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Part neo-fusion, part middle finger, a new, brash food style is changing the face of restaurants
Alex Watanabe does not mind that his new Mexican Japanese restaurant, set to open in December in the old Forlini’s space in downtown Manhattan, is being called “fusion” cuisine.
“It’s just a practical description,” he says. The restaurant is meant to be a representation of his friendship with co-owner Marcelo Baez, and the long-standing relationship between Mexico and Japan, and the menu will be “our way of reasserting our identity while continuing to cherish our culture.” It’s a reflection of their experiences as Mexican and Japanese, yes, but also as DJs and party promoters and New Yorkers. The “fusion” happening here is not meant to be about strict interpretations of one or the other cuisine, which means they can have some fun. Dishes will include birria ramen, al pastor sushi rolls, sashimi tostadas, and shrimp teriyaki tacos. “We can’t presume to know what diners are looking for in our space yet, since we’re not even open, but we hope they find a restaurant they love.”
Reading the prospective menu, you’d be forgiven for thinking you have deja vu. Though things like California Pizza Kitchen-esque buffalo chicken pizza and the monstrosity that is the sushirrito have never gone away since they appeared in the ’80s and ’90s, since then they have mostly been considered declasse novelties, cynical cash grabs, a taste that had to be defended in the face of literally any other option.
But lately, a new crop of restaurants and pop-ups has begun serving not just fusion, but aggressive, weird, troll-y fusion that’s also thoughtful, being incredibly well received, and actually good. There is cheeseburger arancini, Big Mac pizza, pastrami tacos, tandoori spaghetti, masala cheesesteaks, and biscuit and gravy pierogies. There’s cajun red beans and rice on nachos and chorizo and queso on popcorn. This is not the fusion of cooking Italian cuisine with Japanese technique and a tasteful splash of soy sauce. These are big, gooey, macho menus that sound like four cuisines were stuck in the Large Hadron Collider on a dare. This is chaos cooking. And its practitioners just want everyone to lighten the hell up about food.
Avish Naran, founder of Pijja Palace, a wildly inventive and popular “Indian Sports Bar” in LA, says the process of coming up with a menu of dosa batter onion rings, saag paneer pizza, and brinjal curry pasta felt natural. “I always wanted to cook Indian food, but I want to do it my way,” he says. He felt strange cooking “authentic” Indian food as someone who was born in America, and he recognized he had other influences growing up in California that felt just as important to him as those of his family’s heritage. “Sometimes you’re just at a Dodger game and you have a Dodger dog, and it has nothing to do with ethnicity,” he says. “The diners need to just start understanding that we’re cooking our experiences, not our ethnicities.”
Part of the driving force behind many of these menus is chefs of color pushing back against the expectation that they must only cook the food of their families. Sheal Patel, the chef behind the Chicago pop-up Dhuaan BBQ, started cooking because he thought Indian flavors would go well with red meats that are more common in America. “I thought, ‘I would like to eat a steak with Indian flavor on it, so I’ll just make that for myself because no restaurant’s going to serve that to me,’” he says. Now, at his pop-ups, he prepares things like Amul mac and cheese, Kashmiri beef ribs, hot dogs with chaat masala giardiniera, and a juicy masala cheesesteak, and he’s partnered with Howdy Kolache to make beef keema and spinach paneer kolaches.
On its surface, this new chaotic cousin of fusion could just be born of a desire to shake off a few rules. The fusion cuisine of the late ’80s and early ’90s was the result of more chefs having access to more flavors and the slow uncrowning of French cuisine as the only cuisine worthy of fine dining. In 1984, then LA Times restaurant editor Ruth Reichl declared the burgeoning trend the end of “the tyranny of taste,” which had held fine dining under the reins of French, Italian, and “gourmet” cooking. “That sort of foolish faddishness is finally behind us,” she wrote. “Today the only fashionable thing to eat is food that tastes very, very good, preferably cooked by the very, very famous.” Still, the chefs at the helm were often white and French trained, resulting in dishes like Chinese chicken salad, tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes, and Wolfgang Puck’s famous smoked salmon pizza.
