Hot dogs, fried chicken, pastrami appeal to visiting chef
Robert Vifian was one of three great chefs of Europe with an American chef from Washington, D.C. who prepared a special dinner using American ingredients for newspaper editors at their annual conference in Minneapolis.
Each course was cooked by a different chef and featured one or more native American foods. As a departure from many dinners cooked by world famous chefs, none of the ingredients were brought from Europe.
Anton Moismann, maitre chef des cuisines of the Dorchester Hotel in London and Deny Gentes, chef and owner of the Paris restaurant Clodenis gave their impressions of American foods in the first article of this series, published last Friday in the Monitor food pages.
The other two chefs cooking at the dinner sponsored by the Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc. were Chef Robert Vifian and Mark Caraluzzi, 29-year-old food director and part owner of the American Cafe Restaurants, Washington D.C.
Robert Vifian, a Vietnamese, emigrated to Paris and opened Tan Dinh, recently named the best Oriental restaurant in that city.
Curious about American cooking since reading American cookbooks, he said he's been looking for such things as bear cutlets, whale steaks, caribou sausages, and pot roasts of beaver.
I didn't have a chance to ask him what cookbooks he has read - very early ones written by trappers or hunters of the far north, no doubt.
He also wants to find out why sourdough has its sour flavor and what is so special about the hams of Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, Southern fried chicken, and the key lime pie of Key West.
This chef's cuisine is one of Oriental delicacy and subtlety, a harmony of taste, texture, color, and shape. According to food writer Naomi Barry, its impact on French cuisine is as enormous as the impact of Japanese prints on French artists of the early 19th century.
Chef Vifian is also interested in the chowders of New England and East Coast seafood.
"People have told me I should eat clams and seafood at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central [Terminal], New York," he said.
He also wants to sample the creole cooking of New Orleans and Florida's famous pompano. But his greatest curiosity is about pastrami.
"I first heard about it and hot dogs, hamburgers and soda pop through music. When I was 16 and still in Saigon. I was crazy about rock," he said. "For Vietnamese journalists I used to translate the lyrics of rock songs. "Somebody named Dion mentioned pastrami in a song and I still don't know what it is, but will try to find out before I leave.
"The variety of influences in your country is stunning," he said. "Your melting pot seems to be cuisine as well as people. And by now you have quite a few Vietnamese, too."
In the United States, young chefs like Mark Caraluzzi are giving the roast beef sandwich a continental flavor by serving it on giant split croissants made as crisp and flaky as in a Paris patisserie.
Mark likes to serve traditional dishes such as New Orleans gumbo but feels no guilt at using European cooking concepts to improve traditional American recipes. The chili made at the American Cafes, for example is simmered in veal stock.
Mr. Caraluzzi was only 18 when he and two fellow Georgetown University students went into the restaurant business. They started a sandwich shop to serve the New York delicatessan-type sandwiches not found in Washington.
The menu at the American Cafe stresses fresh ingredients cooked simply and presented with imagination and style. The cafes offer the same basic menu all day: international sandwiches, homemade soups, refreshing salads, light entrees, and luxurious desserts, all served in casual comfort.
Although I haven't been to the American Cafe I have experienced a good example of the food, which was catered for a special bus trip to Virginia for food editors going to the Smithfield ham smokehouses.
It was the most fabulous box lunch I've ever had and was definitely as super as reports from exeryone who has eaten at the restaurants.
One "house" sandwich is the "New Orleans Jazz" -- steamed broccoli tossed in lemon butter and layered with smoked ham and melted Swiss Cheese and served on a toasted twist roll.
The two Washington American Cafes serve about 1,000 meals a day, proving that the formula of a casual menu served in informal but stylish background is something the American public wants and likes.
Mr. Caraluzzi has studied with Giuliano Bugialli in Florence, as well as with James Beard and Craig Claiborne. Each of the cafes has a marked attached.
These gourmet delis offer freshly roasted meats, homebaked breads, the restaurants' soups, salads, and fresh baked cookies and desserts as well as an assortment of carefully selected American cheese, hams, potato chips, and jams.
His food is an example of the return to regional cooking and the interest in American "classics" and a movement to a more sophisticated approach to the preparation of typical American produce such as corn, yams, cranberries, and maple syrup.
Young American chefs are no longer copying their European counterparts; they are evolving a cuisine that will be uniquely Americ an.