The New Face of Fusion

Fusion is alive and well—just don't call it that.

Remember wasabi mashed potatoes? Most of us would rather not. While fusion food has yet to shed its reputation as trying too hard to mesh cultures, it never really went away. Instead, it’s being led by a new generation of culture benders who want little to do with pan-Asian anything.

“I don’t think we’ve gotten over the word fusion,” says Chris Jaeckle, executive chef of All’onda, an Italian restaurant with Japanese influences, and co-founder of Uma Temakeria, a chef-driven fast casual serving sushi hand rolls, both based in New York City. “I do think that chefs never really stopped playing with ingredients.”

As chefs mine their heritage and the culinary world embraces foods from Argentina to India and everywhere in between, culinary mashups are thriving. These days, dishes such as escargot congee at Patina in Los Angeles and pimento fundido with gochujang at Succotash in National Harbor, Maryland, are becoming the new norm.

“(Fusion) tended to take the cultures of certain foods and bring them together,” says Brian Nasajon, chef-owner of Beaker & Gray in Miami. “This isn’t that. What you’re starting to see is a new type of cuisine that is based on ingredients.”

How to Avoid Fusion Confusion? Stay Focused.

WATCH THE TEXTURE

To subtly mix French and Mexican flavors at Madrina, Executive Chef Julio Peraza ensures the batter is light and barely noticeable for his fried mushrooms with poblano veloute. “You don’t want to confuse people into thinking it’s tempura vegetables.”

THIS DOESN'T ALWAYS MEAN THAT

At Ox and Son, Executive Chef-partner Brad Miller finds versatility with miso for fish marinades and as a seasoning for grilled tomatoes to add umami and depth. “But I would never serve miso soup,” he says.

DON'T GO OVERBOARD

Executive Chef Matt Gandin takes liberties with many parts of the menu at Comal—even making banh mi-style pork belly tacos. But he knows where to draw the line. “With moles, I stay very traditional,” he says.

The New Global Pantry

Does a modern American restaurant have the leeway to mirror a melting pot society? Brad Miller, executive chef-partner of Ox and Son in Santa Monica, California, thinks so.

“When you have a New American restaurant, you have carte blanche to use whatever is available to make the food,” he says. “It’s about flavors that go well together.”

Miller uses tried-and-true combinations to create new dishes: fish with citrus, meat with mushrooms, fried chicken with coleslaw. For his take on fried chicken, Miller fries duck confit and serves it with a slaw comprising red cabbage kimchee and napa cabbage. The key is finding balance, Miller says. “You get the crunch, the vinegar from the coleslaw, the heat from the kimchee.”

At Beaker & Gray, Nasajon makes seemingly at-odds ingredients work for him, like sherry vinegar, rice noodles, shiso and queso fresco. “We know what’s sweet, what’s smoky, what’s meaty,” he says. “It’s our job to figure out how to marry them.” 

This type of experimentation can lead to breakthroughs. While explaining a dish of yellow coconut curry with Chinese sausage and snow crab to his staff, Nasajon realized something was missing. He grabbed the cilantro-heavy chimichurri reserved for grilled skirt steak and drizzled it on top. Problem solved.

“It was that little blast of acid, sweetness and herbs that the dish really needed,” he says.

The menu at 1760 in San Francisco also runs global. “I grew up Filipino-American, and I know Asian flavors,” says Executive Chef Carl Foronda. “But I was trained in Western technique.” 

Foronda blends these two influences for dishes such as roasted carrots with tamarind, lime and puffed mung beans, and little gem salad with buttermilk wasabi dressing. For the carrot dish, mung beans take the place of French lentils. As for the wasabi powder? It reminds him of horseradish. Foronda also makes sisig, a rich braised Filipino pork dish, but his is lighter; he replaces the standard-issue fried egg with a sieved hard-boiled egg and adds ginger aioli and brunoise kohlrabi. 

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“It’s you as a chef identifying what you like about a dish and creating a database,” he says. “Everything is up for grabs until it’s proven wrong—or right.”

Fusion Abroad

Cuisine is always expanding and transforming, even beyond borders. Mexican food, a prime example of this, often gets overlooked for multicultural influence, says Matt Gandin, executive chef at Comal in Berkeley, California. Case in point: Tacos al pastor evolved from shawarma, brought over by Lebanese and Syrian immigrants. Gandin thinks Mexican cooking techniques and ingredients are just as adaptable to California tastes.

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“When I develop dishes on the menu, I take the approach as if I were someone coming from Mexico and was transplanted in the Bay Area,” Gandin says. “It’s Mexican food filtered through that lens.”

Would braised artichokes and epazote ever meet on a menu in Mexico? Probably not, but the dish complements the rest of his menu when local artichokes are in season. He also makes “romesco verde,” a play on a Spanish romesco sauce he makes by blending tomatillos, pickled jalapenos, tortillas, pepitas and poblano chilies to top grilled spring onions. At Passover and Hanukkah, Gandin infuses classics from his Jewish heritage with Mexican flavors, braising brisket in ancho chili adobo. 

“We’re not living in a vacuum,” he says. “It’s a global world.”

At Madrina in Dallas, Executive Chef Julio Peraza interprets Mexican cuisine through his background in French technique, a combination that has allowed him to explore the similarities between the cuisines. 

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“French cuisine is a lot more refined,” Peraza says. “Mexican cuisine is more about home cooking. But the braises, the way they season things—you can sense how these two cultures can be tied together.” 

Peraza likes to mix and match the two in dishes such as bean-filled enchiladas, known as enfrijoladas. Instead of filling the housemade cilantro tortillas with beans, he turns the beans into a puree for a sauce; the tortillas get filled with duck confit instead. The confit is mostly French—with some Mexican leanings. The meat is cooked in duck fat with a mix of Mexican and French herbs, including cilantro stems and thyme sprigs. For any of this to work, Peraza stresses subtlety.

“I try to incorporate two cultures into one, but I’m not putting 10 different items on one plate,” he says.

Burritos Bounce Back

Burritos are right up there with burgers as some of the most recognizable food in the country. Created in America with Mexican undertones, burritos are being reinvented once again with global spins that allow for new—and often healthier—combinations. And who are the biggest fans for this type of dish?

“Millennials,” says Walter Abrams, executive chef at Dabba, a San Francisco-based fast-casual sibling of Avatar’s, an Indian-Mexican-Caribbean restaurant in Sausalito, California. “They are healthy, they are food enthusiasts, and, for the most part, they are open-minded.”

At Dabba, burritos or tacos are made with whole-wheat paratha, an Indian flatbread that Abrams makes with olive oil in place of butter. Fillings include blackened chicken with pumpkin braised with fenugreek, mustard seeds, ginger, garlic and tomato. Rice mixed with chickpeas forms the base of the burrito, while pickles, fruit chutney, herb chutney, tamarind sauce and yogurt accompany each order. 

Burritos can also cut the guesswork for customers making sense of a new food idea. When Jaeckle first introduced the idea of temakerias—popular counter-service spots in Brazil selling cone-shaped hand rolls—he thought the affordable option would appeal to New Yorkers who liked sushi. But when the menu at Uma Temakeria didn’t resonate with diners at first due to confusion over temaki, he added sushi burritos. These oversized maki wrapped in nori took off, and sales went up for both burritos and temaki. 

“It was about eliminating the education process,” Jaeckle explains. “The key is to figure out a way to not be confusing.”