Normally, I cut chefs a lot of slack in the way they write their menus. If they want to give too much information about certain ingredients (where the baby octopus on your plate took its first swim) and nothing about other key details (what exactly are brovada and scorzonera?), that’s their choice. But I’ve been feeling increasingly frustrated with the labels chefs are using to describe their cooking—and my patience reached its limit recently at a certain Boston restaurant. The talented young chef there (I’m not naming names yet) calls his cuisine "modern European." What’s on his menu? Barbecued pork ribs with Thai green chile sauce and sticky rice.
Wishy-washy terms like "modern European" and "modern American" have insinuated themselves into the restaurant lexicon more and more over the past few years—and the more common they become, the less they mean anything at all. The labels have become shorthand for a hodgepodge of ingredients, techniques and cultural references from pretty much anywhere on earth. What those terms really mean is, "Whatever the chef feels like doing."
Restaurants claiming to specialize in modern American and modern European cuisine aren’t the only culprits. Terms like modern Mediterranean, modern Australian, modern South African, modern Mexican, modern Caribbean, modern Chinese and modern Japanese can be just as hard to pin down. Guess what type of restaurants these dishes come from: sweetbread roulade with cauliflower mousse; terrine of chicken and foie gras with pear-apple-raisin chutney; green risotto with zucchini and fava beans. They’re examples from restaurants in Cape Town, Dublin and Mexico City, respectively, each claiming to serve a modern or eclectic version of the local cuisine. Modern European and its friends are even wigglier than last decade’s trendy hybrid, Asian fusion. At least you can usually pick out Asian fusion in a lineup.
This is not just an issue of semantics. The fact that it’s getting harder to come up with useful labels for menus might be a pain in the neck for chefs, food writers and restaurant publicists, but it points to a more dire situation: The cuisines of the world are merging into one giant, amorphous mass. In theory, it’s exciting to find chefs everywhere opening up their kitchens to influences from around the planet, discovering obscure international ingredients and creating cosmopolitan, border-crossing menus. And the dishes they come up with can be absolutely delicious. Why wouldn’t I want to eat caramelized pork hocks with chile vinegar or coconut-braised short ribs with parsnip dumplings, fennel and lemongrass? The problem is, too many chefs worldwide are creating menus that flit across so many borders and reference so many traditions that they—and we—lose any sense of place.
In most cities with a vibrant food scene, you could take some of this year’s hottest new restaurants—the ones with the most ambitious chefs, the best real estate, the most stunning design—and plop them down in another city, another country, another continent, and no one would notice. The irony that the more worldly menus get, the more alike they sound will be familiar to anyone who has stayed in a boutique hotel or shopped in a trendy clothing store lately. It’s the increasing—and depressing—homogeneity of what passes for sophisticated international taste. In his 2006 book The Naked Tourist, Lawrence Osborne coins a word for the sense that cultural experiences are becoming interchangeable all over the world: "whereverness." There is an upside to whereverness: You can feel well-traveled without going anywhere. The downside? Traveling starts to seem a lot like staying home.
A few months ago, at star Puerto Rico chef Wilo Benet’s San Juan restaurant Pikayo, I was confronted with a menu that read like this: spicy tuna tartare with peanut sauce; crab cake with apple-ginger remoulade; beef tenderloin with sautéed spinach; foie gras with black truffle honey; wild mushroom risotto with truffle oil. The few references to Puerto Rican or Latin American food were relegated mostly to the "fritters and hors d’oeuvres" section, which listed a few items like beef alcapurrias (fried dumplings) with aioli. How does Benet describe his cooking? He says he has "redefined" Puerto Rican food and calls his style "global mix cuisine...combining traditional Puerto Rican ingredients with Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Spanish, Italian, French and Arab influences." But if I wanted crab cakes, tuna tartare, risotto and foie gras, I could just as easily get those in New York City, Paris or London...or Sydney or Hong Kong.
When I travel, I love eating local foods at holes-in-the-wall and street-food stands; I don’t need a white tablecloth or a glittering chandelier. But I do wish more chefs and restaurateurs around the world with Benet’s talent and training, and a beautiful dining room like Pikayo’s, would be eager to embrace, elevate and show off their local cuisine without disguising it behind so many fusion fads. By no means should chefs feel hog-tied to their national traditions—or be unswervingly faithful to indigenous ingredients—but it would be nice if their menus showed a little more loyalty.
In a way, just about every cuisine in the world is already a fusion cuisine: Wars, invasions, colonialism and changing population and immigration patterns have played key roles in the evolution of most food cultures around the globe. The culinary heritage of the United States is a perfect example; the same is true of Latin America, Australia, most of Africa—virtually everywhere. But every country or region has a unique constellation of influences and its own brand of fusion. It would be a shame if now—thanks to jet-setting chefs and menu trends that whip around the planet faster than Brangelina—the cuisines of the world end up evolving in the same generically cosmopolitan direction. I may love braised short ribs and squid-ink risotto and pork belly confit, but I don’t want to see them everywhere I go.
