At the close of Episode One, I mentioned how pleased I was by the level of cooking we experienced in the first Elimination Challenge. I wish I could say the same this week. Our diners - all applicants for Top Chef who weren't selected - were quite vocal in their displeasure (have I mentioned that they're all from New York?). The challenge: Come into Craft restaurant and prepare an appetizer, entree, or dessert. The only requirement was that it be New American cuisine.
What exactly is New American cuisine? Originally, the cuisine was based more on regional American cooking than it is now. As you know, there can be no such thing as "American food" per se, because each region of this vast country has placed its own cultural stamp on its own food. If you look at America as a melting pot, there's too much in that pot to create one homogenous cuisine, so New American cuisine began as chefs doing their plays on regional cuisines using fresh, seasonal, regional ingredients. While it may have been influenced by fusion, please don't confuse the two - fusion is specifically the melding of foods from different traditions, while New American cuisine began as finely trained American chefs, steeped in traditional technique yet working with a lack of pretension, taking American regional idioms and striving to do something original and different.
Larry Forgione's work at the River Cafe in New York is a perfect example of one of the places from which New American cuisine sprung - rather than buying from one purveyor, he sussed out local farmers, procuring different ingredients from different sources and crafting them into his take on various American classic dishes. Chefs such as he, and Alice Waters on the West Coast, and Bradley Ogden in the Midwest, not to mention a spattering of teachers like James Beard and Julia Child, are all examples of the pioneers of New American Cuisine. 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.
And so I was discouraged in this Elimination Challenge that a bunch of young chefs all currently working in America were told to "do New American" and turned to quiche, to meatloaf, to homey, regional "comfort food," when I think that American food is so much more than that.
In general, the food looked clunky on the plate; almost nothing looked refined. The only dish I saw that I thought was very contemporary in its plating was Leah's. Padma thought it looked very '80s, but I thought it was very modern. But while it looked great, it lacked flavor. Jamie's dish was nice, corn-filled, which was appropriate, as we shot the season in the summertime. Carla's pastry was very good. I wish she'd done something with that cheddar to incorporate it, but it was a good dish. There was nothing new about it, but at least it was a good dish. Fabio won because his food was the best, but he actually took an Italian dish that has worked its way into American cuisine. Adding the olives was a nice touch, but one that was scarcely new - Fabio was using a technique that was actually seven years old. Nobody actually fulfilled the mandate.
Hosea got into trouble when he walked into the store and found himself facing bad canned crabmeat. He should have gone to Plan B right away and made a different dish. But that's a bad judgment call, not a bad dish. Ariane tried to do a take on an American dish, a lemon meringue pie, and do something modern. At least she had the idea, but it was poorly executed. She knew in advance that the dessert was too sweet. She could have added more lemon juice, even reducing it down so it would not be too liquid. She could have used lemon zest. Dessert goes out last; Ariane had the time to do something to fix the problem ... why didn't she?
Jill's dish failed in so many ways. The goal is always to celebrate and elevate the ingredients, but she took a potentially special item - an ostrich egg - and made it unspectacular. No one can tell which bird egg has been mixed into a quiche by tasting it. And why quiche? The task called for New American and she did Old French. I don't understand how she thought she could win this competition with a quiche. Were this a one-shot deal - whoever wins this challenge wins the whole competition - would you make a quiche? Furthermore, it was a poorly made quiche, just a terrible dish. I remember looking at it and thinking "Oh my god, why would somebody do this?" I understand that the term "New American cuisine" is a bit esoteric. Take Grant Achatz's work at his restaurant Alinea, in Chicago. The food is so contemporary as to even be considered bizarre by some. I was at a demo he gave a few weeks ago. He's really into playing with aromas and their effects upon taste. Let's say he's doing an autumn dish: He will burn apples and cinnamon, trap the vapors in a sealed plastic "pillow," and then cut the pillow and place it on the table beneath the food, so that the aromas escape and enhance the dining experience. The food certainly isn't French, though he employs plenty of French techniques. It isn't Italian, despite his using many Italian ingredients. It is not homespun, even though he his musings about fall lead to thoughts of burning leaves, and so a burning leaf garnishes an autumnal dish. Do I consider what he's doing "New American cuisine"? You bet. Do I think our chefs should be emulating Grant Achatz? No, that's not the point. I mention him because he is progressive and is ever challenging himself. It irked me that the chefs in this Elimination Challenge were turning out the American food of twenty-thirty years ago, not the American food of now ... or tomorrow. As a whole the food showed a lack of the American spirit, that ingenuity and forward thinking. Sometimes people cling too much to tradition. Our chefs weren't going "New American", just "American." Which is fine at Thanksgiving at Grandma's, but won't cut it at a top restaurant the rest of the year.