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.
The photographer Bobby Doherty used the AI-image generator Midjourney to create the images featured in this article. Each image depicts a dish that ChatGPT has identified as “New American.”
If AI were to open a New American restaurant this year, it would be called “Harvest & Hearth.” The menu would feature fried chicken and waffles, burrata, Mediterranean flatbreads, sushi burritos, hanger steak, and chocolate lava cake. Chef Thomas Keller, of landmark Napa Valley restaurant The French Laundry, or Yotam Ottolenghi, who I guess would get a stipend to move to America, would run the kitchen. Guests would dine in a setting “inspired by the natural beauty of the region,” said region unspecified, and enjoy a “relaxed, casual vibe” while listening to music by artists such as Avicii, Bruce Springsteen, Justin Timberlake, and The Black Eyed Peas.
This bonkers yet boring fictional restaurant came out of a recent conversation I had with ChatGPT, an OpenAI bot that can algorithmically process and generate text responses. Since the New American term originated over four decades ago, food writers and platforms like Yelp and Google are still slapping the label on any restaurant menu around the country that offers a glimmer of global influence, despite the label being famously murky. It’s become a meaningless, perplexing catch-all for menus and chefs that don’t fit into a clearly-defined (French- or Korean- or Insert Cuisine Here-shaped) box.
So I’d hoped that ChatGPT—the machine’s powerful learning skills and prowess for the written word are impressive—could help clarify what New American food actually is. (Honestly, take my job!) But after literal hours of back-and-forth, it’s clear the program is just as tired and confused about the term as those of its sources: Us, the humans. In fact, ChatGPT has emphasized just how same-same food writing has been over the years. If we give the bot bad data, it’ll spit out bad answers.
I started simple. When I asked, “Explain what ‘New American’ food is,” ChatGPT typed back a paragraph much like something you’d read in a high school history class—generally hitting the right notes, but in a dry and vague way. The cuisine “draws on inspiration from diverse culinary traditions, including those of various immigrant communities in the United States,” it said. The bot offered a couple examples of the “creative combinations of flavors and textures” one could expect within the category: “fusion dishes” such as a sushi roll with “Southwest flavors” and a Korean-style BBQ burger.
When I asked AI to generate a list of New American meals, the results were also bland and, at best, vaguely derivative of the “immigrant communities” the label is supposed to describe. Grilled salmon with quinoa, featuring roasted vegetables for a “colorful, seasonal touch.” Shrimp and grits and beef tacos were thrown in for good measure. And, out of the blue, the ramen burger, which “takes the classic Japanese noodle soup” and turns it into an all-American beef patty (in reality, the noodles become the bun).
I ventured deeper, requesting some sample New American restaurant menus, and the results were pretty forgettable. My first query yielded smoked trout dip, grilled lamb chops or mushroom risotto, and a chocolate and salted caramel tart for dessert. Another came up with an heirloom tomato salad starter followed by pan-seared scallops and stone fruit crumble. For beverages, imaginary diners could choose from sparkling lavender lemonade or ginger and honey iced tea. Not bad, but not necessarily drawn from “diverse culinary traditions.”