There were people who questioned fusion all along, but in the ’80s and ’90s, they were often drowned out by those who insisted it was innovation. “Of course I got negative responses from traditional American Chinese restaurant owners,” Puck told the Wall Street Journal in 2012. “‘How dare you cook Chinese food, you’re not even Chinese.’ But I believe authenticity is about evolution, not repeating your grandmother’s recipe.” But as the years went on, the backlash grew as chefs and diners of color rightly began questioning these chefs’ expertise in these cuisines and pushing for Americans to understand what these cuisines actually looked like. “Authenticity” became the touchpoint, and diners began to value cuisines that at least aesthetically appeared to hold true to their origins.
Eventually, however, that demand for authenticity became too rigid a bar. After all, who gets to decide which is the ultimate version of a dish, especially when recipes vary so dramatically across regions? This led to the more recent “return” of fusion, or what chef Dale Talde calls “naturally fusion” — an understanding that many chefs grew up in multiethnic households, neighborhoods, and kitchens and what’s important is cooking with honesty. Joshua David Stein at the Wall Street Journal wrote that these new culinary mashups should be considered “a New New American Cuisine, an organic outgrowth of demographic shifts, democratic kitchens and the never-ending pursuit of flavor,” and it’s true they often seem to grow from a more honest, less cynical place than the fusion dishes of the ’90s. Still, it felt like there were rules that came with this “return.” Sure, you can cook from a variety of cuisines, the argument went, but there was a silent qualifier: as long as you have some legitimate claim to them.
Now, with chaos cooking, we’re beginning to see a backlash to the backlash to the backlash, a general vibe that nearly echoes the who cares as long as it “tastes very very good?” arguments of the ’80s and ’90s. Like similar buzzwords “unhinged” and “deranged” that have gained more popularity recently as descriptors, “chaos” has become a positive. Something chaotic is wild and weird in a way that inspires a barking laugh in joyful disbelief. Chaos is the opposite of composure, which sounds like rules and order and boredom. Chaos represents a freedom from standards of aesthetic perfection and authenticity. As a wise steakhouse once said: No rules, just right.
When Diego Argoti began making the food that would become his LA pop-up Estrano, he says it was the result of a slightly nihilistic view of his cooking career. He had burned out at restaurants, and “I just stopped caring,” he says. “And once I stopped caring, I texted [my friends] and I said, ‘I’m going to be cooking this food in the alleyway in about 45 minutes behind this bar.’” That food was a Frankenstein’s monster mash of cuisines — juicy lucy ravioli made with Velveeta, tortellini in brodo with pozole verde, and avocado ice cream. The menu stayed strange, with things like crunchwrap supreme lasagna and veal manti picatta now regularly featured. “It’s just really weird shit,” he says.
Argoti, who previously made the sublime pastas at Bestia, specifically brings up Wolfgang Puck and California Pizza Kitchen when talking about his menus. “These things that we laugh about now were the forefront of breaking the boundaries of what Italian and French rules were,” he says. “For me, it’s an excuse to be able to do that.” Why should a chef be bound to one cuisine, after all, when there are so many options and when most chefs have worked in enough kitchens to have picked up techniques from around the world? But also, this cuisine is an explicit middle finger to expectations and the concept of good taste. “[My menus] almost look like it’s like a prank or it isn’t going to taste good,” says Argoti. “And then people ask me what kind of food do I cook? And I really just say, ‘It’s food that I find nostalgic and has a place in my heart, but it’s also food trolling.’ The cheeseburger ravioli was like a fuck you to everyone.”
Some of this may also have to do with the pandemic, which Argoti says forced enough people to learn how to cook the basics, and now the bar is higher. “The romanticism behind even a simple rice noodle dish and selling it as something you can’t get anywhere … it’s not as rare anymore,” he says. You have to make something people can’t make at home. He also notes that where once you had to watch a whole show or a half-hour YouTube video to learn how to make something, TikTok influencers are throwing things together in minutes. And half the time they’re basically pranks. Watch enough videos of butter wrapped in fruit roll-ups dipped in Tajín, mashed potatoes made from Pringles, and purple alfredo pasta, and a gentle marriage of Mexican and Italian flavors just isn’t going to cut it anymore.
