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America’s Culinary Melting Pot

Cover Image for America’s Culinary Melting Pot
By Sophie Brochu
Posted
Categories:Featured

The chefs who are honoring tradition while cooking their way into the future.

[Photo: Kuow Photo/Megan Farmer]

What does authenticity in cuisine mean to you? It’s a loaded question, we know. Artistically, the argument gets stunted on originality (i.e. who did it first?). Culturally, perhaps it’s the recipes and techniques that stay true to their historical and regional context. Some argue that authenticity is inherently tied to the heritage of the chef. Staking claim in cuisine is generally problematic. Who owns what cuisine and which variations?

Growing up in a Jewish community, I can tell you this: no one could agree on whether or not kugel should have raisins, or how best to cook a brisket. It was my mother, a Methodist convert from Alabama, who was called on to bake the challahs for the Jewish Food Festival every year.

We can’t tell you the answers. Food is subjective. Food is personal. Food knows no boundaries. We decided to dig deeper into America’s diverse melting pot of cuisine. How are chefs all across the country contributing to its evolution?

Here are just a few of the chefs paying homage to the past, while also writing their own stories through a unique culinary lens. These chefs are changing America’s perception of what a particular kind of cuisine can be. They’re breaking down barriers, and we think the results are pretty delicious. We hope you do, too.

 

Atomix – NYC

Key players:  South Korean-born Junghyun “JP” and JeongEun “Ellia” Park met at Kyung Hee University. They bonded over a shared interest in food, traveled the world, then settled in New York City in 2012. This husband-and-wife team runs the Michelin-starred Atomixone of the few Korean fine-dining establishments in the US. 

The concept:  Atomix is the ultimate labor of love, one that embraces Korean culture in every aspect, beginning with the Korean architecture firm that designed the space. There’s Korean-designed ceramics, aprons commissioned from a Korean designer, and Ellia’s personal collection of chopsticks from which you can (typically) select your own pair. 

Why it matters:  The Parks are shifting the Korean dining paradigm. While they honor tradition and heritage, they make room for interpretation. Atomix proves that Korean food is so much more than grilled meats and rice. We’re seeing this kind of cuisine in a whole new light, with modern techniques, beautiful presentations, and a flawlessly-executed tasting menu format. 

Book:  Until Atomix can reopen their doors, order Atomix at Home—a luxurious 4-course tasting menu that changes weekly. It’s available for pickup and delivery.

 

Thip Khao – Washington, DC

Key players:  Thip Khao is co-owned by chef Seng Luangrath and her son, Bobby Pradachith. Chef Seng fled Laos during the Vietnam War and learned to cook at a refugee camp in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. Pradachith, who was born in Northern Virginia, first started learning about food as a way to connect with his heritage.

The concept:  Chef Seng and Bobby are serving up traditional Lao dishes with all of the funk, spice, and herbaceousness that its known for. Their homestyle cooking represents different regions in Laos. Some dishes are derived from cultural colonization while others are rustic, yet traditional farm-style plates.

Why it matters:  Thip Khao is the first full-service Lao restaurant in Washington, DC, and it’s one of the few throughout the country. Chefs Seng and Bobby aim to preserve their culture by leaning into historical contents, recipes, and art, thereby encouraging the Lao-American communities to follow the journey of Lao storytelling.

Book:  Reservations for the patio, where you can enjoy vibrant Lao dishes paired with tiki-style cocktails.

 

Vajra – Chicago

Key players:  Chef Min Thapa and the restaurant’s co-owners, Dr. Shalin Shakya and Rabin Gora, are all Nepalese-American immigrants passionate about sharing their culture with Chicago.

The Concept:  It’s modern Nepalese-Indian food in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. The team stays true to their roots, while at the same time, introducing modern iterations of the dishes typically associated with Indian food. The menu is seasonal, and it includes both classics and chef’s plates, where you’ll find standouts, like Tandoori Venison and Lobster Malabar Curry. 

Why it matters:  Vajra is challenging the status quo and shattering what Chicagoans think of Nepalese/Indian food. In fact, Vajra remains somewhat of an anomaly as far as chef-driven Indian cuisine goes. You won’t find white tablecloths or a lunch buffet, but rather a contemporary atmosphere, beautiful plating, and head-turning cocktails that utilize chilis, real fruit, and floral aromatics.

Book:  The Dinner Date at Home package, complete with small plates, classics, accompaniments, and your choice of a Vajra cocktail.

