The food world overcomes its obsession with “authenticity”

Chef Erling Wu-Bower, son of a Chinese mother and a Creole father, grew up in Chicago. Chris Jung, executive chef of Wu-Bower’s new Maxwells Trading restaurant in Chicago, was born in Korea and raised in New York and DC. To build their menu, they didn’t identify a single cuisine from their past, but instead leaned into eclecticism. Maxwells—No. 3 on our list of America’s best new restaurants – serves tortellini that taste like soup dumplings and flatbreads that resemble scallion pancakes, which diners use to scoop up hummus. Rather, the cultural hodgepodge on every plate is unabashedly inauthentic.

Tasting dishes across the country this year, it became clear that the most inventive chefs have stopped chasing the idea of ​​authenticity. Some even happily overthrow it. Mashups, fusion, eclecticism – whatever you want to call it – were on full display as chefs were unafraid to cross cultural boundaries in ways that had largely gone out of fashion during the of the last decade and a half in the world of food.

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Until recently, famous restaurants adhered to a dominant philosophy of authenticity. This could manifest as a restaurant being a product of the place it is rooted in, like Noma or Faviken. Or it was a restaurant that strived to faithfully recreate dishes from a distinct culture, such as Sean Brock’s exploration of Southern cuisine. But the “authentic” label also carried moral weight: it indicated that the cuisine on offer had not been stultifying, diluted, or recklessly appropriated.

This push toward authenticity has had a valuable impact on the American culinary scene. If you’ve been eating dominos your whole life, it helps to experience a pizza maker fiercely loyal to Neapolitan traditions to open your eyes to a different way of enjoying pizza. Or if your only interest in Thai cuisine is pad Thai, then a chef faithfully recreating recipes learned in Southeast Asia would also broaden your perspective.

But as this trend grew, we ran headlong into its limitations. The first is that some restaurants were more concerned with marketing than delivering authentic products, and diners became jaded along the way. Yes, Noma sourced its ingredients from a short radius around the Nordic countries, but one of its followers claimed to do the same on a remote island in Washington state only to be caught buying chickens roasts at Costco.

Second, there simply is no singular truth in food. Cuisines evolve with people and places; any chef claiming to do THE The real deal is more likely to produce a dish frozen in time, and the rules governing what’s right and wrong regarding a local favorite may differ from household to household. Who determines what is authentic if even neighbors can’t agree?

It is in this spirit that the best chefs abandon pretensions completely. Johnny Clark named his Chicago restaurant Anelya after his Ukrainian grandmother, but he’s more than willing to break from the recipes she passed down to him. Chef Angie Mar of New York’s B. serves a Chinese salad entirely different from the one made famous by Wolfgang Puck, but it didn’t have much to do with China anyway. And at Bad Idea in Nashville, Colby Rasavong prepares the Laotian food he grew up eating using gourmet techniques. Her scallop-stuffed crepe is like classic Lyonnaise pike dumplings, but with a fish sauce funk and Thai chili heat that a French chef wouldn’t even think to add.

Culinary traditions are, of course, worth celebrating. But so is the wave of creativity we are currently riding thanks to those willing to be “inauthentic.”

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