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Chef Haidar Karoum had never professionally cooked Spanish food before the 2010 opening of Estadio in Logan Circle. But his tortilla española with sweet hot peppers could give the real deal a run for its money.
The French-trained chef, who’s half-Irish and half-Lebanese, learned the recipe in Rioja, Spain. He visited the country for the first time with Estadio owner Mark Kuller in preparation for the restaurant’s opening. During a two-week trip that hit the major regions of Spain, they met a famous Rioja winemaker, who told Karoum that the most important Spanish dish is the tortilla española—his wife’s version, in particular. The next day, Karoum came back, and the winemaker’s wife taught him how to make it.
“It was one of the most special cooking experiences of my life. And I promised her if I did a tortilla—which after this I definitely planned on doing—that I would do it with respect,” Karoum says. “When I came back, I was like, ‘If we nail anything, we have to nail this dish.’”
Authenticity is something of a Holy Grail in the food world: highly prized, yet highly elusive. We tend to think the most worthwhile food is the most authentic food. It’s ingrained in our minds that the best tacos must surely come from the Mexican immigrant with the roadside stand, or that the best gnocchi is hand-made by an Italian nonna, preferably off some cobblestone alley in Sicily.
But lately, ethnic cuisines that were once the domain of immigrant populations in the suburbs have been adopted and reinterpreted in the District’s trendiest restaurants. And the chefs cooking the food didn’t necessarily grow up in those cultures and don’t always have previous professional experience in those cuisines. Instead, they often rely on the pages of cookbooks and crash course travels across the globe. The result may be a dilution of what authentic really means—but for diners, it also means new forms of “inspired by” cuisine.
The fact that chefs may not have decades of experience or familiarity with a cuisine doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to good food. Little Serow, inspired by Komi chef Johnny Monis’ travels to northern Thailand, earned a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant in America this year. Chef Scott Drewno, who grew up in upstate New York without ever being exposed to ginger and lemongrass, now cooks some of the best Chinese food in the city at The Source. And the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington named Estadio best new restaurant last year. Diners embrace creative license—just as long as restaurants don’t pretend to be something they’re not.
Karoum says authenticity is very important in his cooking, but at the end of the day, he calls it an interpretation: “If I was going to open something that was Mexican, no matter how much I traveled there and how many cookbooks I read and how much I studied it, because I didn’t grow up in the culture and grow up eating it, it would still just be an interpretation.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t try his darndest to reach some semblance of authenticity in flavor and technique. For Karoum, it’s a matter of respect. “It’s a pretty big insult if you do things that culturally would be no-nos in terms of cooking,” he says. For example, for Estadio’s family meal, one of the waitresses from Thailand recently made massaman curry, a traditionally Muslim-influenced dish. Making the curry with pork “would be odd,” Karoum says. Likewise, not putting cheese on a pasta dish with scallops and shrimp would be honoring Italian cooking tradition. “The thought process is that cheese would overwhelm the delicacy of the seafood,” Karoum says.
The quest for some background in the food they’re cooking takes chefs far and wide. Karoum and Kuller are working on a Southeast Asian street food-inspired restaurant at 14th and S streets NW, and they’re planning a three-week research trip to Vietnam and Thailand, much like the one they took to Spain. It will be Karoum’s first visit to that part of the world. He does, however, already have some background in Asian cuisines. He cooked at Asia Nora for eight years, when at the time he had no formal Asian culinary training whatsoever. “I seriously had to immerse myself completely in the food culture,” Karoum says. “I literally pored over every single book, ate out hundreds and hundreds of times, and spent a lot of time in Eden Center just because it was sink or swim. I had to learn it.”
Drewno, of The Source, was first introduced to cooking Eastern cuisines working for Wolfgang Puck at the now-shuttered Asian-fusion restaurant Chinois in Las Vegas. He made his first trip to Hong Kong seven years ago, and he journeyed to mainland China for the first time during a three-week trip in September. The trips hardly impart the knowledge of a native, but they do inform changes. When he came back, Drewno tweaked the way he made dumplings and cut back the sweetness level in his food to make the restaurant more similar to what he’d experienced across the globe. Two months ago, he even began making his own tofu.
