New American Cooking

Anyone who has television, internet or print media knows that Asian food has kicked down the door and placed a big footprint in the culinary world in a major way. Not only has Asian food become recognizable in practically every nook and cranny of American suburbia, it has opened the doors for Asian and non-Asian chefs to showcase what can be done with Asian flavors, which brings us to a conversation Kat and I had about “authenticity.” What does it mean? What does it represent? Is there even such a thing? Most importantly, does being authentic matter?

Kat: What does authentic mean to you?

Thomas: The honesty behind an ever-evolving subject.

Kat: (frowns) What does that even mean?

Thomas: It means being as true to yourself as possible while referencing your own memories. Each person’s authenticity is subjective. Tradition can be more objective, but authenticity is based on your own personal experience.

Kat: So there is no one definition of authentic? What would you say to someone who wants “authentic” Korean food?

Thomas: Develop a time machine, travel back to the dawn of the Korean peninsula and eat some of their food. That will probably be the most “authentic” experience you will have. But if you want honest food, just eat the food that someone cooks with heart and passion because that is going to be the most “authentic cooking” that you will get from that one person. Going into a restaurant without preconceived notions of what you want will determine your authentic experience.

Kat: I agree, but that’s looking at it from the cook’s perspective, not the guests’ perspective. Do you think when guests ask if our food, or food in general, is “authentic” they are really asking if it’s “traditional”? And how would someone even judge the level of authenticity or tradition?

Thomas: Tradition dictates certain things in cuisine because it’s symbolic or reflective of a certain time in history. I can understand and appreciate tradition. Authenticity is constantly evolving, or at least it should be. To me, tradition is representative of a majority of people’s experience while authenticity is really just representative of your own personal experiences. My mother’s kimchi is my standard for authentic kimchi, but the ingredients she uses aren’t necessarily traditional.

Kat: So I’ve always thought this was interesting. With our rice bowls, we typically give out a fork and chopsticks. There have been times, though, that we’ve only given out a fork because we’ve run out of chopsticks or the guest ordered something besides a rice bowl. Many times, though, guests will make a point of asking for chopsticks, even though they have been given a fork. They even seem a little disappointed and put off if we don’t have any available. What do you think this is all about? Do you think they feel the food tastes better when eaten with chopsticks, that they are getting a more “authentic” experience if they eat our food with chopsticks?

Thomas: I really couldn’t venture a guess as to why the chopstick, non-chopstick thing happens. When I was a sushi chef, guests would get angry if I didn’t present them with chopsticks, soy sauce, wasabi and ginger. I never asked why, but I always felt that it was because this was the standard ingrained into them. If you didn’t give them what everyone else gets, then somehow they were receiving a less “authentic” experience. In Japan, these aren’t offered with every sushi order. In fact, much would never be found in Japan that is pretty commonplace in American sushi restaurants.

The possibility of perceived offense could also be an answer. The guest who doesn’t get chopsticks becomes offended because of the restaurant’s assumption that the guest isn’t able to use them — reverse racism, discrimination, whatever you want to call it.

What does authentic mean to you?

Kat: I don’t really know. I guess for me, it means being the real deal, being “original” in who you are. Not faking the funk.

Thomas: Doesn’t the idea of what you look like versus how you grew up open a can of worms? You are a Korean from North Dakota raised on a farm. You don’t speak, read or write Korean, and you don’t know anything about farming. What does that signify when it comes to authenticity to you?

Kat: I’ve never really felt like an “authentic” Korean, although I don’t even know what an “authentic” Korean would feel like. I’ve had Koreans say to me that I’m not really Korean, and I found it amusing when my old-school Korean boss would tell his friends that I was Korean as a way to reassure them that, even though I had tattoos, didn’t speak Korean and yelled at male coworkers for messing up, I was still Korean. I think his acceptance was due to my hard work ethic, which is very old-school Korean, as well as old-school midwestern farmer. Also, for obvious reasons, I never felt like an “authentic” North Dakotan, i.e. Caucasian, either. I’m so used to being asked about my last name, where I’m from, and then hearing something such as “Oh my god, North Dakota! How did you get to North Dakota?” or “I didn’t even know Asians lived in North Dakota!” I’ve always felt on the periphery and just figured that I was never going to be authentic to either one. I was always going to be questioned by both sides — Korean and American. In the end, I think I’m very much like your definition of authentic. I’m authentically me.

Thomas: Yeah, authenticity is a double-edged sword for Asians, I think — adopted or not. People will grade you based on your appearance or doubt you based on your background. Take, for example, Danny Bowien from Mission Chinese: a Korean adoptee raised in Oklahoma by Caucasian parents cooking Chinese food in San Francisco and New York. Many have said that James Bowien didn’t have a “right” to cook Chinese food because he is Korean, adopted, Oklahoman. What does a Korean adoptee from Okla. know about Chinese cooking? Well, his restaurant is one of the hottest new restaurants of 2012-13. What does one say to that? Is it authentic Chinese? I don’t know, but I’ve eaten there and I thought it was great.

