Examining the role of authenticity in American restaurants
A roundtable discussion featuring chefs Mike Andrzejewski, Joe George, Corey Kley and food writers Andrew Galarneau, Alan Bedenko, and Kevin Purdy
L-r: Andrew Galarneau, Mike Andrzejewski, Kevin Purdy, Alan Bedenko, Joe George, Corey Kley
Illustrations by Josh Flanigan
Mike Andrzejewski is often called “Buffalo’s best chef.” As a partner in the trailblazing Tsunami, and the mastermind behind Sea Bar, Cantina Loco, and the new Mike A at the Hotel Lafayette, Andrzejewski is well-versed in classic preparation methods but thrives on the reinvention of dishes.
Joe George is an urban vegetable grower, a baker, and an accomplished, well-respected chef. He has always been fascinated by the provenance of recipes and ingredients, and writes about it on his blog, UrbanSimplicity.com, and for various other publications, including Buffalo Spree.
Corey Kley and wife Cheryl recently purchased Buffalo’s famed Rue Franklin, after cooking the restaurant’s lauded French cuisine for over eight years under the watchful eye of its previous owners. Kley trained at Paul Smith’s College and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Alan Bedenko is an attorney who writes about food for Buffalo Spree and rants about all manner of things on Artvoice.com. His penchant for pizza led to a full study and appreciation of Europe’s pizza regulatory system, known as Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana. He now seeks out AVPN-approved pizza (among other things) on his globe-trotting travels.
Andrew Galarneau is the newly appointed restaurant critic for the Buffalo News. In his brief time in that role he has revamped the rating system used to evaluate restaurants and continues his duties as the paper’s sole food writer, covering things as diverse as home cooks, cookbook reviews, and trending foodstuffs.
Kevin Purdy is a top-tier tech writer by day and TEDxBuffalo’s coordinator by night. He applies his natural inclination for critical thinking and his love of food to his position as a restaurant reviewer for Buffalo Spree. In 2011, he was nominated by Saveur magazine for “Best Food Blog” under the Kitchen Tools category for his post entitled “The Geek’s Guide to Rebooting Your Kitchen.”
On a national level, the question of authenticity and its role in restaurants and cooking has been the subject of heated debate and conversation. Sarah Jenkins, an accomplished chef based in New York City (Porchetta, Porsena), posed the question to the readers of the Atlantic in February: “In Italian food, what’s authentic, and does it really even matter?” As an American-born chef who has dedicated her career to rustic Italian cuisine, Jenkins, we are certain, has had much time to consider this question.
A recent study published by the International Journal of Hospitality Management found that the perception of authentic ethnic aspects of food induced positive emotions and higher perceived value among American diners.
But none of this answers the essential question—what does “authentic” really mean, and is it possible for anyone on American soil to prepare food that is authentic, regardless of their background? Would diners discern the difference, and if the food were delicious—but inauthentic—would they really care?
These, and many other questions have arisen on the topic, so we asked our panel of chefs and food writers to discuss their opinions about authenticity in cooking.
CGS: What is your definition of the word “authentic,” and how important is it to you?
Joe George: As a chef, authenticity is very important to me. Not that I’m a total stickler about it, but if a dish is tagged with a certain well-known name it should bear resemblance to that recipe.
Kevin Purdy: Authenticity is the taste of hours of wood smoke a few layers deep, beneath the dry-rub crust on a piece of barbecued brisket. Authenticity is the barely-there but oh-so-important oxtail flavor in Pho. Authenticity, in food, is just what you look for in a salesman: you do not want to get sold a bill of goods.
Alan Bedenko: Something can be authentic because it conforms to certain prescribed rules (think Denominazione di Origine Protetta for Italian food, for instance), but it ultimately is in the eye of the beholder. The way your nonna prepared something “authentic” may be different from how a million other grandmothers make it. It’s generally subjective, and oftentimes beside the point. I’m more concerned with flavor and, occasionally, innovation and risk-taking.
Cory Kley: Can you prepare “authentic” food when you are not in the country of that cuisine, cooking with ingredients that come from that country? In the seventies, the best French restaurants in New York were ordering fish from France in order to offer authentic dishes, but when the fish arrived it was not as good, not as fresh, as the fish readily available in New York. One-week-old asparagus imported from France is never going to be better than local asparagus, even if it is more authentic.
Andrew Galarneau: To me, “authentic” is simply a label that can help eaters understand what to expect when considering a restaurant or menu, ordering food, or following a recipe. It means closely adhering to the original style of cooks in the original place this dish was popular. So authentic means “in the style of a particular place;” authentic does not automatically mean best.
