You might expect that the chef at a brand-new Vietnamese restaurant would want his food to remind diners of Vietnam. John Nguyen — who opened Hanoi House in January — was more interested in California. Nguyen grew up in Orange County; he explained at the time of the restaurant’s opening, “Some people from Orange County came in and said, ‘It tastes just like O.C.’” He added, “I just smiled, that’s all I want.”
The menu features dishes like frogs’ legs in Cajun rice batter, and morning glory cooked in brown-butter fish sauce. Nguyen’s approach is typical of many young chefs in New York: Even as their restaurants might be rooted in specific countries, the cooking emphasizes a melting-pot mentality, and harmonious marriages of culturally disparate ingredients.
Technically, it is “fusion” cooking. But it’s not the kind of fusion that was pioneered by chefs like Wolfgang Puck, or Norman Van Aken, who melded Caribbean and European cuisines in Florida, in the ’80s and ’90s. That cooking, by and large, was defined by chefs incorporating ingredients from mostly East Asian cuisines into cooking that was otherwise rooted in the European tradition. Take, for example, China Grill’s “Oriental antipasto,” which in 1993 featured pickled cauliflower and beets, alongside scallion-studded mozzarella. There was also Ruby Foo’s PB&J rolls and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Vong, which served roasted lobster tossed with red, green, and yellow curry paste mixed with white port. (“Passionate purists will grumble,” Gael Greene wrote at the time.)
Fusion was brash, and the mash-ups were meant to impress with an element of surprise and the chefs’ ability to pull together ingredients from all over the world. In her review of China Grill, Ruth Reichl called it “air-freight cuisine with a global reach; surely it is no accident that Australian organic free-range lamb is listed on the menu, along with maki rolls, Peking duck salad, escabeche, fettuccine and C’Asian gumbo.”
What’s different now is that the aim isn’t to create previously unseen culinary combos; the chefs — many first-generation Americans born in immigrant families — are trying to re-create their own upbringings. Chris Cheung is the rare chef who has seen both sides of the fusion coin. He was part of the opening team at Jean-Georges, and cooked at China Grill. In 2015, he opened East Wind Snack Shop, where he mixes his family’s Cantonese cooking, a touch of Shanghainese technique, and distinctly Western ingredients.
“When you’re trying to mix up different ingredients, it tends to be a lot better when it’s coming from your childhood — it’s coming from instinct,” Cheung argues. “It’s just different than a chef who was inspired by just one trip he took for two weeks in China, and saw some things on the street he liked. That inspiration, while it’s good, is not the same as when you’ve been inspired by it your whole life.”
It’s no surprise, then, that this is a subtler approach, one that often infuses a gentle Western influence into various East Asian cuisines. The style is exemplified by the saffron aïoli served with the sake-steamed clams at Bessou, the foie gras bao with Chinese-sausage marmalade at Fung Tu, and corned-beef ramen at Mu Ramen. At Atoboy, the kitchen finishes Korean-style stuffed squid with distinctly Western salsa verde. In Santa Monica, there’s crisp ham in the spicy wontons at Cassia. Outside the realm of fine dining, during the 2000s, Vietnamese cooks in Houston started infusing crawfish boils with Vietnamese flavors — creating a new southern classic that spread to cities around the country. Out in San Francisco, Mister Jiu’s offers salt-and-vinegar shrimp chips, pork buns with Dutch crunch (a bread popular in the Bay Area), and Peking duck served with peanut-butter hoisin. As owner, Brandon Jew, a Bay Area native who has cooked in the region for 15 years, puts it, “It would be inauthentic for me to cook food that I would be cooking for Chinese people in China.” (One could argue — quite easily — that David Chang helped lay the groundwork in New York by embracing ramen, Korean gamjatang, and southern country ham in equal measure at the early Momofuku restaurants.)
In many ways, chefs have freedom to play with these cuisines because diners are so much more familiar with the flavors. There’s also an issue of historical timing: “Clearly, with the whole world of Chinese food, immigration quotas and regulations had an enormous effect on our industry,” notes Chinese food authority Ed Schoenfeld, of RedFarm and Decoy. In 1965, the Hart-Celler Act put an end to race-based quotas and a history of immigration policies that severely, or totally, restricted Asian immigration, and barred Chinese-Americans from owning property or businesses. An immigration boom subsequently occurred, with the Chinese-American population, for example, growing roughly 1,400 percent from 1960 to 2010. This invigorated Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other East Asian cultures and cuisine in the United States, and it’s reshaping American culture and cuisine.
In other words, this is food that best represents America right now. More than being a fusion of different cuisines, it’s a whole approach to modern American cooking. The chefs work with ingredients and techniques they know, and those things happen to be from cuisines originating on opposite sides of the planet. Nguyen’s style at Hanoi House, for example, is a reflection of the Vietnamese community’s deepening roots in California. Within the Chinese restaurant community, there’s a similar story, as mostly first- and second-generation chefs, Wu says, are “starting to do their thing.”
“There’s this preconceived notion that ‘Asian’ food needs to be a certain way, and I just feel like we should be past that point,” Bessou owner Maiko Kyogoku says. “To be completely honest, I think we should’ve opened up a New American restaurant because that’s how I see the food sometimes.”