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Helped by Asian-American chefs, U.S. cities advance their dining

Asian-American chefs are serving an integral part in shaping the food scenes in several U.S. cities.
Nomiya Ramen -- owned by Allen Nguyen, his sister Christie, and Hidetoshi Suzuki -- is part of a new wave of restaurants in New Orleans.
Nomiya Ramen -- owned by Allen Nguyen, his sister Christie, and Hidetoshi Suzuki -- is part of a new wave of restaurants in New Orleans.Courtesy of Nomiya Ramen

LOS ANGELES — When restaurant guide Zagat named Los Angeles the “most exciting” city in the U.S. for food in 2017, it came as no surprise to Stacey Sun.

Sun — the director of dineL.A., a twice-yearly event where restaurants offer set menus currently in its 10th year — said that while L.A. natives might be stereotyped as picky, health-conscious diners, the city is in reality a hub of creative expression.

“If you rewind back to 2008, we weren’t hitting any of those top lists,” Sun said. “It was those standard places that you would think of: New York, San Francisco, Chicago.”

Maybe we just need to put it out there. I guarantee you: People are going to react to it. If it’s delicious, people are going to notice.

Sun attributes that change in part to chefs of Asian descent like Roy Choi, who is credited with helping spark the gourmet food truck trend with his Kogi.

Choi said he believes L.A.’s growth as a culinary destination has encouraged Angelenos to dine out in their respective neighborhoods.

He credits the New York-based David Chang, chef and founder of the Momofuku group of restaurants, for bringing Asian-American chefs national recognition.

“What Momo did back in 2004, it really put our culture on the dinner table, and everyone started to open their minds,” Choi said. “I think that with that one-two punch of Momofuku and Kogi at that time in the mid-2000s, I think that’s what really got it all started.”

Choi and Chang are part of a larger wave of Asian-American chefs shaping their local food scenes through cuisine that has incorporated the subcultures and traits of their respective cities.

They are also earning accolades from the fine-dining community. Benu in San Francisco, helmed by Corey Lee, has earned three Michelin stars, and Lee took home the James Beard Award for Best Chef (West) in 2017. Angie Mar, executive chef and owner of New York City’s meat-centric Beatrice Inn, was recognized as one of the best new chefs of 2017 by Food & Wine magazine.

“I think Asian chefs here in America have had a strong foundation for a long time,” Rachel Yang, who owns several restaurants in the Pacific Northwest with her husband Seif Chirchi, said. The pair have been nominated for the James Beard Award for Best New Chef (Northwest) for the past three years in a row.

“Now, a lot of chefs are actually able to do their own thing and not just be pigeonholed over what kind of food they have to do,” Yang said.

Ten years ago — during the early days of Joule, the couple’s Korean steakhouse — Yang cooked a hodgepodge of cuisine that reflected her Korean background, her husband’s Midwestern roots, and the city of Seattle, she recalled.

“We had everything from truffle mac-and-cheese to cornbread to a grilled mackerel to Korean barbecue,” Yang, who immigrated to the U.S. at age 15, said. As she and her husband narrowed down their focus to interpreting Korean-style meats, their popularity grew, prompting a move to a larger restaurant space five years ago.

Yang, too, has seen the Seattle food scene evolve in that time. She said that while the city has always been known for its seafood and fresh produce, its dining scene was much more homogenous a decade ago.

“Now you have authentic Thai restaurants and small izakayas, to kaiseki-style restaurants to Korean barbecue and Korean fried chicken,” she said. “There are so many subsets of ethnicities and subsets of cuisine you can find in Seattle. I think that’s what makes it really be on the same platform as other cities in terms of food.”

For Allen Nguyen, being a chef allowed him to evolve the cuisine of his native New Orleans, specifically through two things the city is known for: lesser-eaten meats and spice. After stints working in upscale restaurants and as a private chef, Nguyen partnered with fellow chef Kyle Makepeace to open Bayou Hot Wings.

“I said, ‘Hey we should open a wing shop serve frog legs, alligator and just go all out,’” Nguyen, who appeared recently on the Food Network’s competitive cooking show “Chopped,” said.

He has also partnered with his sister Christie and Japanese-born sushi chef Hidetoshi Suzuki to open Nomiya Ramen last year, which dining website Eater called one of the Hottest Restaurants in New Orleans in November 2017.

Nguyen said he saw a shift in New Orleans’s food scene after Hurricane Katrina.

“The old city basically died after Katrina. There was a mass exodus and shift in our culture, but the soul was still there,” he said. “Whenever you’re kind of beat up a little bit you re-evaluate yourself and say, ‘What do we want to be? What do we want to do?’”

He cited the diversity of restaurants in the same neighborhood as Nomiya Ramen, including Shaya — an Israeli restaurant that won James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in 2016 — as evidence of the city’s evolving culinary culture.

“Every time a chef of a different ethnic background in New Orleans steps up and takes up the mantle, you’re kind of putting your soul out there and putting yourself on the line,” he said. “But you’re adding to the identity of New Orleans. What was once known as a gumbo and seafood kind of town now has ramen, Lebanese, French, New American, Indian.”

Choi, the Kogi chef, added that tying his food to the mélange of cultures in the city he grew up has been essential to his work.

“I’ve never positioned Kogi as an Asian thing or an Asian-American thing. Kogi is L.A.,” he said. “That just happened to naturally be influenced by being Korean, by being Filipino, by being Mexican, by being Central American.”

What Momo did back in 2004, it really put our culture on the dinner table, and everyone started to open their minds.

The same goes for L.A-based chef and restaurateur Nakul Mahendro, who opened Badmaash, with his brother and father. Menu items like chili cheese naan and chicken tikka poutine reflect their origins in India, Canada, and their adopted home in the U.S.

“I like to say Badmaash is about Bollywood, Biggie Smalls and butter chicken,” Mahendro said. “It’s very important for us and for people to know that this is not an Indian restaurant from an Indian’s perspective. This is an Indian restaurant from an Indian-American perspective.”

Unique perspectives, Choi noted, is something that chefs shouldn’t hesitate to share, whether they can come up with a label for it or not.

“My whole philosophy as an Asian American has been that maybe we put too much stock in defending and defining ourselves,” Choi said. “Maybe we just need to put it out there. I guarantee you: People are going to react to it. If it’s delicious, people are going to notice.”

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