Mike Andrzejewski: As a restaurant chef, my idea of authenticity differs from my opinion as a diner. As a diner, if I am in the heart of Spain eating rabbit paella, that’s true authenticity. If I am in a restaurant in D.C., I don’t expect them to match that kind of authentic experience on any level. The chef has to do what he can to make a dish taste as good as possible, and the chef’s interpretation of a dish should be taken at face value.
Outside of foods eaten by Native Americans, in a country as young as the United States with, arguably, no discernible cuisine of its own until the last fifty years, should authenticity be a factor in how one judges the quality and capability of a restaurant operated by a nonimmigrant American?
MA: No. I don’t think you can consider authenticity a factor in evaluating a restaurant at all. Skill of preparation, food quality, cleanliness, service, and atmosphere? Yes. The chef might not have followed some age-old technique or recipe and that shouldn’t be held against him, that just doesn’t make sense in America. Perhaps in Europe or certain parts of China there are certain dishes for certain regions that are culturally and historically untouchable.
JG: It’s not that we have just developed our own cuisine in the past fifty years, it’s that it was finally realized. And a big part of our cuisine was developed and influenced by those who immigrated to our country—and that continues to be the case. What I mean is that Old World recipes were often adjusted to use New World ingredients. And no, in response to the question of judging the quality of a restaurant operated by a nonimmigrant American, that should not be a factor. If the food and service is good, that is all that should matter.
AB: I think people just want to know that they’re getting quality food that tastes good and is accompanied by reasonably good service. I have no problem with an American reinterpreting an ethnic dish in an innovative way, and their efforts should be judged on their merits. Certainly it’s valid for cognoscenti to compare these reinterpretations to their originals, and factor that into their judgments, but cooking is like an art form and has historically benefited from reinterpretation, creativity, and trial and error.
KP: [There are] American traditions that have developed and codified, and if you put yourself out there to be a standard bearer for those traditions, you’d better not be lying. The “Greek diner” is a real thing that you can experience around the U.S. Chicken wings are, of course, a real thing. ... As for any non-immigrant operating a restaurant that aims to serve up a particular cuisine with authenticity, well, I frequent a few restaurants where I know something is wrong with what is being pitched as authentic. You can’t be a food writer for very long without learning some sad little secrets. But if a restaurant can provide food that is, in fact, tasty, maybe has a great beer or wine selection, consistently great service—it can still win me over.
AG: Any time a restaurant wants to claim ‘authentic’ anything on its menu, a flag goes up for me. That is a claim that asks to be tested. If I have eaten that food in its proper context, I can offer my personal opinion on whether the dish legitimately holds the “authentic” title. If I have not eaten that dish natively, I can try to work from my research, [and by] reading, looking at pictures, and talking to eaters more well-versed than me in a particular cuisine. Otherwise, I’m just there to eat.
CK: Only in America would people be discussing authenticity! As the planet gets smaller and smaller and there are fewer differences between us, there will be less concern about issues like this and more concern over what is best. Sometimes a newcomer to a cuisine or region can take a dish and interpret it and appreciate it in a way its native people could not.
The study by the International Journal of Hospitality Management that we've cited found, among other things, that the perception of authentic ethnic aspects of food induced positive emotions and higher perceived value among American diners. Assuming this study is correct, why do you think this is?
JG: This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve read that our senses of taste and smell—particularly smell—are our strongest memory senses. Eating something that is authentic may bring back memories of food from a person’s childhood or a trip abroad.
CK: Everyone wants to relive their childhood memories, but moms cook at home, not in restaurants.
AB: People don't want to be cheated or condescended to. Authenticity as a term is related to "homemade" and "real". No one would knowingly eat something they thought was fake, phony, or artificial.
But what about a restaurant serving the authentic cuisine of a region in France or China that you’ve never visited? There’s just the implication of authenticity to woo the diner, then?
AG: The belief that a particular dish represents something unique or characteristic in American (or other) cuisine makes it more interesting, sure. Then even if you’re lukewarm on the taste or texture, you can still take value in the idea that you have experienced something, learned something about the world and the people in it.
KP: People care a lot about the “why” behind the things they pick up and adopt and consume. Simon Sinek’s TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” speaks to this. It’s a good thing that we respond positively to food that has meanings and purposes beyond just “get your wallet out.”
AB: People don’t want to be cheated or condescended to. Authenticity as a term is related to “homemade” and “real.” No one would knowingly eat something they thought was fake, phony, or artificial.
MA: I just don’t think that any one culture or one place in the world is going to have better food based solely on its provenance. I’ve had terrible food in Barcelona, and I’ve had some really good meals there also. I think that people expect somebody from a specific background to have a greater breadth of knowledge and skill level. But I don’t really care where you come from, I’ve had some shitty meals in that town too.
