News | June 2, 1999

Experimenting with Fusion

By: John Matchuk C.C.E, C.C.C.

From Food Product Design Magazine

Table of Contents
Fusion evolution
Creating fusion
Inspiration station
The naming game
Summing up fusion

We have always had fusion cuisine. Cooks and chefs, as well as food product designers, have always changed and adapted foods for special occasions and to utilize new ingredients. Currently, we are confronted with multiple fusion cuisines that are capable of overwhelming our palates if care is not taken in their use.

Access to "everything all the time" - coupled with the need to be abreast of each and every food trend and their implications to our business - is a powerful agent of change affecting food manufacturing. Throw in demographics and the stimulus to appeal to the Boomers or Generation X and their desires for variety, and you can easily imagine chaos. It is easy to become confused when too many divergent elements start to play a role in the creation of a dish.

Fusion evolution

Fusion is defined as fusing, melting or melting together; the union of different things by or as if by melting; a blending; a coalition; or anything made by fusing. Confusion, on the other hand, means to mix up; to bring disorder among; to throw together indiscriminately; to disorder; to jumble. I especially like the "jumble" part. The trick is, as we will see, is that when you fuse - fuse wisely.

An older, traditional example of a fusion cuisine allows me to introduce the current evolution of fusion cookery. One of the first fusion cuisines was that of the Swiss. Over time, their cuisine adapted itself to the terrain - what was able to be grown there, or transported in useable condition - and several different ethnic influences, including Germanic, French and Italian.

All of the cuisines influencing Swiss cuisine were in turn the result of their own evolution, and their adaptations to their food supplies. With time, they influenced the fusion of cuisines across their borders, in the neighboring cantons of Switzerland. This was a slow and long-term process.

Considering the rate at which fusion ideas travel today, perhaps the process that occurred in Switzerland should be referred to as "cold" fusion - we're talking about hundreds of years of melting together, rather than all in one day's lunch specials.

Effectively fusing
Taking into account that fast pace of development, there is tremendous pressure today to come up with the next great product or brand, and tremendous gains to be made from successful introductions. "New and different" and "new and improved" have been with us for quite some time. Generally however, the only focus is on gaining market share. For both food manufacturing and foodservice, marketing and market share are very important, but so too should be taste and quality.

A February 3, 1999 Wall Street Journal article entitled "Big Hotels Try Upgrading the Onion Soup to Ahi Tuna" gives examples of how hotel restaurants are changing their menu items. Comparing "old menu" to "new menu" items demonstrates the hotels' concern for improving the performance of their restaurants. They want to increase their sales and profits, and they wish to be more competitive with free-standing, independent restaurants - a long-term goal, and one the hotel industry has struggled with for quite some time.

In the Journal article's examples, "spinach & mushroom salad" becomes "vine-ripened tomato, Maui onion & spinach salad in warm pancetta balsamic vinaigrette," while "grilled swordfish steak with a tomato chive relish" becomes "slow-roasted osso buco with Szechwan eggplant & Thai curry red wine sauce."

These are sort of tame according to the standards of some fusion practitioners, who would have recipes that span several cuisines and cultures. "Cherrywood-grilled Szechwan pepper, wasabi-marinated yellow tomato and squid gratin with a lemongrass and chervil crème fraîche" might be an example.

The danger is confusion; the safety net is taste. It does not, however, require a complex combination of diverse items to be confusing. One of my favorite examples of what misguided culinary fusion could be is "wasabi tiramisu." Biting my tongue, and being honest, I have never had a wasabi tiramisu and I do not want to have one. But it could be delicious - especially when combined successfully with say, grilled fish or roasted white meat, and the presentation and accompaniments also worked to enhance the total plate. The concept has to be tried in context of the whole. There is no way to over-stress that point.

Says Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Berkeley, CA, in her Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, "When I cook, I usually stand at my kitchen table. I may pull a bunch of thyme from my pocket and lay it on the table; then I wander about the kitchen gathering up all the wonderfully fresh ingredients I can find. I look at each foodstuff carefully, examining it with a critical eye and concentrating in such a way that I begin to make associations."

Let's pause for a minute. Anyone of us can come up with a different, perhaps unique, combination of food ingredients that tastes great and has unique attributes. With today's vast larders to choose from, flavors and textures have incredible scope. Keep in mind, however, that less is more, and resist using fusion for fusion's sake; rather, use that diverse larder for the sake of the foods and the menus.

