French (and occasional Asian) influences, to encompassing practically any ingredients and cooking techniques rooted in America, but sourced globally. Now, restaurants that call themselves New American—or are described as such by reviews, diners, and search platforms—boast menus featuring dishes like kimchi bouillabaisse, elote-laden pasta, chicken tikka-topped pizza, and shrimp toast benedict. Though the term used to describe modern American cooking has remained the same, the foodways and approaches that “New American” encompasses have changed dramatically.
While it might seem like this multifaceted culinary marker would reflect the diversity of cultures in the U.S., some chefs and writers are skeptical. How fine is the line between innovation and appropriation? To who is the “new” in New American novel? To better measure people’s perceptions of the label—good, bad, or ambivalent—and understand how far the once-niche restaurant descriptor has spread, we decided to poll a group we thought would be particularly unbiased when it came to an American-born restaurant movement: those who live outside of the U.S.
We reached out to writers and chefs with some questions: Have you ever heard of “New American” as a term used to describe restaurants? What do you think New American food is? Have you had a meal in your city that you’d describe as New American?
Responding from cities including London, Manila, and Copenhagen, a frequent response was confusion over what “Old” American is and how “New” American might suggest a departure or evolution. One respondent said the label allows chefs to escape from the responsibility of assigning their cooking to a specific culture, and that it feels antiquated; others spoke more positively, saying that the term reflects America’s cultural diversity.
The range of reactions paint a clear picture: both within and outside the U.S., the concept of modern American cooking is as hard to define as ever.