The Food World Is Getting Over Its Obsession With ‘Authenticity’

Chef Erling Wu-Bower, son of a Chinese mother and a Creole father, grew up in Chicago. Chris Jung, executive chef at Wu-Bower’s new Chicago restaurant Maxwells Trading, was born in Korea and raised in New York and D.C. To build their menu, they didn’t pinpoint a single cuisine from their pasts, instead the leaned into eclecticism. Maxwells—No. 3 on our list of best new restaurants in America—serves tortellini that taste like soup dumplings and flatbreads that look like scallion pancakes, which diners use to scoop up hummus. If anything, the cultural mishmash on each plate is unapologetically inauthentic.

As we sampled dishes across the country this year, it became clear that the most inventive chefs have stopped chasing the idea of authenticity. Some are even gleefully subverting it. Mashups, fusion, eclecticism—whatever you want to call it—was on display as chefs felt unafraid to cross cultural lines in a way that had largely fallen out of fashion the last decade and a half in the food world.

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Until recently, celebrated restaurants had adhered to a prevailing ethos of authenticity. That could manifest itself as a restaurant being the outgrowth of the place it was rooted in, like Noma or Faviken. Or it was a restaurant working to faithfully recreate dishes from a distinct culture like Sean Brock’s exploration of Southern food. But the label “authentic” also carried a moral weight—it was a signal that the cuisine on offer hadn’t been dumbed down, diluted, or thoughtlessly appropriated.

This impulse toward authenticity had a valuable impact on the American culinary scene. If you’ve just eaten Dominoes your whole life, it helps to experience a pizzaiolo fiercely sticking to Neapolitan traditions to open your eyes to a different way of enjoying pizza. Or if your only engagement with Thai food is pad Thai, then a chef faithfully recreating recipes learned in southeast Asia would similarly broaden your perspective.

But as this trend went on, we ran headlong into its limitations. One is that some restaurants concerned themselves more with marketing than delivering the real thing and diners got jaded along the way. Yes, Noma sourced ingredients from a short radius around the Nordic, but one of its disciples claimed to do the same on a remote island in Washington State only to be caught buying roast chickens from Costco.

Secondly, a singular truth simply doesn’t exist in food. Cuisines evolve alongside people and places; any chef claiming to make the real deal is more likely turning out a dish frozen in time, and the rules governing what’s right and wrong about a local favorite can differ from household to household. Who determines what’s authentic if even neighbors can’t agree?

With that in mind, the best chefs are dropping the pretense altogether. Johnny Clark named his Chicago restaurant Anelya after his Ukrainian grandmother, but he’s more than willing to break away from the recipes she handed down to him. Chef Angie Mar of N.Y.C.’s Le B. serves a salad Chinoise wholly unlike the one Wolfgang Puck made famous—but his had little to do with China, anyway. And at Nashville’s Bad Idea, Colby Rasavong makes the Laotian food he ate growing up using fine-dining techniques. His scallop-stuffed crepe resembles the classic Lyonnais quenelles de brochet, but with a fish-sauce funk and heat from Thai chilis that a French chef wouldn’t even think of adding.

Culinary traditions are worth celebrating, of course. But so is the wave of creativity we’re currently riding thanks to those willing to be “inauthentic.”

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