When he was growing up in Cleveland, Andrew Carmellini spent every vacation in a car. His father, Paul, was a dirt-track-racing fan who drove his family to events from Maine to California in their 1975 Chevy Impala. "I never got on a plane until I was 18 years old," says Carmellini, now the chef at New York City's sensational modern-Italian Locanda Verde. "But I went everywhere in the country you could get to by car."
Back then, he loved seeing the way road food changed regionally. So when he set out to research his American restaurant, The Dutch, in Manhattan's Soho, he insisted on taking road trips around the United States. Carmellini clocked thousands of miles tasting barbecue at shacks in Tennessee and Cuban food at storefronts in Florida. He found inspiration, but also a lot of bad food, at iconic places. "Canned baked beans, coleslaw from a jar, dried-out meat; I couldn't believe it," he says.
That's when Carmellini decided to take a fresh look at some of the country's classic dishes, both for The Dutch and for his cookbook, American Flavor. "I stopped focusing on where a dish came from and concentrated on making it delicious," he says. He punches up New England clam chowder by adding smoked whitefish from the Great Lakes area, chopped dill and a few dashes of hot sauce; he also mixes milk in with the cream so the soup is not too rich. He makes Texas-style chili with cubes of short ribs, beer, coffee and bitter chocolate, which gives it the deep flavor of a Mexican mole.