So What Exactly Do We Mean When We Say "American Cooking"?
As a food writer, I'm required to describe or categorize the food served at restaurants so that readers know what to expect and whether or not they want to go. Sounds easy enough, right? Especially since most of the time, chef-owners or their PR teams do the heavy lifting for me.
Buchanan Italian or American -- does it depend on the toppings?
Italian food may be Northern or Southern (or Tuscan or even Florentine), Mexican may be Sonoran or Oaxacan or Mexico City-style, Chinese may be Szechuan or Cantonese or Hunan or any number of things, but the point is, these are all fairly clear-cut (and often regional) distinctions.
The difficulty lies in deciding just exactly what to call American cooking. Is it just one thing? And are we all on the same page when we talk about it?
A few weeks ago, I asked chef and co-owner Matt Carter -- who already operates Zinc Bistro and The Mission and recently opened The House -- to describe the food at his new place. His answer went something like this: "It's a little bit of everything. There's some Asian influence, some Southern influence, some French influence, which means it's American, right?"
Buchanan Matt Carter's The House makes American food -- whatever that is
While I agree that America is a melting pot of cuisines, and I agree that American chefs freely incorporate dishes, styles and techniques from other countries, I wouldn't necessarily call what they're cooking "American" because that would be misleading.
The way I see it, there's good old American-American cooking -- which means the straightforward (and often inexpensive) stuff we're famous for world-wide: burgers, hot dogs, chicken and dumplings, mac and cheese, fried chicken, meat loaf and chicken-fried steak, for example.
And then there's Modern American cooking (which costs more and looks prettier), the food that often blends classic (i.e., French) technique with indigenous American ingredients. Back in the 80's -- when chefs such as Larry Forgione, Jonathan Waxman, Alfred Portale, Judy Rodgers and Michael McCarty -- made American cooking both legitimate and exciting for the very first time, we called what they were doing "New American Cuisine."