Can Chefs Create Their Own Authenticity?

The Shoulda, Coulda, Vada Chaat at Juhu Beach Club.
The Shoulda, Coulda, Vada Chaat at Juhu Beach Club. Photo: Courtesy of Juhu Beach Club

In this post-fusion age of American cuisine where influences and ingredients get mashed up as seamlessly as a Girl Talk track, what does “authentic” mean anymore? Todd Kliman wrote an excellent piece in the innaugural issue of Lucky Peach on the topic, questioning the term “fusion,” among other things, and insisting “the fusion impulse is the human impulse — to cross over, to integrate two different, sometimes warring worlds, to create a new meaning.” He points to the work of Rick Bayless and Mario Batali as successful bids at authenticity (even though Bayless has less ethnic cred in Mexican food than Batali has in Italian), but makes the important point that all these origin cuisines we look to from around the globe are, themselves, the results of centuries of fusion.

He writes:

Chinese cooking, the mother of all cuisines, is a constantly evolving product of fusion, too. Modern Szechuan cooking, famous for its immodest use of chili peppers, is only about three hundred years old. … It embarked a dramatic detour when the pepper arrived from the New World, and it never looked back.

Kliman also points to author Lizzie Collingham’s book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerers, noting that classic Indian dishes like chicken vindaloo are totally the byproducts of Portuguese colonialism.

Today, Tara Duggan takes on the topic on 7x7’s blog with regard to three dishes from local chefs: Denise Tran’s sloppy bun at Bun Mee; William Pilz’s chicken adobo from his Hapa SF truck; and Preeti Mistry’s “Shoulda, Coulda, Vada” Chaat at Juhu Beach Club. These are all chefs working in ethnic veins that are native to their parents’ homelands, but putting new twists on them to make them their own, and to surprise a modern audience. Tran said she wanted to do sandwiches “inspired by banh mi — not to do what every mom-and-pop Vietnamese deli is doing.” And Mistry, likewise, is trying to have fun with her food, doing her own variation on vada chaat, traditionally made with lentils but done here with spiced, fried potato cakes. Her whimsical name is a play on the way her mother pronounces “vada,” which sounds more like “wuda,” and the dish itself is inspired by her mother’s recipe, but topped with a more California-seasonal vegetable relish. She’s also doing Indian-style tacos, which are actually pretty awesome.

Philistines and purists from all corners are always going to be quick to echo what William Pilz’s own mother says about his cooking: “It’s delicious, it’s just not Philippine.” We’ve heard a lot of that said about Zero Zero for instance — the pizza’s good, it’s just not real Neapolitan. Michael Bauer addressed the authenticity topic with regard to the pozole at Nopalito; and Matt Accarrino is doing a lot of playful stuff with Northern Italian ingredients at SPQR, like a carbonara with bacon and sea urchin, that can’t really be called authentic, but few are going to say it’s not good.

Is it fair to even try to impose a litmus test of authenticity on any food that’s been taken out of its native turf and brought to a place where the ingredients are necessarily going to tell a different story? Kliman points to the idea that cooking Italian food is more of an attitude, and an approach to using the ingredients around you, than it is a doctrine. Perhaps we should just be glad that the taboo of “fusion” has given way to something else, offering new liberties to chefs who pick and choose ideas from here and there, cuisine-wise, to express themselves. And maybe in a few years, the foodie mafia will stop throwing around the word “authentic” and just enjoy their damn food.

Bun Mee, Hapa SF and Juhu Beach Club Chefs On Making Their Own Kind of Authentic [7x7]
Related: Does Michael Bauer Know From Good Pozole?
Actually Pretty Awesome: Uncle’s Chicken Curry Tacos at Juhu Beach Club

Can Chefs Create Their Own Authenticity?