Returning to Waters, she writes: "For some years now, every Thursday I have faced the weekly dilemma of planning a different five-course meal for each evening of the following week, a chore which could rapidly have become drudgery had it not been for the creative stimulation of the wonderfully inventive cooks I have known and admired. They have influenced me with their clearly delineated likes and dislikes and their discrimination: that most desirable of qualities which combines discernment, penetration, and judgment. In helping me define my personal gastronomic aesthetics, they have supplied the motivation that every cook needs. The result has been a personal aesthetic which is very much a patchwork - an idea borrowed from here or there, an adaptation of a particular concept, an infusion of stimulation - spurring me to create those five new menus each week."

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Creating fusion

When it comes to creating fusion flavors and cuisines, it's not only what you do, but how you do it. I remember quite well the trepidation - no, let us call it fear - on the part of some of my European-trained executive chefs and food and beverage managers when they considered trusting us young American chefs to create daily specials using non-traditional ingredients, perhaps being too interpretive with "classic dishes." Some of that was a tendency to dismiss American cuisine - and American chefs - as a poor imitation of the classics, and some was a real concern for quality. Flavor, taste, and quality - how many consumer focus groups will it take for those criteria to be accepted as givens?

Today restaurants have few constraints on raw materials. In the United States and in large cities worldwide, restraints are very close to zero, and far more influences and culinary resources exist than in more static, eurocentric cultures. From air-freight sushi, quality tuna, fresh hearts of palm and year-round asparagus to spices and herbs in fresh and dried forms, or perhaps mass-produced or from a niche boutique, we have many choices. We have experienced an information and resource availability explosion that can, when care is not taken, spoil the natural honesty inherent in developed regional cuisines and their dishes.

What is authentic? And how are foods enhanced by their authenticity? Look at two of the greatest cuisine's - French and Italian. I heard once that if you take 100 French and 100 Italian chefs, and ask the 100 French chefs to make a hollandaise and the 100 Italians to make a bolognese, you'll get 100 duplicate hollandaise sauces and 100 different bolognese sauces. Does the interpretation by the Italians spoil their sauces? Does the consistency of the French enhance their cuisine? You tell me - my point is that there is some Italian in all of us (even the French), and adaptations and interpretations are very common in all cuisines and with all chefs.

It's a natural tendency to be interested in new things, and to be interested in new flavors, techniques and ingredients. It's also natural to experiment with food - whether as a chef, as a food product designer, or as a cook at home daringly combining leftovers. This can, however, be a highwire act fraught with danger. In the case of leftovers, the danger could come in the form of using something really past its prime. There is also an element of danger in stepping off into a totally new terrain that has few benchmarks. However, while experimenting could perhaps result in a less-than-successful product, it also can produce a new and successful fusion, particularly in the hands of an experienced chef or product designer.

There are many examples of how both serendipity and focused thought can result in the creation of a classic dish. For example, "Let's see...all I have in my larder is Parmesan cheese, olive oil, eggs, stale bread, anchovies, romaine lettuce, and oh - lemons, and I see a little mustard there too..." A little cracked pepper applied au table and voila, another masterpiece. Yes, you guessed it - the Caesar salad.

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Inspiration station

In addition to serendipity and natural talent, numerous role models and historical precedents inspire and contribute to the creation of a new dish. I believe credit should be given to individuals, and also to specific cuisine traditions, for their recipes and inspiration. Such information, coupled with a chef's understanding of the nature of foods, allows for successful experimentation and serveable results.

Again, I give credit to Waters, who writes: "In the early stages of my culinary pursuits, I cooked as I had seen cooking done in France. I copied some of the more traditional cooks, and I stayed within the bounds they had laid out so carefully because I didn't trust my own instincts yet. Having imitated their styles, I found that with time and experience, their fundamental principals had become part of my nature and I began to understand why they had done certain things in a particular way. Then I could begin to develop a different and more personal style based on the ingredients available to me here in California."

The tendency to emulate, or to "knock off" has always been with us, with both good and bad results. In the restaurant trade, perhaps New York might emulate Paris; Chicago might look to both Paris and New York for ideas; Minneapolis might see something of interest in Chicago or California; or Dayton might see something on the "Great Chefs" TV series. Then the chain restaurants may show some interest; next, the hotels; then the sector of food manufacturing that supplies chain restaurants and hotels; and finally, food retail. The chain of events is not always nearly so predictable, of course. Just remember - amateurs borrow, professionals steal.

