Burgers, hotdogs & the squeezed middle: top chefs discuss American culinary identity

Laura Price - 21/10/2014

How has US cuisine changed over the last decade and does it have its own identity? These were some of the topics discussed by our all-star panel of American and international chefs, restaurateurs and media commentators at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ recent #50BestTalks event in New York. Here are a few edited highlights from the discussion forum:

International perceptions of American cuisine:

Mitchell Davis, The World's 50 Best Restaurants Academy Chair for East USA and East Canada and executive vice-president of the James Beard Foundation:

“In the high-end chef community, everyone knows the quality of the food in America today is as good as anywhere in the world, but in the general population, fewer people realise we eat anything besides hamburgers and hotdogs. The challenge is that we do eat those things and they can be really good, but chefs are trying to change that perspective about what food is like in America. The quality of the food you can find in just about every corner of this country boggles my mind.”

The state of the US restaurant scene:

Mario Batali, chef-owner of Babbo, Del Posto and Enoteca:

“The recession is fully behind us. There’s a lot of really cool stuff going on and it’s a fascinating time to be in the business. We have a bunch of new restaurateurs exploring and we have a much more sophisticated audience. International travel has led customers to understand and expect different things that they never would have asked for 30 years ago.”

Kate Krader, restaurants editor at
Food & Wine magazine:

“There’s never been a better time to eat in America. Regional food around the country is starting to shine; people in the Pacific Northwest, for example, are really celebrating their food. Everyone’s eating better burgers than they’ve ever eaten in their whole lives – it’s like the golden age of burgers.”

Sabato Sagaria, chief restaurant officer, Union Square Hospitality Group:

“It’s really exciting to see how it’s expanded, not just on the coasts, but with great restaurants appearing in Portland, Miami, Nashville, and all these regional specialities popping up. You shouldn’t be at a loss to find a great meal, a great cocktail or a great glass of wine in most cities around the country.”

Nick Kokonas, co-owner of Alinea, Next and The Aviary:

“The information age means it’s so easy to communicate and share ideas with other chefs. America has always been that melting pot – you could go to New York and get any kind of food in the world there. We absorb all of the influences and that’s easier than ever so it just gets better and better.”

Massimo Bottura, chef-owner of Osteria Francescana:

“I’m an Italian cook and we are going through a totally different phase. We're fronting an identity crisis because we don’t believe in ourselves. When I want to recharge my batteries, I come to New York. In San Francisco, Seattle, across America – people are involved and have this incredible approach to their food.”

April Bloomfield, chef-owner of The Spotted Pig and The Breslin:

“It’s so amazing to see how the New York restaurant scene has changed over the last 10 years. The market is much more abundant, people are into finding out where their food’s coming from, how it’s been treated and how it’s been picked and stored. In the next couple of years, more restaurants will be based outside of New York and have farms of their own like Dan [Barber] does.”

US culinary identity:

Will Guidara, co-owner of Eleven Madison Park:

“There’s a sense of inferiority when you talk about an identity in America but that doesn’t necessarily take into consideration the age of our country. America is all about new, it’s all about a reaction to things that existed. It’s a really exciting time because now our city [New York] is old enough, there are culinary traditions that can be honoured and suddenly there’s an opportunity to develop an identity.”

Daniel Humm, chef and co-owner of Eleven Madison Park:

“When I first came to America 12 years ago, I felt like American chefs and restaurants had a chip on their shoulder. Everyone thought the European restaurants were so above everything, and that has completely changed – there’s a pride now to be American and to cook American food and be inspired by American food.”

Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns:

“Most of the chefs in this country who celebrate other cuisines celebrate their holiday cuisines, not the everyday ones. The problem is they celebrate centre cuts of meat or vegetables and grains that are expensive to grow but they don’t represent the true everyday eating. We’re moving in the right direction – 10 years ago it was very hard to sell oxtail and pork cheek, where today it’s an everyday food, at least in New York. Hopefully that will bleed into the culture, but we need to do it for the whole farm.”

Challenges facing the US food sector:

Wylie Dufresne, chef-owner of wd-50 and Alder:

“In a city like New York it’s getting harder and harder economically to live there, to have restaurants there, to pay rent, to find cooks who want to work in that kind of restaurant, so I’m worried about the squeezed middle – where is the mid-level restaurant going to go? People are always going to look for cheap and they're always going to go out for the luxurious dinner where we can hold that farmer up and say how important that person is, but where does the middle go? The middle is disappearing.”

Dan Barber:

“It’s the mid-sized restaurant and the mid-sized farmer that are in trouble. If you’re a big farmer then you’re doing really well over the last 10 years and if you’re a small local organic farmer, it’s boom time. It’s the ones that are stuck in the middle that are dying. How do we create a system, on our menus, and highlight that?”

Mitchell Davis:

America has a leadership role because we actually have to deal with some of the issues of scale, of production, of diversity, of agriculture that the world has to deal with. We’ve been so bad in the past that I think we’re coming to an understanding, a 2.0 if you will, that I think could be very powerful. There is an opportunity to give a model to some other countries in the world that are not starting to deal with these issues yet, or are just realising the problems of industrialised food systems.”

Forum Participants:

Mario Batali, chef-owner, Babbo, Del Posto, Enoteca
Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner, Blue Hill New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns
April Bloomfield, chef-owner, The Spotted Pig, The Breslin
Massimo Bottura, chef-owner, Osteria Francescana
Andrew Carmellini, chef-owner, Locanda Verde, The Dutch
Mitchell Davis, The World's 50 Best Restaurants Academy Chair, East USA and East Canada, Executive vice-president, James Beard Foundation
Wylie Dufresne, chef-owner, wd~50, Alder
Will Guidara, co-owner, Eleven Madison Park
Daniel Humm, co-owner and chef, Eleven Madison Park
Nick Kokonas, co-owner, Alinea, Next, The Aviary
Kate Krader, restaurants editor, Food and Wine magazine
Grant MacPherson, chef and owner, Scotch Myst consultancy service
Sabato Sagaria, chief restaurant officer, Union Square Hospitality Group

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Photo: Sara Beth Turner, Kate Krader