Chefs have been coloring outside the lines for some time. Fusion of the ’90s and early 2000s became the much-maligned era of “confusion” cooking until mixing and matching cuisines on a singular menu melded into the culinary landscape. Asian ingredients in Italian pasta dishes, Middle Eastern spices in old-school French desserts and Sriracha on bar and grill menus – it’s no longer a Thai condiment; the hot sauce is downright American.
As the youngest millennials and oldest Gen Zers – who have the most diverse and discerning palates to date – came of age, so did the cooks who commanded kitchens across America. They may be classically trained but aren’t restrained by tradition. Then a perfect storm began brewing. Chaos cooking – throwing together the unlikeliest of ingredients – became a thing on TikTok as if giving chefs the green light to be weird and embrace the outrageous.
Chefs want diners to do a double-take; out-of-the-ordinary drives engagement on social media. But there’s a caveat. Strange sells only if it has a wow factor and connects with the customer in some way. And it must taste good.
Combining disparate ingredients couldn’t be farther away from their origin countries. The classic rules of what “goes together” are going out the window like never before, whether it’s flavor or food combinations. The difference now? Dishes are getting more clever, even cheeky. Consider the chocolate chip cookie at Alex Stupak’s Mischa in New York City. The “chips” are shingles of dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate and butterscotch that cover a cookie with a layer of praline.
Beef Wellington is democratized when Chef Aaron Cuschieri swaps filet mignon for a burger in his burger Wellington. “I wanted it to have all the elements of a Wellington without the price tag,” Cuschieri says. The cheeseburger and beef Wellington mash-up includes layers of caramelized onions, mushroom duxelle, burger patty and cambozola cheese stuffed in puff pastry for $26 at The Dearborn in Chicago.
Little Escargot Wellingtons dusted with dehydrated dill and parsley powder
From Chef/Owner Sophina Uong of Mister Mao in New Orleans
Sea Dog (sausage) blends scallops, shrimp and garlic served with fermented garlic tartar sauce on a poppy seed roll grilled with butter
From Chef/Partner Andrew Brady of Dear Annie in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Kimchi Caesar with panko and Parmesan
From Executive Chef Dung “Junior” Vo at Noko in Nashville
The Mapo Tofu Hot Dog topped with ground pork and tofu
From Executive Chef Tara Monsod of Animae in San Diego
“It's the ultimate Asian-American dish,” she says. “It embodies the experience of growing up in the United States in an Asian household, where barbecues consist of burgers, hot dogs, rice plates and noodle soup.”
Banana Bread Mochi topped with toasted walnuts ,and Green Waffles made with pandan leaves
From the Lam family at CA Bakehouse in San Jose
Baklava Cinnamon Rolls with honey, walnuts and cardamom halva
From Chef/Owner Ayesha Nurdjaja of Shuka in New York City
Chaos Cooking Pushes Boundaries
What’s the difference between a clever mash-up and an odd combo? Perhaps the former is a quick “aha, I get it,” while the latter is unexpected, a head-scratcher until it’s sampled or explained. In Brooklyn, Café Mars is a self-described “unusual Italian restaurant” with odd combinations like jell-olives: Castelvetrano olives suspended in Negroni gelée, reminiscent of a savory Italian Jell-O shot. There’s also pork Parmesan – tender smoked ribs, breaded, fried crispy, topped with marinara and melted cheese – served with spaghetti tossed with mayo, shredded cabbage and crispy cubes of mortadella.
Testing Menu Limitations
Vegan surf and turf of kombu kelp and maitake mushrooms (rather than lobster and steak)
From Executive Chef Richie Farina at Adorn Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago
“The inspiration was to create a visual of fog on the ocean,” Farina says. “The smoke carries the aroma of the kombu seaweed to create a sense of place, and the umami of both the maitake mushrooms and kombu marry well together with the pickled vegetables, which add a nice pop of acid.”
Pasta e Carne – filet mignon topped with a large ravioli that gushes a creamy cacio e pepe sauce
From Executive Chef Nick Gaube and Chef de Cuisine Fernando Mayers at Bad Roman in New York City
Pear and blue cheese; strawberry honey balsamic black pepper; cinnamon and honey fried chicken; chocolate potato
From Co-Founder and Head Ice Cream Maker Tyler Malek of Salt & Straw based in Portland, Oregon
“This combo (strawberry honey balsamic black pepper) is so delicious because the balsamic vinegar bolsters the acidity of the strawberry while the black pepper, which has a ton of berrylike flavor notes when you get a good fresh ground pepper, balances that acidity.”
Asian-Mex Fusion Makes its Mark
Various cuisines have coupled with Asian flavors, from Cajun and Vietnamese to Peruvian and Japanese. In 2024, expect to see more Asian-Mex.
For example, Sujan Sarkar serves only Kashmiri duck tacos at his Los Angeles location of Baar Baar, inspired by the taco trucks and Mexican food in Los Angeles. “I wanted to honor the fusion of cultures in LA,” he says. “Birria is typically made with goat, but I wanted to do something more unique and use Kashmiri, which is unique and typical in Northern India.” The duck is cooked in the same style as lamb birria, but with Indian spices such as turmeric, masala and black cardamom, served in corn tortillas from a local vendor.
Asian-Mex Around the US
Peking duck with flour tortillas, pico de gallo and apricot chili sauce, along with hoisin sauce for dipping
From Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s Momosan restaurants in multiple locations, including Boston, Miami, New York City and Seattle
Chicken tinga egg rolls with braised chicken, chili, cheese, cabbage and chipotle sweet and sour sauce
From NAME at La Chinesca in Philadelphia
Piloncillo nuegados and pan de arroz with Salvadoran cheese and black sesame butter, as well as Chinese sausage congee at brunch, paired with micheladas and cold brew oolong tea
From Chefs Evelyn Garcia and Henry Lu at Jūn in Houston