How would you define American food? A cuisine as classic as apple pie, or as genre-bending as Korean-fusion tacos? Or perhaps something else altogether—a careful preservation of heritage breeds and heirloom varieties?
The answer(s) to that question becomes more interesting when you consider the varying forces influencing the contemporary culinary landscape: a steady influx of ideas and borrowing of global traditions made easily accessible by the Internet, as well as close attention paid to local bounty. American food, it seems, looks as much outward as it does inward.
To paint a fuller picture, we turned to a handful of chefs at this year’s The Roots of American Food conference to weigh in on the matter. And wouldn’t you know—their responses covered the entire spectrum. James Shyabout believes it’s a mindset, whereas Philip Krajeck isn’t even sure if it exists in the first place.
Here ten kitchen pros share their thoughts on American food, as well as which chefs and restaurants are helping its cause.
Five & Ten (Athens, GA)
Acheson says: “American food today is a celebration of authentic diversity. There are many examples of chefs defining it, but I think Ashley Christensen at Poole’s Diner in Raleigh is really showing that diversity and authenticity.”
Speer says: “I think American Food today is being redefined by the ingredients that not only chefs and industry professionals have access to, but now even the family and home cooks. Ingredients from around the world that may have been mysterious and unattainable at one time are now sourced by local purveyors, found in local grocery stores, and even farmed in your immediate area, allowing the face of “American” food to change. I think we now have a much more educated diner with a more sophisticated palate, armed with more knowledge and concern with food origins—thus urging chefs and purveyors to push the boundaries of what sets the American table.”
Lincoln Ristorante (New York, NY)
Benno says: “American food today is driven by regionality and sustainability. Chefs like Sean Brock, Michael Anthony, April Bloomfield, Marco Canora, Dan Barber, and Michael Tusk (to name a few) are cooking from the melting pot in their restaurants. They possess a deeply-rooted respect for ingredients, suppliers, and the environment.”
Sydney Street Cafe (St. Louis, MO)
Nashan says: “American food today is taking backyard regional ingredients and utilizing them in thoughtful delicious ways. I think many chef’s are defining it, and a few that come to mind are David Kinch, Sean Brock, John Shields, and Justin Cogley.”
Chef at Rolf & Daughters (Nashville, TN)
Krajeck says: “I don’t think there is such a thing as American Food—at least not right now. But if there was, and a chef defined it, I would have to say Guy Fieri.”
Torres says: “I have said this for a long time, but this is the year that Kyle & Katina Connaughton will really break out amongst the dining public. I think he’s certainly redefining what the ‘American chef’ looks like, considering his work with the CIA, different start-ups, and now Single Thread Farm. Also, I think David and Anna Posey’s restaurant is going to be the first of its kind in Chicago. It’s a very exciting time to eat in the Bay Area and Chicago!”
Co-owner of Fork (Philadelphia, PA)
Yin says: “Today’s successful American cooking/restaurants are focused on context (why) and sincerity (how), which are both intertwined and interdependent. The term “American” encompasses so much diversity regarding culture, individual experience, regionality, and nationality, resulting in countless ideas and styles. Being able to honestly address “why” is essential to differentiating yourself from others. However, no matter how well you answer ‘why,’ the sincerity of execution (“how”) is what creates greatness. Whether it is the concept of terroir, the integrity of a recipe, or the impact on the environment, continuity and followthrough are what creates an authentic experience.”
Chef at Miller Union (Atlanta, GA)
Satterfield says: “American food today is an ever-evolving landscape with influences from our American past, the food of other cultures, the discovery of ingredients, and a license to experiment. We are a young country, with only a few hundred years of documented foodways, and we have many influences from other parts of the world that have contributed to shaping our cuisine. I think that the chefs that focus on ingredients, particularly that speak to their region, are the ones who are helping to define more clearly what it means to be a cook in America. Much like the way the different regions of Italy, France, or Spain have developed separate styles over time, it is interesting to watch as we develop the cooking styles of the Southeast, the Midwest, New England, and the Pacific Northwest. There are many chefs that come to mind that encompass the cooking of their time and do it incredibly well: Michael Anthony at Gramercy Tavern and Untitled in New York; Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski of State Bird Provisions and The Progress in San Francisco; Chris Shepherd at Underbelly in Houston; Spike Gjerde at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore; Sean Brock and the team at McCrady’s and HUSK.”