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Eating the Big Apple: An Exploration of New York City Cuisine
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Savory black-and-white cookies iced with Périgord truffle. Smoked sturgeon–wrapped gnocchi fritti cigarettes schmeared with cream cheese and dipped in poppy seeds. Fiery kung pao pastrami.

These are aspects of a New York City, New York, cuisine that’s been revitalized and showcased on menus around town. It’s a new cuisine based on old flavors, local ingredients, nostalgic resonances and the culinary culture clash of ethnicities that call New York home.

Uniquely New York

Feeling the pressure, perhaps, from cutting-edge chefs in Denmark who are foraging their wilderness for a true taste of terroir and cooks in Charleston, South Carolina, who have heirloom grains growing in their backyards, some New York chefs have created an authentic cuisine they can call their own.

“We were drinking Manhattans in a Paris hotel bar when Daniel first told me that he wanted to write a book about New York cuisine,” begins Will Guidara’s introduction to the new I Love NY book he wrote with James Beard Award–winning chef Daniel Humm, both co-owners of New York City’s acclaimed Eleven Madison Park.

“Reflecting on trips we had taken over the past couple of years, to Lyon, Paris, Tokyo, Piedmont,” Guidara writes, they noted how each of these destinations has “a collective pride in place.” By contrast, he and Humm felt, “in New York City, one of the greatest dining cities in the world … our cuisine has always had a sense of place somewhere else in the world.”

This realization set them on a new course for their Michelin three-star restaurant, one that would attempt to present a uniquely New York experience, both on the plate and in the dining room. Hence the black-and-white cookies, savory and sweet, that open and close the degustation. Delicate slices of sturgeon (served smoking under glass) and soft pretzels served with mustard and beer found their way onto the menu. The provenance of all ingredients was scrutinized to see what could be sourced from the region. The staff memorized stories of old New York to narrate the guest experience.

 

A Blend of Flavors

Meanwhile, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone have been using their haute French training to fuse a New York cuisine from the flavors that existed in the multiethnic immigrant neighborhoods where they opened Torrisi Italian Specialties and Parm on the Lower East Side and, most recently, Carbone in Soho. Sure, their pastas and other dishes may look Italian, but the influences are pure New York.

“It makes perfect sense to me that we don’t have a cuisine of our own,” Torrisi said during a conversation about his personal approach to cooking in New York, and cooking in the USA, for that matter. “We need more time. Look at other food cultures that have been at it hundreds, even thousands of years. It will come.”

In lieu of such history, Torrisi said he and Carbone are looking for an emotional and cultural resonance as much as a gastronomic one. The cleverness and irony — not to mention laugh-out-loud humor of their dishes — are as New York as their flavor combinations.

To create their “Yankee Pot Roast,” Torrisi and Carbone tossed out the bland New England antecedent of a boiled dinner and instead drew on the Caribbean and Latin flavors they found in the communities living around Yankee Stadium. They created a pasta dish called Lobster Cantonese, which contains lobster, vermicelli, Chinese chives and fermented black beans, as a reaction to the global nature of vermicelli. “We started talking about how vermicelli had traveled around the world — into noodle dishes in Korea, Persian desserts, Vietnamese soups, fideo in Spain, even Rice-a-Roni in America,” Torrisi recalled.

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Local Inspiration

What’s motivating this current movement to cohere a New York cuisine is difficult to pinpoint. As chefs noted, many places around the world have long established their cred in the kitchen, developing an important sense of “pride of place” along the way. In newer culinary cultures, chefs have to work harder to find a taste that resonates with and represents their culture. No doubt our unbounded virtual lives, built on global Google searches and tweets that travel faster around the world than the Concorde ever flew, are also part of the reason we are looking to establish our own culinary roots where we live.

In New York, there’s also a growing pride in the city’s immigrant past, as second-, third- and fourth- generation immigrants rediscover the flavors of their families. Rather than try to suppress them the way they hid their smelly lunches from their friends at school, today’s young Turks (and Chinese and Mexicans and others) want to trumpet their flavors to the world.

Whether the creative New York–inspired dishes from any of the chefs experimenting with New York flavors will ever land whole hog, so to speak, in a canon of Big Apple cuisine, only time will tell.

In the end, what may be most New York about the current quest to find a new New York style of cooking is the fervor, creativity and fun with which chefs are setting out to do it. Already it’s producing dishes that we are proud to call our own, and more important, that we are happy to sink our teeth into. — Mitchell Davis

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