Featured in last week’s City Paper is a fascinating Young & Hungry piece by Jessica Sidman that profiles a handful of American-born chefs and their pursuits of “authenticity” in their preparation of various ethnic cuisines. Haidar Karoum, Scott Drewno and Mike Isabella, who offer something like Spanish, Chinese and Mexican/Italian fare at Estadio, The Source and Bandolero/Graffiato, respectively, discuss how their backgrounds, travels and training prepared them to step outside their expected culinary comfort zones. The article in general, and much of the reportage therein, is illustrative of what I consider Americans’ pointless obsession with authenticity in food.

The Foodie Effect, and What’s in a Name?

In a city as rife with international influence and with as well-traveled a populous as Washington, D.C., a lack of authenticity is among the most damning criticisms that can be leveled against any eatery serving non-American cuisine without a “modern” or “fusion” disclaimer. Among food people, which restaurant in the city serves the most authentic pho or ceviche or bangers and mash or empanadas is a topic of discussion second to few, if any. It dominates comment boards and devours column inches.

What has always rankled me about the authenticity issue is the implication that there exists one undisputed, ideal method of preparation for a dish, and any dish deviating from this ideal, regardless of how successful, must be accompanied by a “yeah, but…” Why do we insist on qualifying great food?

Ostensibly a dish is named to provide us with a simple means to communicate roughly what said dish comprises and how it will be prepared. A hamburger is roughly a patty of cooked ground beef on a bun with fixings of some kind. I’ve had hamburgers with peanut butter and pickles and with barbeque sauce and onion rings. I’ve had them broiled, grilled and pan fried. The idea that any of these examples is any less “authentic” than any other is silly. Why we should hold ethnic dishes to a different standard of uniformity is beyond me. Does every street street cart in the Mexico City serve an identical, “authentic” tamale?

The Great Escape

What diners seeking authenticity are really after is the kind of escapism they might also enjoy at a movie theater. Food is necessary in that it keeps us alive, but it also has the power to transport us to a time or place, real or imagined, we’ve never been, or remind us of a time or place we have been. In food, as in film, there is room for both documentary and fantasy. Chefs exercise artistic license. Diners willfully go along for the ride.

The chefs in the Young & Hungry piece—particularly Karoum, Drewno and Jeff Tunks of Passion Food group—talk of months-long journeys to far-off corners of the world and immersing themselves in unfamiliar food cultures. They profess to do so in a search for knowledge, and of course there’s a level of know-how required to prepare intricate dishes with unfamiliar ingredients or techniques. But these trips seem equally to be quests for credibility. Sidman says it best: “It’s ingrained in our minds that the best tacos must surely come from the Mexican immigrant with the roadside stand.” How many weeks does an American chef need to spend in China before he can serve authentic dumplings?

On Tradition

What’s often ignored in the discourse on authenticity is the important distinction between “authentic” and “traditional.” A chef can prepare a dish using traditional techniques and ingredients, and the dish might be a near exact approximation of an indigenous version. But authenticity, to me, suggests more than that. It implies a context or experience that can’t be replicated. It doesn’t matter how many times a week the crustaceans are driven in from Maine or how lightly it’s dressed, a lobster roll from the back of a truck on Farragut Square is never the same as a lobster roll on a harbor-side New England patio. Who’s standing behind the steamer is irrelevant.

Isabella, to his credit, seems to get it. “This is not Mexican food,” he’s quoted as saying of Bandolero in the Young & Hungry piece. (I half expected him to add, “If you want Mexican food, book a flight.”) He recalls being asked—and a cursory glance at the menu exposes the absurdity of this question—what region of Italy the cuisine at Graffiato represents. “New Jersey,” the Bergen County native answered. He’s never been to Italy.

August 1, 2012