Did Fusion Ever Die? Norman Van Aken Talks Shop

Categories: Chef Chat
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Fusion has been on the brain. Following our review on Florida's sushi-Thai, Sara Dickerman addresses the up-down of our relationship with fusion in Slate last week in Fusion Reaction: How America fell in love, then out of love, then in love all over again with Asian influenced cuisine. She wrote:

You won't hear much mention, these days, of "Asian fusion," let alone its dubious synonyms "Pacific Rim," "East-meets-West," or "Pan-Asian." But the truth is, the idea of a not-too-traditional take on Asian cookery is among the most dynamic in restaurants today. It's the duchy of Momofuku's David Chang, not to mention dozens of wave-making food trucks and pop-up shops from California to New York and it's the future, it would seem, of conscientious fast food, as Chipotle launches its Southeast-Asian-inspired ShopHouse concept... Fusion as a term may have become deeply unfashionable, but its influence is everywhere.

Florida chef Norman Van Aken borrowed the term fusion from jazz to describe how styles of cooking had evolved for a speech in 1988, she writes. Van Aken is director of restaurants at Miami Culinary Institute -- which includes Tuyo on the rooftop. His latest book, My Key West Kitchen, will debut in October. Van Aken has been recognized as a founder of New American cuisine, along with Alice Waters, Mark Miller, and Paul Prudhomme. He has received scores of awards and recognition from the James Beard Foundation and elsewhere.

So Clean Plate Charlie decided to follow up with Van Aken to ask him his reaction to the article. Here's how he responded in a recent phone conversation:

Clean Plate Charlie: Is fusion still a thing in restaurant kitchens? And why has the term fallen out of fashion?

Norman Van Aken: I don't know that I really care. When I wrote about fusion in the late '80s, it was for a speech in Santa Fe, where I was recognized with Lydia Shire and Charlie Trotter, among others. Someone suggested I make copies of the speech and put them on the chairs for the people in attendance. I think Regina Schrambling was the first reporter who picked it up for a column. Shortly after, I'd gone on book tour in 1988. So when I went around, newspapers wrote about my doing fusion, and it caught on from there. 

That speech was a means for me to figure out where I was going. Prior to that time, I was mimicking San Francisco dishes, New Orleans dishes, New England dishes. This is what you do to learn, especially when a person is self-taught. Culture and Cuisine: A Journey Through the History of Food, by Jean Francois Revel: This book helped shaped my vision. 

I began to shift what I was doing to focus on regionalism. I wanted the rusticity of simple, regional ingredients from my area, yet I wanted to apply more refined technique. In this process, I looked to music and musicians -- specifically jazz musicians -- who displayed both the primal and the ornate in their work. I applied this idea of fusion to cooking. 

What is fusion now? 

Back then and now, there are two definitions of fusion. There's the fusion of food between two distinct cultures to create interesting offspring. I think Jose Andres, for example, is doing some very interesting things with cuisine and ingredients from different cultures that have syncopation or a melody that works together. 

Part of what turned people off to fusion is that too many restaurants didn't know how to do it. Bad combinations remind me of those poetry magnets where someone not skilled would feel he has to use all the words in the box. 

Yet fusion is most often seen in this weaving of simplicity and complexity that we were talking about back then surrounding Nouvelle cuisine: the simple mama-rustic food, juxtaposed with the ornate food of aristocracy and fine dining.

What do you make of foodies' search for finding authenticity in ethnic foods? You know, people going to strip malls to find the most authentic Vietnamese from a particular region and what have you.

On one hand, it's very admirable because you can get down to a more cellular level when it comes to food.

But what does authentic even mean? Maybe a type of cuisine is the same as a month ago or a year ago, but food changes so much within a year, five years, decades, and so on. And it varies according to the ingredients that are available.

When I came to Key West before the onslaught of cruise ships, fast food, and food TV, the region was defined by Bahamian-Cuban cuisines. Then things shifted to mass-market dining of hot dogs and hamburgers. You could see regional dishes and ingredients slip into this mainstream thing. 

The people searching for authenticity you're talking about hate the hamburger crab cake America that it has become. This is what people searching for authentic cuisine revile.

How has your cooking evolved since the late '80s?

When Eric Clapton started, he was pure roots music: Robert Johnson. He became Blind Faith. He was Cream. Then Clapton came around for his solo career. I feel like I went on an arc like that. If I had a glossary of terms from the early period in my life, I guess it would have been categorized as Latin Caribbean cuisine. There was a focus on presentation and on wordplay on the menu. I was making food that took 17 hours for a dish just to orchestrate that one transcendent moment for the diner. I had nine guys working for me, an amazing crew, putting in the time to create those moments.

Now my cooking is a little bit more organic. I'm into a mellower style of cooking. But guests have such an expectation. It's like Tony Bennett, who has had to play the same 12 songs every show or the audience is going to skin him.

So I have those dishes on the menu to please guests. But I just remade the menu and have an escape hatch that allows me to experiment, to exercise my creativity.

What's an example of an escape hatch on your menu now?

I'm making a cobia ceviche, placed on a tremulous panna cotta made with oyster liquor. It's kind of like the combination of yogurt and fruit. Now this is a dish that's a kind of a fusion: Peru and Latin America for inspiration for a rustic ceviche and a proper flan or panna cotta that's high-end. But my mental approach wasn't to create a dish that's French-Peruvian. I approached it from the standpoint of texture.

You've made a few differentiations between a chef and a cook and refer to yourself as both. What's the difference between those roles for you?

A chef is representational, more administrative. A cook is fun, in the midst of doing things, making stirring, chopping. I'm happiest being a cook, though I'm not a cook as often as I'd like, especially as I get ready for this book coming out in October.

What is your reaction to Sara Dickerman's article in which you're mentioned?

You know, I was happy to see David Chang's cooking as an example of fusion. [In the article, David Chang says, "I'm not averse to the word fusion now. What food culture isn't a fusion of other food cultures?"]

It got me to thinking about the Beats. People like Jack Kerouac were reviled in their time, despite that what they were doing was really original, pioneering. This was followed up with the daffy character Maynard G. Krebs, who illuminated how Americans had marginalized the Beats. Now, the Beats are completely venerated... The same trajectory could be true of fusion, going forward.

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2 comments
Normanvanaken
Normanvanaken

On Kerouac and The Beats. I was saying how America quickly went from not understanding The Beat Writers....to marginalizing them with dopey characterizations such as the (well-acted) Maynard G. Krebs on the popular television show "Dobie Gillis". So it was the difference I was trying to make a point with. 

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