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Top chefs on today's American cuisine

The shift in American cuisine over the past 30 years to an ingredient-driven, regionally influenced style of cooking largely has been embraced by consumers, a panel of top fine-dining chef-restaurateurs said Thursday.

Dean Fearing, Larry Forgione, Paul Prudhomme, Wolfgang Puck and Jasper White discussed the so-called revolution in American cuisine at a panel hosted by the Culinary Institute of America in advance of the school’s “Augie” awards, which were scheduled to be presented to the chefs at a gala dinner Thursday evening.

The shift to a focus on fresh, seasonal and local produce, seafood and meat revolutionized upscale restaurant cooking in the late 1970s, the chefs said. But while American palates had been accustomed to the frozen and canned vegetables served in many restaurants prior to that, participants said today’s consumers have become more open to trying new flavors than ever before.

“People are very excited about discovering new ingredients,” Puck said.

The chefs discussed several topics regarding American cooking, then and now.

Focus on fresh. Fearing, whom CIA president and panel moderator Tim Ryan called “the father of Southwestern cuisine,” said he found when making the shift from French cooking — which was standard at fine-dining restaurants at the time — to a regional American cuisine, that “wild game, vegetables, chiles and fish could be relevant to my area.”

Puck, whose Los Angeles restaurant Spago was one of the first to source directly from farmers, added, “We are indigenous to our culture and indigenous to our territory.”

Chefs also found ways to showcase local ingredients, even in regions where fresh produce was not always readily available. For White, whose Boston restaurant Jasper’s celebrated regional New England cuisine, local seafood became the star of the plate. To familiarize consumers with a new species, White said, “The easiest way to introduce new fish is as an appetizer, for about a year.”

Forgione, whom Ryan cited as a pioneer in farm-to-table cooking, said he would add then-unusual seafood items to the menu at New York’s River Café with success, including cod cheeks and soft belly clam.

New flavor profiles. Fearing found in the early days that his boldly flavored food came almost as a shock to diners, and said that some would send dishes back for being too spicy.

“Now I think we’re all addicted to spice,” he said.

The novelty of the herbs and spices Fearing chose to use also sometimes made acquiring ingredients difficult. Although used liberally in Southwestern cuisine, he noted the difficulty in sourcing cilantro in the 1980s.

“It has come so forward now with great ingredients,” he said.

American cuisine goes global. While fine dining stateside once automatically implied French cuisine, that is no longer the case, participants said.

“How many upscale restaurants have Japanese and Asian ingredients?” Puck said.

“There were almost no fine-dining Indian, Chinese, Italian [restaurants],” White noted, adding that the revolution in American cooking “leveled the playing field for all cuisines.”

“That’s appropriate and very American,” he added.

And Prudhomme, whose landmark restaurant K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen specializes in regional Cajun cuisine, said he picked up knowledge and inspiration from traveling around the globe and cooking with local chefs.

American cuisine today. With some 50 percent of meals consumed in the United States now eaten outside the home, according to Ryan, cooking has become even more ingredient-driven, partly due to higher consumer demand for quality foods and awareness of healthful menu items.

The chefs also acknowledged a duty to educating consumers about healthful eating. Forgione noted that the emphasis on quality ingredients was a good place to start.

“The more about ingredients [cooking became], food naturally got healthier,” he said.

Consumers also have become more knowledgeable about quality ingredients, helping to elevate the status of American restaurants and chefs around the world.

“You can go anywhere [in the United States] today and get great food,” Fearing said. “[That’s] a major accomplishment.”

Contact Marcella Veneziale at [email protected].

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