Today’s American diners show a keen appetite for dishes that represent the United States’ diverse population, and more and more restaurateurs seek to feature cuisines that represent as broad a geographic and cultural range as possible. However, a quick perusal of a list of Michelin-starred restaurants or James Beard winners reveals a clear imbalance in the fine-dining sphere: chefs and kitchens focused on European culinary traditions still have a larger presence in “upscale” restaurants than those specializing in cuisines from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and other non-European regions. Why is Eurocentric cooking still such a dominant force in fine dining, and how can we see a shift toward more equal representation for other global culinary traditions?
The prominent European influence in fine dining can be attributed to a few distinct factors:
The cultural link between “European” and “classy” has a long and stubborn history in the U.S..
“Wherever and however people may be dining in America, it’s always going to be a ‘Ford vs. Ferrari’ battle in terms of luxury perception, fine dining tradition, and generations of price-point discrepancy,” explains restaurant consultant Baron Christopher of RedBaron Strategy. European (specifically, western European) techniques and ingredients benefit from a reputation that has little to do with present-day realities and much to do with ideas from a bygone era; affluent Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries often went on “Grand Tours” of western Europe to expose them to the culture and cuisine of France and Italy, and the rise of professional education for chefs in America in the 1900s came courtesy of chefs like Auguste Escoffier, who focused on classical French technique (and whose teachings can still be found in culinary schools today).
Mid-20th century Americans became familiar with chef-instructors like Julia Child and Marcella Hazan, whose appeal came from their efforts to streamline classical French and Italian cooking methods and make them accessible to home cooks. Prior to these shows and cookbooks, French and Italian dishes felt to many Americans like “special occasion” foods to be enjoyed at pricey restaurants, and that attitude persists today.
The curricula at American culinary schools still lean very heavily in a European direction.
The influence of French and Italian cooking traditions on culinary-school curricula dates back to Escoffier, and it shows no signs of slowing down. “For the last 100 years, students/apprentices have been taught the techniques of Escoffier. In the US, when one thinks of ‘haute cuisine’, they think French,” says president/founder Izzy Kharasch of Hospitality Works, a consulting firm for restaurants.
As long as aspiring chefs attend culinary training programs that emphasize western European cuisines above all others, the bias toward Eurocentric restaurants will unfortunately persist in the fine-dining sphere, from both a critical standpoint and from a financial one.
Japanese cuisine bucks the Eurocentric fine-dining pattern due to higher-cost ingredients and the Western perception of Japan as a whole.
While European-focused restaurants have an outsized presence on fine-dining recommendation lists and award rosters, some of the United States’ most pricey and exclusive restaurants instead center around Japanese cuisine, particularly sushi omakases. For instance, Masa in NYC has been the most expensive restaurant in America for several years now, and they recently increased their prices to at least $1000 per person per meal.
So why do so many Japanese restaurants fall into the fine-dining category, while far fewer restaurants that serve other Asian cuisines (or other non-European global cuisines) command 4-figure check averages? In part, the cost of ingredients for high-end sushi and sashimi contributes to the elevated perception of Japanese cuisine in America. Most of the critically-esteemed sushi-yas and omakases in the United States ship their fish in from Japan rather than catching it locally, as Japanese fishermen are well-trained in determining whether fish meets the standard for “sashimi-grade”. This results in higher costs for the restaurant, which leads to higher prices for the customers.
A more esoteric reason comes from the nationwide (and worldwide) perception of Japan. As The Ethnic Restaurateur author and New York University associate food studies professor Krishnendu Ray says in his book, “Japanese [food] is doing very well in terms of prestige, and that is about … the rise of Japan as a major economic power.” Due to the Western idea of Japan as a technologically and economically-advanced nation, along with lower rates of immigration from Japan in comparison to other Eastern countries, Japanese cuisine is an easy sell for restaurateurs who want to charge hefty amounts for pristinely-prepared and presented dishes.
The forces behind Eurocentric dominance in the fine-dining sphere are strong and persistent, but talented chefs and restaurateurs are working tirelessly to expand the category to fully include and embrace cuisines from all over the world. Our expert sources tell us that these three steps would help to move this necessary goal forward:
While “fusion” restaurants have a history of introducing American diners to global cuisines, committed chefs with serious expertise are the key to expanding the horizons of fine dining.
“Fusion” restaurants have a somewhat spotty history nowadays, thanks to the proliferation of restaurants in the ‘80s and ‘90s that merged cuisines and aesthetics without carefully considering the blends of ingredients, flavors, and cultural influences. That said, blending Asian, African, Eastern European, Middle Eastern, Latin, and Indigenous ingredients and techniques with those from western Europe can be a creative and appealing way to introduce diners to these cuisines and to whet their appetites for further exploration. “25 years ago, the term for ‘blending’ cuisines was ‘Fusion’. Back then, the most common one was blending French with Vietnamese. I have not heard the term ‘Fusion’ used in quite a while, but I see many operations introducing ingredients from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and more into classic [European] dishes,” explains Kharasch.
However, Kharasch goes on to say that, while there’s certainly a place for “fusion” restaurants in the fine-dining field, truly delving into the customs and methods of international cuisines and finding chefs with full-fledged expertise in these cooking traditions is a more effective and long-term way to change the notion of what American fine dining looks like: “My first piece of advice would be to make sure that the chef is an expert in the cuisine and that every dish that they prepare is a great, full-flavored representation of that country. Guests today are open and very interested in trying new non-European cuisines. If you are going to introduce something new, my advice is to not hold back by ‘Americanizing’ the food.”
Culinary instructors (and culinary students) must take a less dogmatic approach to European training styles.
The western European (particularly French) techniques that comprise the majority of culinary-school programs in the United States are valuable tools for aspiring chefs, but instructors would serve their students best by emphasizing discipline and attention to detail rather than a need to use these French techniques to prepare French dishes. “Almost everyone learns their cooking technique from Europe (the brigade system, the mother sauces, etc.), but we’ve recently become more adept at applying French technique to dishes that are uniquely American (or from other non-European countries). We teach the European style today because, for commercial kitchens, it still makes the most sense from an efficiency and quality control standpoint. We aim to provide our students with an understanding of culinary fundamentals, so they are prepared for whatever restaurant they’re entering. ICE keeps tabs on the industry to ensure that as it evolves, the education evolves with it, so students have experience with the basics and then have the ability to expand on it with the cuisines they’re passionate about,” explains dean of restaurant and hospitality management Rick Camac of the Institute of Culinary Education.
Formal culinary training is far from the only education required for fine-dining chefs hoping to focus on non-European cuisines.
While the vast majority of Michelin-starred, fine-dining chefs went through formal culinary education programs, it’s important to remember that classroom training only provides the most elemental understanding of the chef experience. Instead of relying on school-provided lessons and apprenticeships, culinary students and recent grads with an interest in global cuisine should “travel and taste the world. Take as many opportunities to work with chefs from as many backgrounds as possible. When you find something you like and enjoy, share it. The best way to celebrate one another as human beings is to break bread together. Provide opportunities for your team, yourself and your patrons to do just that,” says culinary educator and owner Trisha Pérez Kennealy of the Inn at Hastings Park in Lexington, Massachusetts.