Zach Brooks, the general manager at Smorgasburg LA, a weekly gathering of pop-up food vendors, isn’t surprised chaos cooking is having a moment (vendor Cali Dumplings, for instance, offers a pepperoni pizza dumpling). He credits it to two things. First, there are more chefs than ever who did not come up with European cuisine as the pinnacle and whose influences were chefs like David Chang who opened his first restaurant Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004 and Roy Choi, who started his LA food truck Kogi in 2008 — both of whom made their names questioning what should count as destination food. Chang famously hated the word “fusion” for a long time, but he championed Korean and Chinese and fast-food cuisines that highlighted all of a chef’s influences and interests. Second, we’ve perhaps hit the ceiling on authenticity. “You can get so many different kinds of ‘authentic foods’ from all around the world because we just have so many people from so many different places living here,” says Brooks. Frankly, authenticity is boring now. “This is how innovation works.”
Brooks is seeing this happen firsthand at Smorgasburg, where after sampling everything the weekly food fest has to offer, he’s been working with vendors to create “food hacks,” where one vendor will incorporate another vendor’s food into their dishes. Some of these have led to those dishes being offered as specials, whether it’s a flautas torta or a Filipino lobster burrito. “I do feel the idea of [fusion] is something that a lot of people are into right now. I think it comes from the same place of, ‘I’ve had all this stuff. I’ve had all the different versions of it. Right? I’ve explored the different permutations of this thing. What’s next?’”
Some chefs are still wary of how fusion is handled in America at large, or, really, how non-European cuisines are handled by white chefs. In 2017, the white duo behind Kooks Burritos in Portland was lambasted after it appeared they bragged about stealing tortilla recipes from women in Mexico after a single road trip to the country. In 2019, a white woman tried to open a “healthy” Chinese restaurant in New York, using language that mirrored historically racist Chinese stereotypes. In 2020, a white chef bottled and sold “mild sauce,” a staple of Black Chicago cuisine. Appropriation is alive and well, and in that environment, it’s hard to know who can be trusted with which cuisines and traditions.
“I just think corporate America and white America has ruined that term,” says Patel of “fusion.” He brings up TGI Friday’s new tandoori chicken fajitas as an example of the ways mainstream restaurants are still carelessly co-opting flavors. “Someone may come to me and say, ‘Well, how is your Indian Philly Cheese Steak different than that?’ And my point is to say, ‘The ingredients inside the bread are literally authentic Indian food.’” His sandwich may count as fusion, but it’s a reflection of his tastes, not a hollow strategy to attract new customers.
But the main difference between TGI Friday’s and the work these chefs are doing is that it’s very, very good food, precisely because they are approaching chaos cooking with deeper culinary skills, understanding of flavors across cuisines, and having grown up steeped in the flavors they’re using. And yes, with a hefty dose of “lol what if we tried this?” But just as Picasso started breaking the rules after beginning as a profoundly talented realist painter, these chefs know exactly what they’re messing with.
Naran, however, is fed up with the dichotomy between who should and shouldn’t be allowed to smash cuisines together. “These two girls came in, and they started asking all the wrong questions from the jump, like, ‘Is the chef Indian? Is the owner Indian?’ And I don’t like questions like that,” he says. Instead, the only question should be whether the food works, and this kind of cuisine shouldn’t only be okay if the chef has a personal or ethnic connection to it. When asked if a white chef put something like a malai pasta on their menu, he says, “I would take no offense to that if the food is good — this is America, you got to get over that bullshit.”
Naran’s argument sounds awfully close to the opportunistic defenses of the ’90s, which, divorced from the passive racism of colorblindness, had a point. In a whole world of flavor and influence, why limit yourself to what’s been done? Why not try? What these chaotic menus recognize is that there is a vast gray space between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. And that chefs of color shouldn’t always have to be on the defensive, “educating” and “introducing” and protecting their culture’s cuisines from interlopers with bad intentions when they could be the ones having fun with it. And for diners, “weird sells right now,” says Argoti. It finally tastes like something new.
Don Caminos is a visual vaquero providing editorial illustration from Mexico City.
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein
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