Food is one of the simplest ways to communicate. Cooking someone a meal shows caring and hospitality, and the flavors on the plate tell a story about culture and place that anyone can understand. All around the world, chefs use their menus to showcase their diverse backgrounds and how their cultures and family traditions uniquely intersect with the places they call home.
During The Culinary Institute of America’s 23rd annual Worlds of Flavor conference last week, chefs took the stage at The CIA at Copia in Napa, Calif., to talk about how global influences and local communities are shaping the future of dining.
This year’s Worlds of Flavor conference focused on chefs from the cities of the Americas, with a theme of “culinary disruption and renewal from the US and Canada to Latin America.” For many of the chef presenters, this disruption and renewal comes in the form blending influences from their heritage, places they’ve traveled and the communities they serve. By building menus from the ground up with local ingredients and global inspiration, these chefs are creating food that is not simply fusion, but rather an authentic evolution.
Lucas Sin, chef-owner of Nice Day Chinese and Junzi Kitchen in New York City, spoke about how he uses his restaurants to expand diners’ view of what Chinese American food can be.
“This thought that American Chinese food is not authentic is wrong,” he said, explaining that dishes such as orange chicken and fried rice have evolved over time. The fried rice on Sin’s menu has gone through its own evolution since the takeout-only restaurant opened last year. The chef said when the restaurant first opened, his version of the dish was “disgusting,” and he was inspired to take it back to basics by the memory of a golden fried rice dish featured in an anime episode. He demonstrated the technique, which involves coating leftover rice with egg yolks before cooking it in a wok, and said it can be used as a base recipe for fried rice that features a wide range of different flavors — from classic char siu to Buffalo chicken with ranch dressing.
“If we refer to classic techniques as much as we refer to the science and we refer to things like anime…that give us inspiration, you can draw a lot of ideas that elevate Chinese food and even Chinese American food that most people don’t think twice about,” he said.
While Sin cooked up the Nice Day concept from scratch, shaping the menu around his modern take on American Chinese food, other chefs are applying their fresh points of view to restaurants that have existed for decades. One such chef is Aisha Ibrahim, who took the post of executive chef at Canlis in Seattle earlier this year. Ibrahim is the first woman to hold the position in the restaurant’s 70 year history, and she draws on her Filipino heritage and experience cooking in kitchens around the world to create her menus.
She took the stage to demonstrate her take on the Filipino egg and eggplant dish tortang talong, which she named Eggplant Zurita, after her mother.
“It’s an interesting dish because it’s really representative of where I am and where food is kind of headed today,” Ibrahim said.
Her version of the dish for Canlis includes eggplant smoked with hay, and buckwheat in place of the traditional rice. Creating modern menus often means combining techniques and influences from various cuisines to make something new.
“Oftentimes we’re signing up for a French curriculum when we’re going to culinary school, but if you think about it we’ve moved past this stage of straight assimilation…so it’s really cool to put something like this on the menu,” she said. “It feels bold to me, it feels like I’m representing something that is me.”
This idea of representation is one that resonates with chefs around the globe who are serving up their own spins on dishes that pay homage to their family traditions while embracing local flavors.
Atlanta chef Parnass Savang integrates local ingredients into dishes from his Thai heritage. “I was kind of frustrated not seeing my culture represented in Atlanta and I wanted to change that. So I did a pop-up,” said Savang, who opened Talat Market with the goal of showcasing the freshly made coconut milk and cream that is a cornerstone of Thai cooking. The pop-up has since grown into a brick-and-mortar restaurant, thanks to the support of the local community.
Chef Michael Beltran of Miami echoed the importance of community support for restaurants that serve reinterpretations of classic dishes. Beltran’s restaurant, Ariete, specializes in Cuban cuisine with a Florida twist, including the chef’s take on tamale cazuela.
“My grandmother would just use dried corn, but in Florida we have a great corn season and corn is sweet and delicious so we wanted to highlight that…so we took fresh corn and we grated it on a hand grater,” Beltran said during his demonstration of the dish, which at the restaurant came served in a hollowed-out sea urchin as a nod to the uni on top.
“When you tell a Cuban American that you’re eating tamale cazuela and you get this spiny situation and you put this in front of them, some people weren’t super comfortable. And that’s totally ok…Talking about where food is going, especially in my city, the culture is starting to evolve, and people are starting to have more open minds,” he said. “The evolution of Miami as a food city is because people are willing to take that extra step and to try different things.”
Fostering this evolution gives food a sense of purpose, Beltran said.
“The reason why stuff like this is so meaningful to me is because it’s preserving a culture that has been lost for a very long time, it’s helping a city evolve, it’s being part of a community in a city that wants to push the envelope and really wasn’t known for that previously,” he said.
“Have a story to tell when it comes to food…if you believe in your food and you believe in your purpose and you believe in what you’re putting on a plate, it’s not just a job.”
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