American Chefs Need to Curb Their Wanderlust

It's natural to look across the ocean for inspiration. But restaurants in the United States often leave out two crucial ingredients: integrity and tradition.

noma-top.jpgA platter at NOMA, a much-emulated restaurant in Copenhagen (cyclonebill/Flickr)

When I was working in Italy in 1995, I started hearing about a Spanish restaurant called el Bulli that was doing very provocative and unusual food in a little coastal town called Rosas, just north of Barcelona. It took me four years but finally one summer, a friend and I scored a lunch reservation. We arrived the night before and slept in the back of her van. In the morning, we showered on the beach, changed into our fancy clothes in the bathroom at the coffee bar, and had a splendid lunch in el Bulli's garden. The setting was spectacular, and some of the food was mind-expanding: I still remember the mint and pea soup in a shot glass, the shock of the cold followed immediately by hot, two versions of one flavor all at once. Afterwards, we slept off the wine on the beach in the cove below the restaurant. It was July or August, when the air in the Mediterranean is perfumed by the smell of aromatic herbs in the maquis and the endless drone of cicadas is inescapable.

I came back to New York at the end of the summer and it seemed like el Bulli was on everyone's lips. Soon, American chefs were excitedly playing with many of the concepts coming out of Rosas. El Bulli soon became the hottest restaurant in the world, with people planning entire trips to Europe around a single meal there. Chefs around the world made the pilgrimage, ate, and staged in the kitchen. They came home and busily set about redoing their menus in ways that reflected what they'd seen there. People waxed poetic about the reinvention of food, but mostly they just seemed obsessed with the technique -- less appreciative of the deep roots of the traditional Catalan flavors, ingredients, and pairings that were entwined in it. They didn't seem to realize that the food at el Bulli had a traditional foundation that resonated far beyond the surprise of a spherical olive made out of solidified olive juice.

A few years ago, a new restaurant began attracting international attention -- a place in Copenhagen where a young chef named Rene Redzepi was studiously investigating his native habitat and the edible foods that were available to him. I haven't been to NOMA, but I don't doubt that a meal there would be thought-provoking and fascinating in many of the ways that el Bulli was. That's because the chef is doing something no one else has done before and doing it well. He is exploring Denmark's traditions and culture in food and experimenting with them boundary-breaking ways.

In the meantime, hordes of young American chefs are reading about NOMA on the internet, traipsing over to taste and learn and stage in his kitchen, and then coming back to the United States and trying to copy what he is doing. All of a sudden, everyone wants to cook with Arctic ingredients, even if their restaurants are thousands of miles away from the Arctic. But a mimic is never as interesting as the original. Instead of starting a sudden mania for Nordic horse mussels and Icelandic seaweed, I would hope that what Redzepi is doing would inspire chefs to look into their own backyards to see what is edible and yet not being used.

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Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. She runs Porchetta, an Italian sandwich shop, and Porsena, a casual restaurant focusing on classic Italian pastas. More

Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. As Mario Batali put it, "She is one of the few chefs in America who understands Italy and how Italians eat." Sara is also the author, with Mindy Fox, of Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond, released by Houghton Mifflin in September 2008.

The daughter of a foreign correspondent and a food writer, Sara grew up all over the Mediterranean, eating her way through several cultures and learning to cook what appealed to her. She began her professional career in the kitchen with Todd English at Figs in Boston, then went on to work as a chef in Florence and the Tuscan countryside, as well as on the Caribbean island of Nevis, before returning to the U.S.

In New York City, Jenkins became chef at I Coppi, earning that restaurant two stars from The New York Times. After similar turns at Il Buco, Patio Dining, and 50 Carmine, she began work on her own cookbook.

In September 2008 she and her cousin Matthew opened Porchetta, a storefront in the East Village focusing on porchetta, a highly seasoned roast pork common in Italy as street food or festival food sold out of a truck as a sandwich. Porchetta has been wildly successful in New York City, both with gourmands and ordinary folk alike. Porchetta was awarded the top spot in Time Out New York's "100 best things we ate in 2008" and also received a four-star review from New York magazine.

In 2010, Sara Jenkins will open Porsena, a simple and casual restaurant down the street from Porchetta focusing on classic Italian pastas.

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