You may have been surprised as I was when Fabio's dish of beef carpaccio with "spherical" olives was crowned the winner of last week's "Top Chef" elimination challenge. I was particularly puzzled at how the olives, created with a technique borrowed from avant garde chef Ferran Adria, could even meet the competition's basic requirement -- to prepare a lunch menu of "New American" dishes. Impeccably sourced California olives brined in small batches from an American artisanal purveyor, sure! But, a concoction of olive puree and alginate to form jelly-coated balls -- huh?
I don't doubt that Fabio's dish was the best tasting of the competition. But, if this was New American cuisine, what does New American mean anyway?
In the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, Cathy Kaufman notes the movement emerged more than two decades ago, when chefs such as Larry Forgione, Michael Romano, and Michael McCarty, "applied nouvelle cuisine's central tenets of impeccable ingredients, creatively manipulated, to existing American culinary traditions." One also thinks of Alfred Portale, Jonathan Waxman, and Judy Rodgers.
In The Food Snob's Dictionary, David Kamp's guide to the world of gastronomy, he defines New American cuisine as an "ambiguous label used to describe cuisine prepared by American chefs who cook with indigenous ingredients but don't hew to French-based kitchen orthodoxies."
I emailed Kamp to elaborate and comment on the New American-ness of Fabio's spherical olives:"'New American' is an inherently vague and slippery term, and has been since it came into currency in the early 1980s. In my romantic mind, the term should evoke some rustic bit of culinary Americana given a modern twist, e.g., roasted Hudson Valley capon with porchetta-style herb stuffing and, oh, a goat-cheese timbale on the side--the gastronomic equivalent of the Band's rockified old-tymey songs on 'Music From Big Pink.'"
"But not everyone thinks this way," Kamp writes "Wolfgang Puck has said that the pizzas he created at Spago in 1983 were quintessentially New American: Italian pies as reinterpreted by a French-trained Austrian immigrant who canvassed L.A.'s Jewish delis and Japanese fish markets. So, in that light, it's not necessarily a stretch for the 'Top Chef' guy to pass off his yolky, moleculista olives and Italianate carpaccio as New American."
Images: Bravo, flickr user FotoosVanRobin.