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Bret Thorn, Nancy Kruse debate culinary authenticity

The two menu experts face off on the value of authenticity when it comes to restaurant menus.

In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they contemplate the value of authenticity on restaurant menus.

The value of authenticity on restaurant menus

Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse considers the use of the term “authentic” on restaurant menus.

Bret, is it just my imagination or has the trendy but nebulous term “authentic” become a bit of a lightning rod? There have been some rhetorical slings and arrows from food writers and industry analysts who’ve railed against unfettered use of that word, along with other au courant buzzwords like “rustic” and “artisanal.” While it’s true that there aren’t any accepted standards of identity that govern their use, they sure make people feel good — sort of the menu marketing equivalent of empty calories.

As for consumers, they apparently can’t get enough of “authentic” foods. Studies by researchers like Technomic Inc., indicate that authenticity is the single most important factor in choosing an ethnic dish, though it’s unclear precisely how diners judge its presence.

A few years back some leading New York City restaurateurs nearly came to blows over the question of whether it’s even possible to produce real ethnic menu items in this country. After all, many ingredients are domestically grown, the water they’re cooked in here is different, the equipment’s not exactly the same and so on. The best that we can hope for, then, is an imitation of the real thing, a dish that recalls but doesn’t honestly replicate the original.

I think that when patrons demand authenticity, what they really want is something that tastes great. Ethnic ingredients are likely key indicators, and many chains have stepped up to the plate. Rubio’s featured a special Mango-Habanero Ono Taco topped with a smoky red chile sauce consisting of guajillo, ancho and red jalapeño peppers. While that dish might not actually be found on the Baja Peninsula, the smartly chosen ingredients were highly evocative of place and taste. Similarly, Romano’s Macaroni Grill offered a Parmesan-Crusted Veal Chop finished with prosciutto and truffle-mushroom demi-glace, providing customers an inexpensive, Tuscan-inspired treat.

EARLIER: Nancy Kruse, Bret Thorn address service levels at restaurants

Technomic says that having dishes prepared by someone native to the area is important, too. This suggests that operators should aggressively communicate all that they’re doing to meet customer expectations in this regard, and they should be extra smart about how they position and promote these items. And this doesn’t just apply to foreign foods: local and regional American products can be seen in this light as well.

The perception of authenticity clearly adds value. But at the end of the day, it appears that the term will join the pantheon of other powerful but undefined culinary descriptors like “natural” and “fresh.” What do you think about all this, Bret? Is it just a tempest in a teapot or is it worth serious discussion?

Bret Thorn's response

What does "authentic" even mean?

Bret ThornThe following is NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn’s response to Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse’s take on authenticity on restaurant menus.

Nancy, I don’t think of myself as a “foodie,” and I’m certainly not a food snob, but I do fancy myself a sort of food intellectual, which means if you want to discuss culinary “authenticity,” I’ll be right there at the table waiting impatiently to talk.

Any such conversation could take awhile, because the United States isn’t the only place where cuisine is evolving. The Japanese started incorporating mayonnaise in their food decades ago, along with curry derived from India. Some Italians are adding fresh ginger to their dishes these days, and cooks in Thailand now add asparagus to their food (they call it nohmai farang, or “Western bamboo”).

Of course such evolution is continuous, and nothing new: Italians didn’t even have tomatoes until they were brought from the New World, and Southeast Asians had ginger and black pepper to spice up their food, but they didn’t have chiles until a few centuries ago.

So “authenticity” is a moving target, and a difficult term to define. If one Italian grandmother in Lombardy adds cream to her vitello tonnato but her neighbor uses mayonnaise instead, which one is right? Is one more authentic than the other? And ultimately, who cares?

I’ve looked at Technomic’s data about what consumers think is “authentic,” and it makes me want to generalize and say that consumers don’t know what they’re talking about.

Specific ingredients, in my opinion, have virtually nothing to do with authenticity.

A chef could import canned San Marzano tomatoes and super-fine milled flour from Italy to make “authentic” Neapolitan pizza. Indeed, a chef has to do exactly that to have a chance of being certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana as making genuine Neapolitan pizza, but what does that even mean?

Virtually every Italian chef I’ve spoken to has told me that the heart of that country’s many regional cuisines is the use of very fresh, seasonal local ingredients. How does flying stuff from thousands of miles away exemplify that? If you ask me, it actually betrays the spirit of the cuisine. Wouldn’t you be better off using the best local tomatoes in season and maybe getting a local mill to finely grind flour for you?

That’s what Jared Van Camp does at Nellcôte in Chicago, where he treats the Midwest like a region in Italy, using local and seasonal ingredients and an Italian sensibility to develop his menu. Is it authentic? Well, it’s authentic Chicago cuisine.

It’s pretty common practice now for any chef using lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves or the practically ubiquitous Sriracha sauce to call the dish made with those ingredients Vietnamese or Thai, but those cuisines aren’t about specific ingredients; they’re about balance. Thai food in particular is about stacking spicy, sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavors on top of each other and then masterfully not allowing them to collapse into a gastronomic mess. Whether you use lemon grass or lemon verbena, salted fish or bacon to do that is beside the point, if you ask me. And I’ve had Thai food in New York made with mostly local ingredients that has given me sense memories of dishes I’d eaten in Bangkok.

Years ago I had a conversation with Bangkok native Bo Kline, the chef-owner of Typhoon in Portland, Ore., who took umbrage at local critics who said her food wasn’t authentic because it wasn’t exactly the same as food they’d had in Thailand. Food is constantly evolving, she argued. If she’s a Thai person making Thai food then how is it not authentic?

On the other hand, I almost got into a shouting match with a friend who was getting his PhD in Spanish history and who insisted that the avant-garde cooking of Ferrán Adrià, a Catalonian chef cooking in Catalonia, was nonetheless not Catalonian cuisine.

In retrospect, I think he was right.

Technomic’s other observation, that having “ethnic” people cooking food lends authenticity to it, points to a kind of understandable but disturbing borderline racism, and one that’s constantly refuted by chefs like Rick Bayless, an Anglo who’s one of the world’s leading authorities on Mexican cuisine (cookbook writer Diana Kennedy is another); or David Thompson, an Australian chef whose Thai food has been widely praised by Thais; as well as the countless Japanese chefs in excellent French kitchens; and the mostly uncelebrated Hispanic cooks that form the backbone of virtually every professional kitchen in the United States (the fact that they’re mostly uncelebrated should be the subject for another column).

So what does that mean for restaurants? It means that, just as with the terms “fresh” and “natural,” they can seek their own path to authenticity. But unlike those most popular of buzzwords, they might shy away from actually saying something’s authentic to keep from being called out for lack of sincerity. If guests feel like they’re getting an authentic experience because of the cilantro or jalapeños served with their Mexican food, the mango in their Mojito or the kaffir lime leaf floating in their Thai soup, then restaurants should go ahead and use them.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at [email protected].

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