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What Is New American Food, Really?

by TopBusinessView

In the absence of other language, New American is, perhaps, the simplest (and sometimes, most reductive) description of what these chefs are doing: pulling from an array of contemporary resources to reflect something about dining in America.

But just because “New American” is the best we’ve got doesn’t mean it’s good enough, or that it isn’t obscuring something by being so generic. We can—and should—do a better job of acknowledging the individuality that actually makes food culture in America so striking right now. Using a label at all suggests the existence of a cohesive American cuisine, when what really defines American food right now is how far-reaching and all-encompassing it can be. This is not the French-inspired cooking of the ’80s and ’90s. New bids into the canon like “New New American” or “chaos cooking” are encouraging attempts to describe what’s happening in American food culture right now, but much like the term they intend to replace, don’t quite describe all that American cooking has to offer at this moment. How quickly will we find those labels to be outdated, too?

When food media went through a racial reckoning in 2020, part of the fallout was precisely a call for more specificity. The complaint about Alison Roman and “the stew”—a chickpea dish heavy on turmeric that was close enough to many South Asian dishes to raise more than a few eyebrows—the objection was less about who owns what, or who has a right to use which ingredient, than simply a desire to call something by its right name. 

It’s why “New American” as a term simply doesn’t work anymore—if it did at all. It once claimed to look forward, but now in fact looks back: to a time when it was simply assumed that the default in America was whiteness, and what was new about New American was new to most in the country—when Wolfgang Puck adding Asian ingredients to his menus still seemed “daring.” But that isn’t the case anymore. Kimchi, sumac, curry spices, lemongrass, fish sauce—these are ingredients now so ordinary you’ll find them on mass-market cooking programs such as America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country on PBS. 

Today, part of what is driving novelty in American cooking, and landing restaurants on best-of lists, is a more purposeful, specific mindset. Chefs are finding their own ways to describe their cooking—and perhaps providing useful keys for how to read this culinary landscape.

When Eric Brooks and Jacob Armando put their own twist on red sauce Italian at Gigi’s in Atlanta, the results—beef carpaccio with rice crackers, polenta with caviar, fettuccine alfredo with fermented chili breadcrumbs—might well be called “New Italian American” (They call themselves, quite simply, an Italian kitchen). At L.A.’s Anajak Thai, Justin Pichetrungsi took over his parents’ decades-old establishment and the results are almost a too-on-the-nose expression of what second-gen, third-culture American cooking looks like: Thai Taco Tuesdays, Southern Thai-style fried chicken, Kampachi sashimi with a Hainanese ponzu. It describes itself as Thai—but with the very American addendum that “Anajak is one big f*cking party.”  And at Nami Kaze in Honolulu, chef-owner Jason Peel takes the already multicultural cuisine of Hawaii and adds in not just Japanese touches, but also Levantine labneh and za’atar, Southeast Asian satay sauce with summer rolls, and beets with gochujang.

Eater described Peel’s approach as “grounded in the Islands and exposed to the world.” It’s not a bad way to think of American food right now: rooted somewhere, but also reflecting the fact that the Americans cooking and eating it come from places where the food cultures are far different from what’s historically been considered American.

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Yet on Nami Kaze’s website, rather than New American or Japanese American, what it says in large sans serif is “Japanese + American.” The hyphen is gone, replaced by a plus sign. If you were to squint a bit and read it symbolically, you have the “yes and” of labels. It’s a good way to capture what is actually going on: There isn’t a single thing emerging in American food culture at this moment, but a constant process of addition that is taking the American and making something, well, new. 

Sure, that interpretation is probably a little optimistic; nothing in the mess of national and ethnic identity is actually that easy. So much of how we define ourselves comes down to the subjective practice of what feels right. Chefs like Edward Lee may prefer the simple, declarative “American.” Others seek a combination, like Taiwanese American, Korean American, Neo-Italian American—and yes, hyphenation can be imprecise and clunky in its own way. But each attempts to avoid the ambiguity in obscuring an intentionally made cuisine. And more precision does perhaps get us closer to clarity. In general, when it comes to thinking about the miasma of appropriation, history, race, and the hundred other things currently troubling the food world, even a little more specificity seems like a good thing. 

American food is constantly evolving and, in turn, evading labels. We can follow some general ethos: Say where its various influences are from. Take descriptors from places like Google and Yelp with a grain of salt (good advice for any topic). But also: Use a hyphen or a plus sign or whatever else to suggest that where something is from doesn’t wholly determine where it’s going. 

The nearly impossible challenge here is describing the way the present is constantly giving way to the future. Then again, that’s part of the challenge, charm, and beauty of eating in the United States in the first place. It’s constantly pushing forward, blending and creating and inventing until something radically new—even cuisine-defining—emerges. It’s not just new and American, it’s “American, and.” Filling in that blank is exactly where the promise lies.

More from our series exploring the state of New American restaurants:

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