Culinary Institute of America honors 5 Pioneers of American Cuisine
Chefs Paul Prudhomme, Jasper White, Wolfgang Puck, Dean Fearing and Larry Forgione appeared in a panel discussion moderated by CIA President Dr. Tim Ryan in New York City, on the past, present and future of American Cuisine.
The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), arguably the premiere culinary school in the U.S., has honored five American chefs as Pioneers of American Cuisine. Honorees Paul Prudhomme, Jasper White, Wolfgang Puck, Dean Fearing and Larry Forgione were featured in a panel discussion moderated by the CIA’s President Dr. Tim Ryan at the Marriott Marquis in New York City today, on the past, present and future of American cuisine, both in restaurants and in the home. The chefs all came into cooking when America’s best restaurants served interpretations of French cuisine, named in French, but most often poor cousins of the original. (Several of the chefs noted that in American restaurants in the 1960s, vegetables most often came from cans, and Wolfgang Puck recalled that when he once served dinner as a guest chef in another restaurant he was accused of dying the vegetables. They were, in fact, fresh: the restaurant had previously served canned vegetables, and its patrons were entirely unfamiliar with them.)
All the chefs on the panel but for Prudhomme had started their careers cooking French food, had made great efforts to find good local suppliers, and eventually branched out to explore other culinary traditions. (Prudhomme, who refers to himself as a Cajun, learned to cook in his Louisiana home.) Fearing, from Dallas, said he learned a lot from the Mexican cooks in the early days of his restaurant. White referred to the years before the 80s as the “Jackie O” years, when there was no fine dining in the U.S. but French, and a smattering of Italian. The 80s, though, brought with them a greater interest in fresh, local ingredients, and with the ingredients came a willingness to experiment, both with ingredients, technique and style.
Asked about the current popularity and fame of TV star chefs, all were in agreement that while the phenomenon was in general good for cuisine, star chefs were not necessarily great chefs. For that, there was no easy path, but a lot of hard work. Prudhomme said that he thought the primary job of a chef was to do great cooking for his customers.
While Americans were once reluctant to try much that was new, all now saw a greater willingness to experiment, whether with different species of fish—which White pointed out was important for issues of sustainability—vegetables or herbs. Fresh ingredients are now available pretty much everywhere in the U.S., and that fact is reflected in home cooking as well as in restaurant food. Fearing pointed out that you can go nearly anywhere in the U.S. today and get great food, and Puck added that the U.S. now exports its style of restaurants all over the world. He said that he advised his cooks “We buy the best ingredients and then we don’t try to fuck them up.”
After the panel, dessert chef Johnny Izzunni led a quick tour of the dessert kitchen, where he was preparing dessert for the evening banquet. As we watched, two prep chefs were cleaning strawberries, and another watched over a rhubarb gel being pumped from a heated pan through an ice bath to make rhubarb “spaghetti.”