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The naming game

One link in the chain of events contributing to the development of fusion foods that we have not yet mentioned is the matter of what to call the fused creation. There is a strong historic precedent to refer to past dishes and techniques by using them to describe new creations. This is often done in a way that allows the guest to imagine what they will be eating. A restaurant example: I might layer fresh oysters, spinach, lemon beurre blanc and flying fish roe in puff pastry, and call the menu item "Napoleon of oysters and spinach with lemon beurre blanc." While some may be offended by the use of the word Napoleon to describe a dish other than the original - a rich dessert made with layers of crisp puff pastry and pastry cream topped with chocolate - others may find it useful in determining whether or not to order this oyster and spinach interpretation.

Chefs are not naive when naming their dishes, and you should not be either. Use the naming or the description of the product that is most effective for your medium. A package of food is not a restaurant's daily-special blackboard - but an ethnic chain restaurant's menu may be very close.

You may find that those Szechwan peppercorns do give your homestyle meatloaf with tomatoed brown sauce a wonderfully lovely accent, helping differentiate it from the raft of homestyle meatloaves out there already. This does not make it a "Pacific Rim" meatloaf, however. And just because you decide to put lemongrass flavor in the fried-catfish breading, because it tastes great, does not mean that you have to confuse customers by telling them that they can now be the first ones on their block to experience "Thai southern-fried catfish."

Make sure any item tastes great by itself and/or within its meal's context. That piquant, cilantro-scented, extra-virgin olive oil-tossed, fresh vegetable pico de gallo may be an exceptional relish for an Italian-style vegetable lasagna. It could, in other words, provide a wonderful foil for the richness of a multi-cheese, cream-sauced pasta casserole. It may, however, be quite unpalatable served with a more-traditional application such as a Mexican-style chicken mole. You may also wish to just call it salsa rather than pico de gallo to give a broader audience an understanding of what it tastes like. Be willing to rely on quality and flavor to determine what is good - not necessarily on a name.

Ultimately, besides conforming to government labeling regulations, there is an implicit "truth in menu" concern. Therefore, care should be taken to describe the dish accurately, while not getting lost with fusion descriptors for the sake of trendiness.

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Summing up fusion

As mentioned, Swiss cuisine is perhaps an example of "cold" fusion, not as fast or hot as "real" fusion. California cuisine, however, may well be the modern cuisine that has inspired a lot of the interest in combining elements of one cuisine with ingredients and techniques from another. Waters and Chez Panisse provide the best example of how one location strongly influences a regional cuisine. Waters was - and is - a menu planner extraordinaire. At Chez Panisse, she and her chefs and culinary staff created the seminal and best interpretation of California cuisine in the '70s and '80s.

Taking olive oil and Sauternes to make a cake; making a duck confit pizza with sun-dried tomatoes; or forming a calzone with goat cheese, fresh herbs and proscuitto - all may have had culinary precedents, or all of them could have been terrible. Waters was able to place quality first by relying on Berkeley's unique food assets - fresh seafood, fresh produce and California's wine and other food resources - and balancing them to become a successful highwire act.

Italian pizza-dough-based traditional preparations with a twist; oriental quince-and-apple flavored desserts; and gratins used as more than a potato dish - on and on, Waters gave us license to be different, fresh and great. We can use her example, or that of Charlie Trotter or Wolfgang Puck or other famous chefs, or perhaps look to international cuisines, such as Belgian, for examples and inspiration. And we should do this. Look as afar afield as possible to open up options for creativity. But avoid "Chernobyls" - or fusion applications that might experience a meltdown. Everything is relative, and you must use your tastes - whether corporate-culture or chef-inspired - to focus successful food product development.

John Matchuk, vice president of the Research Chefs Association, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY, and is certified by the American Culinary Federation as a Chef and Culinary Educator. He holds a B.A. in hotel administration from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, and is currently enrolled in the food science department at Kansas State University, Manhattan. In addition, he is the corporate chef for R&D at T. Hasegawa, USA Flavors, Cerritos, CA. Based at the company's Culinary Creations Center in Chicago, he provides culinary support and a culinologist's perspective for flavor applications, thanks to his 12 years of experience in hotel foodservice.

•Photo: American Spice Trade Association

©1999 by Weeks Publishing Company

Used with permission from Food Product Design Magazine

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