JG: No I do not believe that it does a disservice. While I am a purest at heart, I think you can create truly delicious—and nearly authentic—recipes by using the ingredients and technique from a specific country or region but at the same time making it unique to you without it falling too far out of focus. Thus, you can label something “French” or “French-style” without it being entirely authentic but at the same time it still being recognizable as French cuisine (or Cantonese, Italian, etc.).
Though some may call fusion cuisine passé, in some circles it is argued that New American cooking is fusion since it calls for combining elements (both ingredients and techniques) from all over the world with “homey” preparations and techniques in order to create innovative dishes. Is there ever an instance when fusion is preferable over authenticity?
JG: Well, our country’s contemporary cuisine is certainly founded on the fusion of many cuisines, but I don’t know if I would ever prefer a “fused” recipe over a traditional one. And I think a fusion concept becomes too much when it no longer represents the cuisines that are claimed to have inspired it.
AB: Because America is a melting pot, the environment exists to allow for experimentation with different flavors and ingredients that are native to many different cuisines. This isn’t just true in the States, but anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Jamaicans eat food that lies at the intersection of Indian, Chinese, and African cuisines because of the immigrants who built that country. The availability of ingredients plays a part too. The Acadians who were driven out of Canada and settled in Louisiana found that crawfish were plentiful in their new home. They used ingredients and spices found in Spanish, French, African, and Native American cuisines. For me, the key is whether or not the food tastes good. Sometimes, it matters whether I’m having fun. If you inflexibly insist on authenticity in all things, you set yourself up for disappointment, as one person’s “authentic” may be another person’s disgrace.
AG: If authentic is boring, I’ll reach for the fusion. I care most about tastiness; delicious food will always be taken seriously. If your kimchi chicken wings taste great to me, I’m a fusion fan. If your Nori Burger is yucky, I will wish it remained unfused.
KP: I think fusion stinks when it makes a menu and the food’s intent hard to understand. An overwhelming need for appreciation, not reverence for the source, shows through. But that’s on the chef. Fusion can be a subtle way to rework dishes toward a better result, or it can be a goofy way to sell chopped-up steak.”
MA: I don’t think there is anything but fusion in American. You can make a good case that America’s greatest chef, Daniel Boulud, is French! And what makes everything unique is the way a chef puts it together and presents it to the diner. You can’t really say that one type of food is inherently better than the other, or that one culture is smarter about food than another. So why not take the best ideas that they have to offer and use those ideas in an intelligent and distinctive matter. Fusion means to fuse and bring together in a cohesive manner, not to just pile things on top of one another.
CK: Food evolves and will continue to evolve. New American is fusion and it will only get muddier and muddier as we go. Sticklers for authenticity may very well starve.
Does a chef and/or owner have to have visited or lived in a certain country to be able to accurately replicate an ethnic cuisine?
JG: While this certainly helps it is not entirely essential. There are plenty of resources today (books, websites, schools, etc.) that can help a person learn and re-create the cuisine of a region or country.
KP: To “replicate?” Perhaps. To faithfully attempt to convey the meaning and flavor of that cuisine, given the restraints of where he’s working and the sources he has to cook with? No.
AG: I'm not certain. Living there sure helps, though. I look at David Chang's Japanese techniques and focus at Momofuku, and Zak Pelaccio's Malaysian comfort food at Fatty Crab, and wonder how else they could have learned the full palette without immersion. That said, books, videos and internet conversations can take a chef, or home cook, an awful long way.
CK: Probably Sun on Niagara Street, or maybe Lucy, the new Ethiopian joint on Amherst Street, though I haven’t eaten there yet. But you might not want my recommendation—I’ve never been to Burma or Ethiopia. [winks]
AG: I would take them to Sun International and present them with Kevin Lin’s own no koksware—comfort food for the Burmese diaspora.
AB: After asking them what the hell they meant by that, and interrogating them on why it’s important, I’d probably take them to Kuni’s for sushi, La Hacienda in Niagara Falls for Italian, or to Duff’s for authentic American Buffalo wings.
MA: Ted’s. There’s nothing more American than a Ted’s hot dog, and that’s the only true option for authenticity.
KP: I’d probably steal from Andrew Galarneau’s recommendation (in the Buffalo News) for the spicy peppery pork intestines at China Star, or perhaps I’d take them to Kuni’s for sushi. There’s Ulrich’s for the European fare. But, honestly, I’d hope they’d steal a line from Calvin Trillin and, rather than ask me to take them somewhere authentic, they’d ask me where I’d go if I just got home from the war.
Christa Glennie Seychew is the food editor of Buffalo Spree.