I ponder this on a regular basis. Doesn't something become modern the moment you prepare it because you can't exactly replicate the experience of the past? Also, modern approaches for me mean using cooking implements like food processors and maybe reducing the amount of fat, salt, or sugar in dishes. However, it doesn't mean letting go of or forgetting the past.
Simon Bao sent me his observations from watching recent episodes of Top Chef. As usual, Simon's acerbic wit makes for a terrific read. Take a look and let us all know your thoughts:
What is Modern Asian Cuisine? Well... I'm confident that there are a few chefs out there who do actually have a meaningful definition of that. As there once were meaningful definitions of Fusion and Pan-Asian and Pacific-Rim.
But... you KNOW what happens with these phrases.
Let me give you a fast run-down on the most alarming Modern Asian Cuisine that the American public will have seen all year. Read this when you have a few free moments, you'll really want to catch what happened.
Three chefs were on one team, and all three have backgrounds in "Asian Cuisine." One, Dale Talde, is a sous chef at Buddakan. Another, Spike Mendelsohn, was chef de cuisine at Mai House and claims to have studied Viet cuisine for 2 years. (He's the guy who made the Apples & Fish Goi Cuon.) Another, Lisa Fernandes, has worked in NYC at Asia de Cuba, Rain, and Public.
So for the Restaurant Wars challenge, those 3 decided to name their (one-night-only) restaurant Mai Buddha, and to feature their best takes on "Modern Asian Cuisine."
For appetizer, Dale Talde came up with Butterscotch Miso Scallops. Some seared scallops sauced with something made from caramelized sugar, scotch whisky, butter, and buckets of blond miso paste. With lots more miso paste right on the plate. People thought it was disgusting, and was a major reason he was eliminated. The scallops were plated with some pickled long beans.
Lisa's starter course was a Spicy Coconut Laksa with Grilled Prawns & Vermicelli. It almost looks like a usual Laksa except... she made the broth from the carcasses of smoked chickens. Just sniffing the aroma of the soup was compared to sticking one's face over a camp fire. I've asked around, whether there are any forms of Laksa that are ever made with a smoked chicken broth, or broth from any kind of smoked animal, so far no one has said they've heard of that. The smokiness almost got Lisa eliminated.
There were bitter disputes over the entree, Braised Short Ribs with Pickled Red Cabbage & Apple Basil Thai Salad. Spike took credit for it, Dale disputed that, Spike said well it was his recipe, Dale said he did all the work. In any case, it was short ribs braised in a not very Asian liquid, served with almost none at all of the non-Asian pickled red cabbage, and a salad that turned out to be just julienned Granny Smith apples and chopped Thai basil. That's it.
Lisa's dessert offering was Thai Mango Sticky Rice with Toasted Coconut, and it almost got her sent off in disgrace. They didn't use Sticky Rice for it, Dale found something on a supermarket shelf and handed it to Lisa, telling her "Here, they use this for dessert." No one knows what kind of rice it was, but it wasn't Sticky Rice. The liquids used in cooking and plating the rice, garnished with toasted coconut, caused one diner to say it was like "Baby vomit with wood chips."
Dale Talde's dessert was a Filipino green avocado Halo Halo with Cantelope. There were no great complaints about that, except that he'd put in avocados with extensive brown, spoiled areas on them.
So, that's what Modern Asian Cuisine is. People surrendering to the temptation to always make the proteins the centerpiece and overwhelming majority of what's eaten. General neglect of the vegetables, neglect of the salad plate or fresh herbs. A missed opportunity to present diners with even just a little black rice or red rice as the bed for that braised beef. No notion of plating the beef with a fast stir-fry of (pre-blanched) "Vegetable Medley" to at least represent the cuisines they're drawing from.
So, the Mai Buddha team lost, there were recriminations and accusations all over the place.
And I despair of what viewers are going to think of "Asian Cuisine."
Oh, and it may or may not be connected, but after his incredibly dismal performance on Top Chef, Spike Mendelsohn is no longer chef de cuisine at Mai House. Rumors fly of harsh and ugly words on the sidewalk, high drama, anger and bitterness vented in public, between Nieporent and "Chef Spike."
Oddly enough, Lisa Fernandes of the smoky Laksa and baby vomit sticky rice is now chef de cuisine at Mai House.
Troi oi. [OMIGOD in Vietnamese] :-)