Looking at how the cuisine has morphed and where it is today: There are many chefs doing contemporary food, whether it's contemporary American, contemporary Spanish, contemporary French, etc. The traditions they are working within almost don't matter, since they are all basically using technique to apply great creativity and originality to terrific, generally seasonal, ingredients. Thirty years ago, you could spot the difference between an American muscle car and an Italian sports car a mile away. They were both cars, but they were created with widely divergent approaches to design and engineering, based on altogether different sensibilities. Now, those differences are far more nuanced. Ditto, contemporary cuisine. Take what Dan Barber is doing at Blue Hill: Is that considered "American Cuisine"? Well, he's an American chef using American food, so why not? Michael Ciramusti's seafood at Providence in LA utilizes cool techniques and intriguing juxtapositions of food. There's no question in my mind that it's contemporary cuisine, though people don't quite know how to label it. Is what Thomas Keller is doing considered French or American? Well, the French have a license on technique ... but so what? Is there more of a French sensibility or an American sensibility to what Thomas is doing? The better question is: Does it matter? The "wow" factor is there because it is contemporary cuisine. It's when New American cuisine started shifting from regional to contemporary that people started looking at it and saying "Wow."
For another example, look at Mario Batali's work: It is classified as Italian, though many die-hard Italian-cuisine lovers would quibble with that classification, arguing that it is merely based upon traditional Italian cuisine. And therein lies what makes it contemporary: As with our first Elimination Challenge last week, it comes down to "inspired by" vs. "authentic". And so it is with New American cuisine as well. "Inspired by" is part of the American vernacular in food as in all things - it's what takes all disciplines to new heights, and it is the story of America and Americans in general. The story of American food is illustrative of the larger story of America and American ingenuity. Here's how that might play out in terms of food: Say the challenge is to take the iconic American "clambake" as inspiration for a dish. The elements include lobster, clams, corn, tomatoes. Do I want the chefs to do a whole clambake? No, just a dish evocative of a clambake. Give this task to 20 chefs and you'll get 20 different dishes. One will be very literal and do a mini-clambake. Another may make a tortellini, making sauce with butter and corn juice, and do something else with the tomato. Another may make a corn relish. It's how you rework the food while keeping it evocative of the clambake that makes it interesting.