How To Fusion Your Ethnic Cuisine
QUESTION From Sarah in MO:
"I want to open a Vietnamese restaurant here in my small town but think most folks won't even try it because they're so meat and potatoes kind of crowd. I think that if I present it more as a fusion restaurant it won't be so scary. Any ideas on how I can introduce such specific ethnic cuisine to town without having to spend the next five years changing the mindset of everyone stuck in their comfort zone?"
Although we’re still waiting for several other replies from some chef contributors, these are what I consider to be the top 10 pieces of advice I've received so far:
Do not deviate from flavor profiles ever. Try presenting at neck dishes in different ways and use a cross-culture approach to present dishes in more approachable ways. Many guests, even in the fine dining sector, appreciate hand held foods so we put non-Asian ingredients into bao buns and tacos. Consider a bbq pulled pork bao bun or a chicken tikka masala burrito. You can definitely get carried away with this as many have. One example would be the sushi burrito which in my opinion it’s a huge fail.
While most Thai dishes are best served on a plate or in a bowl, I would consider using those flavor profiles to make a tie flavored pork burger made from ground pork and traditional Thai seasonings. Instead of lettuce and tomato consider pickled vegetables and 86 the catchup and mustard and sub a thai aioli or something.
Take a look at what people are eating in the local market. If it’s a steak and potatoes market consider a steak with Thai rub and a rice noodle starch instead of potato.
We’ve been really successful introducing japanese and french fusion dishes on pizza. While we call them flat breads – guests understand and appreciate them thanks to the gourmet pizza movement. It’s not too much of a stretch for someone who is accustomed to eating ham and pineapple on the pizza to go into trying seared tuna, coconut and shisito pepper flatbreads.
Don’t overdo the fusion. Mix traditional dishes with more well known dishes even if they are outside of your ethnic profile. Someone will end up ordering a more concept specific dish and share. Let your guests relying on their dining companions to guide them or share. I’ve accomplished very easily By offering relatively commitment – free portion sizes. Make sure you have plenty of small apps, “tapas” style or tasting dishes. If you’re on the upper and you can also offer an ethnic specific amuse bouche Or complementary bread or low cost veg (raw, seared or tempura) basket for all, new or VIP guests.
Look at the Philly sushi roll for inspiration. A name of a dish and very familiar ingredient can break down barriers quickly. I’m not suggesting cheeseburger sushi roll for Japanese concept but I would play around with Tom Yom shooters, Larb spring rolls, dessert satays, coconut and papaya ice cream sundae and yam nua stir fry as a way to make the concept more fun and familiar than a nervous exploratoration. Slowly introduce names of more common dishes and try using photos on the menu. Photos on the menu take a lot of guesswork out of the customers hands which is huge since most customers are leaving their work, family and day today obligations behind them when they sit down. The experience should be less than mentally challenging. Just be sure to have photos at every station in the back from prep to plating and expo. There will be little margin for error if you are visually presenting the dish before it’s ordered and the dish doesn’t look exactly like it does in the photograph.
I’m not a fan of fusion at all. If you’re going to celebrate the cuisine do it. Or don’t do it. There’s nothing worse than someone who is looking forward to a good Thai, Japanese, Mongolian, Indian, French or any other kind of food only to find out that you aren’t authentic. Save your fusion for the menu and offer different dishes for those who aren’t ready to commit. Let them see others enjoying great things around them and ask questions. Well educated and knowledgeable staff should be able to break down the barriers for you. This all comes down to training your teams thoroughly from geography and ingredients to tasting every single dish on the menu. Bold customers and great staff are not found in hired they are both developed by someone genuinely interested in their craft and sharing their experiences.
Be careful about introducing new concepts because you want to rather than the area demanding it. I agree with [Chef B.] It’s far better to give a neighborhood what it wants as opposed to forcing your own viewpoint and tastes on it. That being said, we’ve opened several Ramen shops in areas that have never even tasted Ramen before. Our main fusions happened at the bar where we have interesting twists on familiar cocktails. Happy to provide beverage program advice or subcontract our beverage director out.
Look at what our friend Roy Choi is doing here in LA with Kogi BBQ. Not saying you have to put anything in a quesadilla (although we are looking at some interesting ideas for grilled cheese) or give fun names to dishes that are more appealing at 2 AM like “Chubby Pork Belly Bowl” but some ethnic cuisines simply marry well with other more well known ethnic cuisines doesn’t hurt to have names of dishes that make guests smile instead of ask 11 questions. I really like what he’s doing with marrying Korean and Mexican.
We’ve maintained our commitment to ethnic cuisine by not corrupting it but drawn new customers That never would’ve tried it by offering a dessert lineup that they can’t resist at least trying. Every culture has donuts and cakes. If you have a category killer like a red bean donut with lavender icing – that could be enough to peak interest and open up a willingness to try other less familiar offerings. There is a lot to be said for the word-of-mouth that sampling and tastings for industry only can generate. Hook up the neighborhood and your industry peers if you’ve got something good and you want the word to get out. We are opening additional locations and I have no doubt that it’s fueled, largely in part, due to chefs and servers recommending us for dessert at their own establishments.