In some countries, the cosmo trend isn’t the only problem. In many places with phenomenal local foods, like Morocco, Lebanon, India and Pakistan, the most glamorous and ambitious restaurants serve a high-prestige foreign cuisine instead. You’re much more likely to eat an incredible tagine or couscous in a private house or riad in Morocco than in a restaurant. This is partly because cooking Moroccan food is considered a female domain, while most of the country’s restaurants are owned and staffed by men. In Tangier recently, I had a hard time finding locals who would strongly vouch for one of the city’s Moroccan spots. Several recommended a tiny old place called Saveurs de Poisson, where I had simple but spectacular northern Moroccan seafood dishes like smoky, charcoal-grilled sole served on skewers with generous slices of lemon, and buttery pan-fried whitefish with spinach, onions and garlic. The restaurant is cozy—tucked into an alley off one of the town’s bazaars—but seems too small and modest a space for what many consider the city’s best Moroccan restaurant. For more see-and-be-seen outings, Tangier’s well-heeled residents, expats and tourists trickling back to the city after a 30-year slump frequent French spots like the crowded bistro Relais de Paris and the luxurious hilltop Villa Joséphine, and Italian restaurants like San Remo and Casa d’Italia. The Interzone days before Morocco’s independence in 1956—when Tangier was run by an international coalition that included eight European powers—may be long gone, but European cultural clout lives on.
In Pakistan, too, I’ve found that while the fiery and addictive local cuisine plays a starring role in people’s homes—in spicy curries and juicy kebabs with Indian, Afghan and Iranian influences—it’s not a major player in the restaurant scene. In Karachi, there are some good, casual, meat-centric Pakistani spots, like Bar B Q Tonight, but they can’t compete with the prestige of restaurants like Okra, which has a rustic-chic design that would be equally at home in Berkeley or Barcelona and a menu of vaguely Euro-American dishes, like roasted chicken with cream sauce. The same is true in India. Mumbai’s prominent food writer Rashmi Uday Singh explains that "There aren’t many great Indian restaurants in Mumbai, simply because the best food is still in our home kitchens." In my hometown of Beirut, Lebanon—which has, in my biased opinion, one of the world’s best cuisines—the hottest restaurants, like Hussein Hadid’s Kitchen and Yabani, are usually French, Italian, Japanese or cosmo.
In some European cities too, like Amsterdam and Berlin, good restaurants specializing in the local cuisine are hard to find, though the situation has been improving slightly. Maybe in cases like these, the national cuisine itself is to blame. (I’m sure I’ll get some hate mail for saying that.) I do like a hearty Dutch meat-and-potato stew, and I love bratwurst and sauerkraut and spaetzle, but I don’t blame chefs like Marije Vogelzang of Amsterdam’s Proef for getting more inspired by her country’s produce than its somewhat limited culinary repertoire.
The countries that most proudly show off their cuisine in restaurants tend to be the ones least insecure about their cultural status in general. The restaurants in France with the most swagger and status are almost always French at their core; their technique and foundation and most of their ingredients are French, even while they incorporate cosmo influences. The same goes for Italy—although, perhaps sniffing danger ahead, Italy has taken out a sort of insurance policy in case its traditions erode and someday vanish from public view: The Home Food organization anoints home cooks around the country who are skilled at reproducing classic regional dishes, then sends tourists to their houses for a private dinner. What a fantastic idea. Every country needs one of those.
There are other signs that culinary diversity isn’t dead yet. Some ambitious, prestigious restaurants worldwide—if not as many as we’d like—are offering brilliant, refined and truly original versions of national cuisines. They’re coming up with menus that are identifiably regional and at the same time wildly creative—menus you won’t see anywhere else (well, not yet). In the United States, chefs like Gabrielle Hamilton of Manhattan’s Prune, Scott Dolich of Portland, Oregon’s Park Kitchen and Colby Garrelts of Kansas City, Missouri’s Bluestem are revitalizing regional American traditions with painstakingly sourced local ingredients and innovative but not schizophrenic riffs. A few chefs in Scandinavia (see our story on Copenhagen’s René Redzepi) are showing that it’s possible to introduce global, 21st-century influences while still maintaining a strong regional allegiance. Other chefs, like Peru’s Gastón Acurio (of Astrid y Gastón in Lima and its numerous spin-offs) and Istanbul’s Musa Dagdeviren of Ciya come to mind, too. And Ferran Adrià is a one-in-a-million example of a chef who managed to invent a technique and style that’s radically new and shockingly different from what anyone else was doing—a style both worldly and deeply rooted in Catalan traditions. Granted, not every chef can be as extraordinarily innovative as Adrià—though his many imitators are certainly trying. China’s cuisine is enjoying a healthy self-image, too. Some of the hottest new restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong—besides the inevitable outposts of global superchefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Alain Ducasse—are resolutely Chinese.
Another good sign is that some national cuisines are finding their way to parts of the world where they weren’t as prevalent before. In the Midwestern U.S., in Canada, even in hard-to-crack European markets like Rome, greater numbers of immigrants from all over Asia, Africa, Latin America, and parts of Europe like Greece and the Balkans are opening both casual and upscale restaurants that show off their native dishes. Soon it might be easier to find great Moroccan restaurants in Paris or Madrid than in Marrakech or Tangier, and easier to find a great Pakistani spot in Queens than in Karachi or Lahore. And some chefs are adopting another country’s cuisine, making it their own, and introducing new audiences to it, like Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson of Boulder, Colorado’s Frasca, who is obsessed with the food of Italy’s Friuli region.
These examples are reassuring, but it remains to be seen whether the world’s regional food traditions will ultimately survive in an age of cosmo-cuisine, cosmo-design, cosmo-culture, cosmo-everything. In a January 2007 interview in the French magazine Paris Match, celebrity chef Paul Bocuse said, "People are traveling an enormous amount, and they tend to want to find the dishes and tastes they’re used to wherever they go." I’m hoping he’ll turn out to be wrong.