There’s no denying that nations, states and regions all have their own idiosyncrasies and quirks. Most food fanatics I know try to be students of the world, learning as much as they can about the culinary traditions of every corner of the earth. But sadly, we’re often self-appointed and misinformed snobs—certainly not the correct people to comment on how international tastes differ. So, in an effort to broaden my knowledge, I recently sat down with three expatriate chefs (and, when necessary, their translators) who cook in the U.S.
One is a Frenchman cooking in a casual café in the ’burbs; one is a Japanese master running one of Chinatown’s top dining destinations; and one is a Spaniard splitting his time between fine dining and tapas on the Strip. To my surprise, not one of these chefs felt they had to dumb-down their cuisine for Americans. On the contrary, they were universally impressed with American palates. But there were a few notable differences in the ways they present their food here as opposed to in their homelands.
Speak to Spain’s Julian Serrano—who runs the fine-dining cathedral Picasso in Bellagio, as well as Las Vegas’ best tapas restaurant in Aria—and he will tell you Americans are better suited to foreign cuisine than most of his European counterparts. “If you go to most cities in Europe, most of the food there will be from whatever country it is,” he says. “In Italy, there’s a lot of Italian food. In France, it’s French food. … But I’m not surprised that America was ready for [Spanish tapas]. They know what they want, and they know how to eat—they’re not so picky.”
More importantly, the trio of chefs I interviewed were impressed by the evolution of the American palate over the past few decades. Lucien Brouillet is a 70-year-old who worked in numerous French kitchens before moving to the U.S. to open the local Baguette Café with his son in an office park off Interstate 215. “Cooking is really rooted deeply in French culture,” he tells me proudly, before admitting a bit of shame for his motherland. “But what has happened over the years is that it’s faded away because of fast-food culture and supermarkets. The culture has shifted. [By contrast], since the ’80s, in America, there’s been a big transformation toward gourmet; [Americans] have become more sophisticated. We have a lot of gems in France, a lot of amazing restaurants. But the clientele isn’t as appreciative. Here, people are more appreciative of the effort. I guess in France we’re more blasé.”
Mitsuo Endo runs one of Las Vegas’ top Japanese restaurants: Raku in Chinatown. He’s not quite as dismissive of his countrymen as Brouillet, but he agrees that American tastes are improving. “Ten years ago, the Japanese crowd knew a little more [than Americans],” he says. “But nowadays it’s pretty even.”
So do any of them cook differently for a Yankee audience? Endo admits to small changes. “In America, I add a little more sweetness and a little more thickness to the sauces.”
Conversely, Serrano refuses to change, but says some Americans aren’t prepared for his European style. “People were used to buffets and steakhouses and big portions,” he recalls of his early days serving tasting menus in Las Vegas. “So the problem I had in the beginning was, they’d say, ‘This [course] is too small!’ But I’d say, ‘You have three more courses, plus dessert!’”
Nonetheless, he agrees with the others on the progress of the American palate. “In America, the food business keeps getting better and better and better.”