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Jeff Tunks doesn’t like the word “fusion.” His business partner, Gus DiMillo, cracks, “What is that? Seviche on a taco?”
Nor are they all that keen about seeing Ceiba, their third and latest venture together—DC Coast and TenPenh are the others—being squeezed in under the broad culinary umbrella of “nuevo Latino.”
No restaurateur likes to be defined from without, especially not one embarking on a new, high-end concept restaurant, but Tunks and DiMillo are especially sensitive to language, having already endured the criticisms of TenPenh as being a white, Western riff on Asian themes, more appropriation than homage.
Don’t even get them started on the word “authentic.”
“Let’s face it,” says DiMillo, quick to defend the mission of their new place, which seeks to reproduce the hardscrabble flavors of Brazil, Yucatán, and Veracruz for an upscale audience, “authenticity is not always good. A lot of these cultures are poor. They’re not always getting the best products—meat, for example.”
Adds Tunks, “I guarantee you: Ninety-five percent of the people in this country would not like an authentic feijoada.”
In Ceiba’s version of the Brazilian national dish, a black-bean-and-collard stew that mingles the cooking of three different cultures, braised pork shoulder replaces the more traditional, more unlovely pig’s feet. At lunch, Tunks tucks the feijoada into raviolis—contemporizing (almost beyond recognition) a heavy, rib-sticking dish that originated as a catchall for the scraps the slaves were thrown from the big house.
The upscaling of downscale cooking is nothing new. What, after all, are many of today’s top Italian restaurants doing but taking dishes rooted in the necessities of poverty and turning them into exquisite, carefully tended presentations? Witness Roberto Donna’s veal feet and tripe with cornichons, red onion, and olive oil—a taste of lusty, peasanty Tuscan cooking that could be had for $28.
Still, it’s one thing when it’s your own heritage you go fiddling with, another thing altogether when it’s someone else’s. Especially when that someone else is impoverished and Third World. In the case of Ceiba, the owners have enlisted chef de cuisine Chris Clime, who spent time in Puerto Rico as a teen, and pastry chef David Guas, who is of Cuban descent, to lend authority to their dishes. And to their credit, Tunks & Co. have done research: They’ve made separate trips to Brazil, Yucatán, Veracruz, and Miami for ideas and inspiration.
Other bold-minded chefs are pursuing their own version of manifest destiny with the fervor of converts. In a country that has seen the definition of “exotic” go from chow mein to huitlacoche in just a generation, and with high-end restaurants ever on the lookout for the next new thing, the appropriation-cum-reinterpretation trend is hotter than a Viking range. Several years ago, Alison Swope returned from a trip to Oaxaca, promptly shuttered the Mark, a restaurant devoted to New American cooking, and reopened it as Andale, turning out stylishly plated, shrewdly lightened versions of the peasant-based Mexican cooking she’d swooned over—and charging nearly as much for dinner as she had before. Similar things are happening elsewhere: In the past couple of years, the French-trained Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened 66, his empirically researched and unapologetically pricey take on traditional Asian cooking in Manhattan, and Emeril Lagasse launched Emeril’s Tchoup Chop, with its Pacific Rim–inspired menu, at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla.
Culinary history, of course, is rife with “cross-cultural exchange”—a neat little phrase that may reasonably describe the feel-good story of Marco Polo and pasta, but does not do justice to the innumerable conquests and plunderings that created, say, the modern cuisine of Mexico. It’s hard not to sense the presence of the colonizer about the whole process, the impulse toward perfecting the culture of the savage.
Tunks and DiMillo insist that their new venture, like TenPenh, is rooted in tradition—but their tradition is as much that of their haute-cuisine forbears as of their food’s lowly roots. And at times, the owners’ pride in their accomplishment spills over into a quintessentially American boasting.
“We still stick to traditional flavors,” the chef says, “but with better products.”
An improvement on the original?
“We bring it,” says DiMillo, “to a new level.”
A trio of desserts from Guas is sitting on the table. Tunks holds aloft the restaurant’s flan: a surpassingly smooth and creamy disk, topped by an emulsion of cajeta-flavored cream. “I’ve eaten a lot of flan—a lot. In more countries than I can count. This is better than the authentic flan.” He points a finger at the cut center of the disk, beckoning me to inspect the silken inside. “See that? No air bubbles.”
No argument here. The attention to detail in the kitchen is impressive, from the imported machinery—a sugar-cane press from Miami for the bright-colored cocktails, a churro machine from Spain for turning out those light, crispy doughnut sticks—to the innumerable upgrades to the indigenous dishes that Tunks and Clime are executing.
“Upgrade,” though, is a relative term, culturally speaking. For although it is sometimes possible to produce a smoother or crisper or better-seasoned version of a native dish—in some sense to improve upon it—these small triumphs are as much a testament to affluence as they are to culinary skill. We live in a country of plenty. With enough study and enough money and enough toys and enough ambition, we ought to be able to re-create just about anything.
But there’s something missing as we tuck into these remastered dishes: the communality, the conviviality, the sense of food’s absolute centrality in the culture—in short, everything that matters about eating besides the eating. What we’re left with may be delicious, but let’s not kid ourselves: High-end dining of the decontextualized kind is a highly privileged, even precious experience.
In taking the dishes out of the culture, Tunks and the rest are also seriously in danger of taking the culture out of the dish. —Todd Kliman
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