Multiracial Chefs Create a New Kind of Fusion
March 29, 2023 @ 12:00pm
Chefs and bar directors on fusing foods from multiple parts of their families.
Jerome Grant marinates chicken in lemongrass, ginger and soy before crushing and barbequing it at Mahal BBQ.
He pulls the flavors from skewers his mom made growing up and the barbeque from the other side of his family. Growing up in a multiracial household, Grant says he learned to mix foods and adopt a broad palate — one he’s leaning on in his current job as owner and chef at Mahal, his Afro-Filipino restaurant.
“It’s like being in this room where all this information is coming at you, and you’re just trying to pull as much as you can,” Grant says.
Grant, like other multiracial chefs and bartenders in the D.C. area, is working to blend different styles of food to create dishes based on his own story and heritage. Some chefs work on fusing foods from multiple parts of their family, while others focus on important ingredients and flavors.
Nicole Leopardo, a consultant who wrote her master’s thesis on mixed-race people’s relationship with food, says restaurants like Grant’s represent a different kind of fusion food. In the past, she says fusion tended to exoticize foods as a status symbol rather than truly reflect the history of dishes it combined.
But though shops like Grant’s are growing, Leopardo says she found very minimal research on the topic prior to writing her thesis.
“There’s no explicit conversations or research around it,” she says. “I think that food is something people take for granted. I just think it’s almost too close to home.”
101 Hospitality Bar Director Judy Elahi says she aims to give each of her guests an experience. And the best way to do that, she’s found, is pulling from her upbringing: flavors she grew up with that remind her of happiness.
Being multiracial and Iranian American increased the variety of her flavor palate, “all in positive ways,” she says.
“The best way to get people to see your side and the way that you grew up is by letting them into the story and telling them about it in a way that is flavorful and delicious,” Elahi says.
Now, however, she sees many bartenders stumbling across ingredients she’s used her entire career — like rose, for instance.
“A lot of the spices that chefs use, they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is something completely different. This is something new,’” Elahi says. “I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve had this my whole life.’”
Erik Bruner-Yang, the chef behind Maketto, says he blended his Taiwanese heritage with his wife’s Cambodian culture to create the restaurant.
Over time, their recipes have merged and evolved. For instance, Maketto offers Taiwanese-style fried chicken with a Southeast Asian caramel fish sauce.
“Originally it was like, ‘Okay, here’s a Chinese dish. And here’s a Cambodian dish,’” Bruner-Yang says. “We’re open eight, nine years now. Those flavors have kind of merged into a very unique style here.”
Merging and combining foods felt natural to Grant, because he says he just couldn’t steer away from his heritage when he came up with recipes.
When he starts designing a dish, he says he asks himself a few questions to help get it right.
“How can I showcase some of the things that helped make my identity?” he says. “How can I take this certain ingredient and utilize it to do something else?”
Fusion food — cuisine combining different culinary traditions — technically describes what many of D.C.’s multiracial chefs have been creating.
But Grant doesn’t love applying the label to his food.
Fusion is about “confusing two things together,” he says. Instead, he calls his approach a means of “honestly telling a story through food and showcasing flavors that you enjoy.”
When fusion food was all the rage in the 2010s, Leopardo says it often centered around the cosmopolitan experience of getting to eat out rather than any sort of cultural significance.
The underlying assumption of fusion food is that those two things didn’t belong together in the first place, she says — a galling idea for those who may have grown up with multiple kinds
“With mixed race people, this is our reality,” Leopardo says. “It’s not fusion. It’s our identity.”
Katsuya Fukushima, chef and owner behind restaurants like Daikaya and Tonari, argues that fusion requires respect for the cultures you’re combining — not just walking down the aisle of a grocery store and switching out ingredients.
Respect means becoming a student and learning the fundamentals before altering food you don’t understand, Fukushima says.
“I get annoyed with some of the bad fusion where you could tell on a plate it’s someone that had no respect for or understanding of the culture,” he says.
The fusion label doesn’t bother Bruner-Yang, though. He considers it the simplest way for people to understand what he’s doing: telling a story of multiple cultures in his life through food.
Maketto clearly combines different cuisines, he says, so fusion feels roughly accurate. The word he prefers to avoid is “authenticity.”
“Authenticity can be extremely biased and also completely unachievable,” Bruner-Yang says.
Fukushima loves when new restaurants pop up in his neighborhood, Capitol Hill. He’s always excited to see young chefs share their heritage in food.
“How fun is that? When you get to experience other cuisines, other cultures, [other] food,” Fukushima says. “Restaurants can do that with the decor, with their hospitality, with demeanor and with what they put on the plate.”
Telling a story through food, Bruner-Yang says, is about doing something new, answering a question no one has asked before.
For instance, some of his restaurants besides Maketto — like Brothers and Sisters — have asked the question: What does it mean to grow up Asian in America, around many different kinds of Asian food merging together?
To Bruner-Yang, these restaurants go beyond business.
“How can we put our footprint in American culinary history?” Bruner-Yang asks. “I really think the storytelling of food is more of a modern emergence in the last two decades
Meanwhile, Grant grew into storytelling with his food. He started out in French and Italian cooking when he entered the culinary world, and now is returning to foods that remind him of home.
Eating with someone, sitting down to enjoy their food, is the best way to understand them, Grant argues.
“If you want to know one thing about somebody, you have a meal with them,” he says. “I think that’s the great thing about food, that we’ve been able to tell our stories. And especially as chefs now, we continue to tell our stories.”
101 Hospitality: 101hospitality.com
Daikaya: 705 6th St. NW, DC; daikaya.com // @daikaya_ramen
Mahal BBQ: 2715 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; @mahalbbq
Maketto: 1351 H St. NE, DC; maketto1351.com // @maketto1351
Tonari: 707 6th St. NW, DC; tonaridc.com // @tonaridc
Here’s what these four chefs had to say about their philosophy around combining cuisines.
Judy Elahi loves letting bartenders she works with incorporate tastes from home into their drinks, like a flavor profile based on banana bread with walnuts. Taking inspiration from what you love is important, she says.
“You’ve seen it 1,000 times: Chefs all the time say, ‘You know, this is my grandmother’s pie. This is my grandmother’s dish.’ And you know, that is really what makes the world go round.”
Food can and will evolve as the chef does, Erik Bruner-Yang says, as his own dishes have changed over the years.
“It’s an ongoing part of how much of my heritage I want to hold on to.”
Though Jerome Grant started out cooking outrageous dishes, he realized that’s not where chefs — including home chefs — need to take their food.
“I just want to make good, wholesome loving food that you could have at any time.”
Combining different foods — say, blending really good cheeses and Hokkaido flour into pizzas — takes time and experimentation to do well, Katsuya Fukushima says.
“It’s about coming out with the right dish without trying so hard. You got to look at what’s available, what’s good. You can’t force things.”