Episode 60: Fusion is Not the F-word
Don’t be scared, fusion is not the f-word, especially when it’s executed in a responsible and thoughtful way. How will your taste buds continue to be challenged and excited, for food to innovate, and paths created for new dishes to become classics -- without an active desire to transcend borders and a daring streak to be bold? Xiaowei Zheng of Chiko and Donovan Tian of Daily Provisions shed some light on how to approach the idea of fusion.
At Chiko, Chef Xiao serves an inventive and personal kaiseki menu that draws on his Japanese, Chinese, Italian training, and food memories. He says, “My new restaurant concept is to push out our idea for what’s fun and interesting, and marry the international flavors into the simple ways of Japanese preparations.” From afar, his dishes look Japanese, but close up he’s melting a thin sliver of lardo on red sea bream sushi.
Chef Donovan’s principal in cooking has been removing parts that you don’t need, and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. One of his highlights at Daily Provisions is the humble but popular tomato sandwich.
We discuss how the connotation around fusion is that it’s unnatural, that a certain technique or ingredient was used so you can charge more for the dish. Maybe that’s why there is a bad rap around the concept.
However, fusion is happening all the time, everyone’s cooking is informed by someone else’s. But how do you do this thoughtfully so your cooking is transcending borders and not overstepping boundaries?
If you are curious about your own heritage or another culture, learn more about it by doing - go explore, eat the cuisine, cook the cuisine. Once you have the necessary experience, master the classic dishes, know the key ingredients and their functions within a cuisine, you can make well informed substitutions and experiments. “Then, you will be naturally informed to speak the language in an accent”, says Donovan.
There’s also a lot more education needed from the food creators. Communicating with the diners and setting expectations will lead to a better experience, as not all “New American” labels mean the same thing.
Chef Xiao’s counter space set up at Chiko aims to solve for this. Most restaurants hide their Chefs in the kitchen, Xiao recognized the need to be front and center, educating the customer as they dined. In terms of putting in the extra work, innovation is a muscle you have to exercise, otherwise cooking just becomes a job and a thing you do. Both Chefs agree, that pushing the boundaries is also more fun.
With innovation, comes preservation. But preserving does not mean hiding it nor leaving it be. There are culinary traditions that are dying because they don’t have commercial viability. Donovan argues you have to think about repurposing in order to preserve, “If you put it in a jar in a museum, all it’s going to do is die there. In order to preserve something you need to take it out and let people see it.”
And what makes a new innovation a classic? Donovan thinks it’s when there’s the right energy around something and you naturally want others to know about it after you try it yourself. “You want it, you eat it, and you want to tell others about it. Like the cronut. People are going to be having cronuts forever …”
Go see Xiao and Donovan at Chiko and Daily Provisions (new West Village location coming soon)!