 

Archipelago – Seattle

Key Players:  When Amber Manuguid and Aaron Verzosa traveled to the Philippines in 2016, they found that the land of their ancestry didn’t quite define who they had become. Rather, they existed in what they describe as “in-between of identities” as Filipino Americans. The husband-and-wife team founded Archipelago as a way to own and explore their identities through delicious flavors.

The concept:  Typically you can find chefs Manuguid and Verzosa telling a story about their ancestry in the form of an extended tasting menu at their intimate Filipino restaurant. Nowadays, they’re channeling the same care and devotion to a takeout program, offering Balikbayan Boxes and ready to eat Pamana dishes.

Why it matters:  There’s a bit of story behind each dish, from the pre-colonial roots of Filipino cuisine to its historical context.  The team sources from Filipino and Filipina-American farmers in Wapato, Carnation, and Bremerton, and from local businesses in their neighborhood and hometowns. They’re committed to lifting up the Filipino-American and South Seattle communities.

Book:  Until dine-in service resumes, pick up a weekly summer-edition Balikbayan Box. Each box contains an assortment of farm goods and special surprises, and every box upholds a zero-waste policy, intrinsic to Philippine culture.

 

Californios – San Francisco

Key players:  Chef Val Cantu is a native Texan whose father ran a Mexican restaurant and tortilleria. Cantu now operates the Michelin-rated Californios with a small crew, including his wife and sister-in-law. 

The concept:  It’s a playful intersection of non-traditional Mexican cuisine and California ingredients. The tasting menu is hyper-seasonal and ever-evolving. 

Why it matters:  Cantu is on a mission to redefine Mexican food by treating it with the same bravado as French or Japanese cuisine. The San Francisco Chronicle raved about it in their four-star review. “Cantu is doing for Latin ingredients what Corey Lee at Benu has done for Asian ones: creating a Northern California-inspired and entirely personal cuisine, one that transcends techniques and ingredients and comes from within.”

Book:  The dynamic tasting menu will resume in September with limited availability.

 

Flowers of Vietnam – Detroit

Key players:  Palestinian-American chef George Azar was tired of driving to Madison Heights for Vietnamese food. Knowing that Vietnamese was seriously under-represented in his Detroit community, in 2016, Azar started doing weekend pop-ups at the former Vernor Coney Island diner that his father leased. 

The concept:  Progressive Vietnamese food in a non-pretentious, Mexicantown diner made for and served by the people of Detroit. It’s no longer a weekend pop-up, but a full-fledged restaurant with dinner five nights a week, takeout service, and a new patio.

Why it matters:  Flowers of Vietnam is one of the restaurants leading Detroit’s dining scene and the city’s renaissance. “Food is for everyone,” says Azar, and through it, he hopes to bring people together. A dish that perfectly captures this essence is the glistening A-1 Caramel Chicken Wingsthey’re familiar, yet new, and the perfect jumping-off point for the rest of the menu. 

Book:  Seats on the new enclosed patio, which doubles as a garden. You can also order family dinners to go.

 

Verandah Progressive Indian Cuisine – Houston

Key players:  Husband and wife owners, Sunil and Anupama Srivastava, are both trained chefs from India and graduates of the Institute of Hotel Management. These experienced restaurateurs share a love of Indian food and culture. 

The concept:  Age-old recipes are rendered for modern interpretation in a contemporary dining room with an open kitchen. In addition to à la carte options, the Srivastavas offer a tasting menu and wine pairing.

Why it matters:  The Srivastava elevate Indian cuisine with creative plating and tableside presentations. The tandoori dishes, for example, are plated beneath a glass cloche that’s filled with seasoned smoke. The cloche seals the aroma until it’s lifted tableside. In the words of the Houston Chronicle, this is “not your everyday tandoori house.” 

Book:  Reservations are currently paused, but those in Houston can order takeout directly through their website.

 

Mosquito Supper Club – New Orleans

Key players:  Chef, owner, and author Melissa Martin grew up in Chauvin, Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish, where her extended family made a living fishing for shrimp and oysters. 

The concept:  It’s a family-style Cajun supper club with two large communal tables. It feels somewhat like a dinner party, and very much like a celebration. The 5-course menu features the best of traditional Cajun food with crawfish rolls, étouffée, crab fingers, and handmade pies. 

Why it matters:  Mosquito Supper Club tells a story about life on the bayou with native ingredients and cooking techniques. Martin’s interest in cooking came through a humanitarian route. She’s committed to building community, representing history, and supporting women purveyors. 

Book:  Dinner service resumes in September. Until then, order the newly-released cookbook, Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes from a Disappearing Bayou.


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