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.

A 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.

Of course, part of creativity is inspiration -- and that requires close attention to what other people are doing. Some of our best ideas come from travels and readings, from searching out new approaches other people are taking to familiar things. But there's a way to take those new ideas and rework them into what we already know. Americans may be especially quick to chase new trends in food because most of us did not grow up with strong culinary traditions (even though there are many food traditions across the States). An Italian chef might reinvent a mozzarella and tomato appetizer into completely different textures and shapes, but it would still have the amazing flavor combination of sun-ripened tomatoes and tangy buffalo milk, with a whiff of vivid basil. No matter how they experimented, they would make sure that the quality of ingredients was paramount.

American chefs, it seems, too often become enamored with the technique and forget the foundations of tradition, flavor, and sourcing that hold the best recipes together. As a result, we end up mixing together eight or nine different ingredients whose only commonality is the their trendiness. I do love the freedom that comes with America's lack of cultural definition. In this country, chefs are not chained to making a regional food simply because that's what their patrons grew up eating. But with freedom comes choices, and sometimes there can be too many choices to navigate. When chefs abandon all tradition, they often lose the integrity that makes the ingredients come together into something profoundly satisfying and alive.

I managed to eat at el Bulli one more time after the hype set in, though by then it was open only for dinner. That night, the most memorable dish was a salty tomato sorbet with a crisp crouton on top filled with olive oil. Again, I admired the apparent simplicity of the dish, three ingredients paired perfectly together in an unexpected format. It wasn't until the next morning, eating my standard Catalan breakfast of toasted baguette rubbed with a ripe tomato half and drenched in olive oil, that I realized what I'd eaten the night before had been a highly innovative reworking of something that the chef, Ferran AdriĆ , probably eats every morning for breakfast. For all his global fame as a revolutionary, he was just reworking his traditions in a new shape. I wish more modern American chefs would follow that lead and look to their surroundings, creating food with roots that extend beyond technique and hype.