Drewno and Karoum say visiting the country of their cuisines, even if it’s only for a couple weeks, is crucial. Chef and restaurateur Jeff Tunks and his partners at Passion Food Group have been making similar research trips for more than a decade. They went on a 10-day tour of Singapore, Vietnam, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Macau in preparation for the now-shuttered TenPenh. Before the opening of Ceiba, they ventured to the Yucatán Peninsula and Veracruz in Mexico and throughout Brazil. And even though Tunks worked in New Orleans for a few years, he and his team ate their way around Louisiana and visited the Tabasco factory, oyster houses, a cane syrup mill, and crawfish farms before opening Acadiana.
Such trips typically involve days of nonstop eating and sampling the best hits of a country or continent. The mashup of favorites makes its way onto menus in some form or another. But the fact that chefs’ travels span so many miles even within a single country means their final menus are going to be broad-stroke interpretations of diverse populations. After all, it does not necessarily make sense for a restaurant in America to claim it has “authentic” Italian food, given that the country is made up of so many regions, each with their its styles and specialties.
One of the trends that Tunks has noted in recent years is that restaurant groups like his are diversifying their concepts. Instead of opening three identical restaurants, for example, they might open an Asian restaurant, a Latin restaurant, and an Italian restaurant. That means more restaurant groups attempting their hand at cuisines that they aren’t naturally familiar with.
Passion Food Group’s newest project is a Mexican restaurant called Fuego Cocina and Tequileria, set to open in the former Market Tavern space in Clarendon on Oct. 1. Chef Alfredo Solis, who comes from Mexico City and has worked with Passion Food Group for more than a decade, will head the kitchen. But they’re not heading to Mexico to research the cuisine. Because of cost and time limitations, they’re going to Chicago for a long weekend. (In fact, they’re there this week.)
“We felt that Chicago probably represents the most authentic Mexican food in the United States,” Tunks says. Between the more high-end Mexican food of celebrity chef Rick Bayless and the more traditional mom-and-pop spots representing various regions of the country, they’ll be hitting seven or eight restaurants a day.
Tunks anticipates that Fuego will rate a nine out of 10 on the authenticity scale. For example, the restaurant will not serve flour tortillas, because most Mexicans don’t eat flour tortillas. Instead, they’ll hand-make corn tortillas daily. “I’m not sure about the grub worms and the crickets,” he says. “But when it comes to good carnitas and carne asada and moles, we’re going to be as true to form as possible.”
Graffiato and Bandolero chef Mike Isabella, on the other hand, makes no claims to authenticity.
“This is not Mexican food,” Isabella told me on the opening day of Bandolero. “This is modern Mexican. I take classics, and I try to reinvent them.”
He prefers to call his food “Mexican-inspired” and “Italian-inspired.” After all, it’s been a decade since Isabella last visited Mexico, and he’s never been to Italy. “It’s good that you go back to your base, I respect that,” Isabella says. “But I’ve always been that chef my whole career that’s said I want to be the best at what I do, but I want to be unique and different. And that’s why I cooked a lot of different cuisines. It changes my style.”
Though it’s been years since Isabella headed south of the border, he did work for a year at contemporary Mexican restaurant El Vez in Philadelphia, then run by Jose Garces. He’s also eaten his way through Mexican restaurants in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Texas, and elsewhere. “I’ve just been around it. I just kind of know it, and I enjoy eating it,” Isabella says.
As for Italy, Isabella points out that he was raised in an Italian-American community in New Jersey, and his grandmother—an inspiration in his cooking—emigrated from Italy. Pasta and red sauce are what he grew up eating. When people ask Isabella what region of Italy his menu at Graffiato represents, he tells them “New Jersey.”
In a way, Isabella may be safeguarding himself by avoiding the “A” word. People get extremely defensive about authenticity. Maybe the gumbo is great, but if it’s not made the way someone’s great aunt Suzie in New Orleans made it, the critics will have something to say. Authenticity is even harder to fake now that people are more worldly in their food-savviness, Tunks says. “They’ll call you out real quick if it’s not.”
Photo of Haidar Karoum by Darrow Montgomery
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