How Chefs Can Strike a Balance with Culturally Inspired Menus
Mingling comfort flavors with modernity, culturally inspired menus have the power to offer diners flashbacks to childhood and travel adventures, as well as fresh experiences. Today’s full-service restaurants with authentic cuisines are leaning into to this role, blending new trends with old roots to serve up authentic, yet approachable bites.
Chefs, then, are aiming to educate consumers’ taste buds by walking the fine line between staying relevant and paying respect to time-honored ingredients of specific cuisines. Finding that balance and trying to add your own creativity to the mix, however, is not an easy task.
“You used to give your interpretation and customers accepted it, but if diners want to know what’s in ramen or how to make it, they access it now via the internet,” says Luck Sarabhayavanija, founder and owner of Ani Ramen House in Montclair and Jersey City, New Jersey. “There’s zero room for errors, and if you make a mistake, you’ll hear about it.”
Sarabhayavanija reaches into his personal experience backpack to mix conventional tastes and current trends to spark his own slants on recipes. Ani Ramen House’s short rib ramen combines chicken and beef broth along with braised short rib for an updated dish, while its salt-based ramen that includes yuzu citrus notes is based on a restaurant experience Sarabhayavanija had traveling in Tokyo. “We went to this amazing ramen house, Afuri. They were using yuzu in ramen. I was skeptical; when I think ramen, I want a spicy bowl or something on the salty or earthy side. I don’t think of something citrus-y. [But] it worked so well,” he says. He is thrilled with the new menu addition back in New Jersey. “Every sip of broth, you get the salt, umami, and chicken broth, but it ends with a citrus note that feels like it cleanses your palate; it’s crazy,” he says.
Beverly Gannon, owner and chef of Hali’imaile General Store in Makawao, Hawaii, combines memories from her childhood in Texas with Hawaiian regional cuisine for a modern tostada: duck marinated in Chinese five spice, plus jicama, cilantro, ginger chili dressing, and a crispy tortilla with hoisin sauce. “It’s taking what I knew as a tostada and creating something that evolved into what I call Mex-awaiian,” she says.
Cara Stadler, chef/owner of Brunswick, Maine’s Tao Yuan Restaurant, says sometimes designing a menu is about finding refreshing ways to remind customers of their own experiences. “What makes ethnic food amazing is the rich cultural identification, especially for those who have experienced the countries through travel or childhood,” she says. Stadler’s Malatang soup, a sweet broth and poached vegetables topped with spicy numbing sauce, exemplifies this, as this street food hails from a very specific Chinese region. “We put classic dishes on the menu, things from parts of China you’d have to visit to understand,” she says. For those who know the region, the Malatang soup brings nostalgia.
Chefs agree that traveling and trying other chef’s cuisines helps one grasp the true elements of global dishes. But once chefs have got a good grip, they can’t be afraid to push the boundaries. “Play around. If Indian is trending and you’re doing Chinese, try an Indian-inspired dumpling,” Gannon says. “How can you make it something diners are hearing about, but with your own twist?”
Be mindful, however; isolating dishes from popular flavors and ingredients is a recipe for failure. “Be open-minded, and don’t be afraid of change or ingredients you don’t recognize,” says Ben Diaz, executive chef of Los Angeles’ Mexican restaurant Toca Madera. “Embrace [trends] yet stay true to the food.”