Don't Look for the Fusion Label

On Chowbaby, a relatively new Website, an article titled "Fascination with Fusion" details the gastronomic community's love affair with fusion cuisine. Author Kelly Tokarski writes, "Fusion is trendy. Fusion is tasty. Fusion is today."

Girl, I got news for you: Fusion is tired. Fusion is torturous. Fusion is so yesterday, it's last year.

In fact fusion, a term used to describe menus that incorporate influences from all over and dishes that pair unlikely ingredients, actually has morphed into global. And even that label has become overly familiar, making fusion and global the Generation X and Generation Y catch phrases of the food world.

Smart operators are beginning to realize this. Kris Wessel, chef-proprietor of Liaison, for example, cringed when I categorized his cuisine as fusion in an article. He sent me an e-mail saying that "[his] style of cooking stem[s] from the strong French influence in New Orleans and a Southern freshness found in both Louisiana and Florida. French techniques applied to products from the Southeast are a natural progression on the plate, not fusion."

Okay. But just as an agent wants a tag about a script or an advertising exec needs to sum up a product with a one-liner, diners and critics alike need a fast, easy way to pigeonhole cuisine. It's simply too difficult -- especially when space counts, like in a newspaper -- not to apply some sort of classification. Certainly every time someone writes about Liaison he's not going to refer to the fare as "French techniques applied to products from the Southeast."

Fusion as a fad definitely has been taken too far, with some overreaching chefs combining ingredients that cancel each other out or just plain don't make taste-pleasing sense. "I've been in some places that do fusion cuisine and do it well," says Astor Place chef Johnny Vinczencz. "But you have to have a really good hand and a really good palate."

And as a label, fusion may be going, going, gone out of style. But the reality is the idea behind fusion food will never be thoroughly cleansed from culinary consciousness. As Tokarski correctly notes, "We have always had fusion cuisine; it is not a new concept. Cooks and chefs, as well as food product designers, have always adapted foods for special occasions and to utilize new ingredients."

The challenge becomes, then, not for chefs to discover new methods but to plumb their imaginations for more creative appellations. Some chefs are doing just that. I like Allen Susser's name for his broadening style of cooking: New Era cuisine. The term is general enough to mean both everything and nothing -- exactly what a good label is all about. Others are relying on simple modifiers, such as "eclectic," "progressive," or "modern," descriptions I also can work my chops around.

Then there's Oggi Caffe on 79th Street, which has posted a sign: "Universal Pasta." This certainly is truth in advertising -- pasta indeed has become an international foodstuff. Many cultures use some form of noodle. Practically no one dislikes it. But c'mon, can't we just say this place is Italian? (On the plus side, at least the owners aren't claiming to offer Mediter-Asian, a mix that takes fusion way too far.)

Going back to basics might seem like backlash to fusion, and it probably is. But chefs such as Vinczencz find it more direct. He calls his cooking plain ol' Florida cuisine and no longer refers to himself as a Caribbean cowboy. "I don't like to meld different types of food on one plate," Vinczencz explains. "I just take the way I cook and apply it to the products of the region."

Regional and state names for cuisine probably will never go out of style, and I appreciate how quickly they evoke the tastes and smells of a certain part of the nation. But even here some eateries are taking it too far. What, for instance, does "Arizona Territorial Cuisine" offer? Apparently a lot of stereotypes. Duff Campbell, food and beverage director of the Grille at Shadowrock in Sedona, Arizona, where Arizona Territorial Cuisine is offered, mentions that "Arizona doesn't have such a great tradition of food types, not like Italy or New Mexico or Texas, places that have their own style. You have to draw from what people expect of the Southwest." In other words first you have to assume an ethnicity, and then you have to assign it in a nonthreatening way; owners of the Grille (DoubleTree Sedona Resort) decided the way to do this was to blend Native American and Hispanic influences. Which explains why the eatery's turkey chili verde is made with tomatillos and "rattlesnake beans" (as opposed to actual rattlesnake meat) and served with "fire-roasted cornbread and honey-chipotle butter."

The Cornerstone Grill in Wisconsin has gone even more region-specific: It offers "Milwaukee Cuisine." Owner Mark Otis, who is turning his business into a franchise called Milwaukee Grill, says the Wisconsin city is known for fried fish served on Fridays and beer. Um, okay. But is that really significant enough to base a whole new food tradition on it? Of course not. Hialeah restaurants may be known for serving plenty of rice and beans, but we still refer to the fare as Cuban, not Hialeah cuisine. So file "Milwaukee Cuisine" under the "gimme a break" column.

Naturally the downside for restaurants is that no matter what operators come up with, the food media will probably misidentify or mislabel it. So you might as well be creative in the way of Munchies, a breakfast-lunch place in West Palm Beach. The restaurant is serving "Political Cuisine." After you chow down on the Bush burger and Nader taters, you can demand a recount if you think you've ordered the wrong menu item.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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