Kat: I agree, and I think the mindset of defining who you are on your own terms is very much a part of second-generation Asians’ and adoptees’ thought processes. We are always questioned by the outside concerning who we really are. I think this makes us the “New American,” which is why when we first started The Left Handed Cook, I really liked the idea of using the phrase “New American Country Cooking” when describing our food. The phrase turned out to be too much to explain. So unfortunately, the default “Korean fusion” is used, but I really, really dislike saying it (laughs).

What would you call the food we cook at The Left Handed Cook?

Thomas: I feel like it’s the truest form of American cooking: taking the best parts of every culture and creating a whole new thing. Familiar, comforting but completely different from what your grandma would make.

Kat: I agree completely. However, it does seem that there are still so many people who only think in strict categories.

Thomas: What do you think is the most “American” thing to eat?

Kat: I would say hamburgers. My favorite hamburger is from Father’s Office in L.A. The chef-owner is Korean, but his hamburgers don’t have “Korean” flavors and his restaurant doesn’t have any Korean or Asian accents. If you didn’t know the chef-owner’s name, Sang Yoon, or knew what he looked like, you would never know that he is Korean.

Thomas: The funny thing is people will argue that the Father’s Office burger is not really a burger because it isn’t served on a regular bun and doesn’t come with ketchup or other standard fixings. Sang Yoon will be a little more recognizable now that he is on Top Chef Masters.

Kat: Have you ever felt pigeonholed into cooking Asian or Korean food just because you are Korean?

Thomas: I don’t know if I’ve been pigeonholed into specific cooking, but I know that I’ve made conscious decisions to fight against perceived stereotypes when it comes to what I can and can’t do. When people have felt I should cook Korean food, I’ve made sushi. When people have felt I should do sushi, I’ve made burgers. I don’t want to do things I don’t feel like, and hopefully the idea of going against the grain hasn’t altered my true self.

Kat: Do you think that growing up in a Korean household made you inherently good at cooking Korean food?

Thomas: No. When I was young, I actually hated the flavors and smells of Korean food. It also seeped into my social life, where friends would come to my house and make fun of the fact that I didn’t have “regular” food and that my house always smelled liked fish; I was ashamed of my cultural background. Cooking Korean food didn’t even occur to me. I avoided it at all costs.

Kat: Do you think there is a perceived notion that, for example, a Chinese person cooking Chinese food has an inherent advantage and will be better at it than say, a Caucasian person cooking Chinese food?

Thomas: Yes, unfortunately I do think there is that perception. But I personally don’t think that the cook being Chinese is an automatic advantage. I would say those who feel this way should grow up and look at the world around them. Entitlement has never been a solution or an answer. In my opinion, a Caucasian person who truly wants to cook Chinese food would do much more research about Chinese food than Chinese people who feel entitled to the idea that they could cook better Chinese food just because they were “born into it.” I look at Andy Ricker at Pok Pok as an example. He is a white guy, but he is cooking what many people, including Thai people, feel is a real representation of regional Thai cuisine.

Kat: I like how you used the word “real” instead of “authentic.” Ha ha! But what about, for example, a rapper. A rapper who grew up in a wealthy family wouldn’t have any credibility rapping about how hard life is on the streets. He would be considered inauthentic. Do you think Andy Ricker would get as much press if he was a Thai dude?

Thomas: Unfortunately not. I think that the idea of an anomaly plays into why we would root for him — like the short guy who can dunk, the elephant who paints or the white guy who can cook really good Thai food.

Kat: So after all this talk about authenticity, ethnicity, food and perception, we have yet to even peel the first layer of the onion away. The fact that no one would want to be considered inauthentic goes to prove that authenticity and being authentic does matter.

But hold up. I hate pressed chicken because, at its center, it’s inauthentic chicken: at its center, it has no bone. It’s chicken parts that have been pressed together and chemically altered to look like they’re one piece, as if they’re natural. I don’t care if it’s McDonalds that does it or a world-class chef, it’s still inauthentic to me. Nevertheless, millions of people eat and love chicken nuggets and “chefy” fine-dining dishes even though to me it’s inauthentic. I’m sure there are people who would disagree with me about the authenticity of pressed chicken, but where does that leave authenticity?

On the dark side, if pressed chicken is the result of parts of a chicken unnaturally combined to make one whole piece, then I too could be considered pressed chicken! A Korean raised by white parents on a farm in North Dakota could be, and I suppose has been, considered unnatural. I am the sum of my ethnicity, culture and experiences all pressed together, but I’m authentically me. Ha ha!

If everyone’s idea of what is authentic is based on one’s own personal perceptions, can people ever really view authenticity through the same lens? So we ask, what is “authenticity” to you and does it matter? Have you ever wanted authentic fill-in-the-blank food or said, “This isn’t authentic fill-in-the-blank food,” and what did that mean to you?

~ Thomas Kim and Kat Melgaard