Talented, Young and Asian American

Whatever you do, don't call what these chefs are cooking "fusion"

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Mike Kepka / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris

Danny Bowien, of Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco and New York City

Sometimes talent comes in waves. The world wakes up, and we find ourselves inundated with British rock stars, Dominican ballplayers or Jewish novelists. Well, it’s happened again, thanks to the confluence of history, gastronomy and good luck. World, meet the A-Funk Collective. After much deliberation, I chose this name because 1) these chefs are Asian American, 2) their various styles all have in common a certain earthy vigor and 3) they all seem to know, like and respect each other in a marked way.

The A-Funk Collective is an amazing, nationwide cohort of gifted, bold young Asian-American chefs. Some, like Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese in San Francisco, Eddie Huang of Baohaus in New York City and Kris Yenbamroong of Night + Market in Los Angeles, have a rambunctious, late-night aesthetic in keeping with their breakthrough star, Momofuku’s David Chang. Others, like Dale Talde of Talde and Joe Ng of Red Farm, both in New York City, are a little more plated. Some produce dishes of almost pristine refinement, like Corey Lee of Benu in San Francisco, Paul Qui of Uchiko in Austin and Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ky. Still others, like food-truck superstar Roy Choi — whose Kogi BBQ made Korean tacos famous — exist outside the restaurant scene entirely. But what they all have is talent, and a vision for Asian-inflected American food, which is grossly, and unjustly, distorted by being called “fusion.” A fusion of what? They are as American as the vernacular cuisine they’re reinterpreting with charismatic funk and originality. Some are Korean Americans, some are Filipino Americans, some are Chinese Americans. They’re generally in their early 30s, just coming to prominence after spending their 20s working for other people. “And now,” Talde says, “it’s just our time.”

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It makes sense, from the perspective of immigration history. Asians started arriving in the U.S. in great numbers in the 1960s, after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 rolled back the restrictive quotas that had been in place since the ’20s. These new immigrants started families, the first generations of which were born in the U.S. in the 1970s. Those kids, who are in their 30s now, grew up in the boom years of American cookery, amid the showmanship of David Burke and Alfred Portale, the source worship and integrity of Tom Colicchio and Thomas Keller, and of course the mass infatuation with Asian flavors that began with Gray Kunz and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, all in the ’90s, which led to Chang becoming the superstar chef of the 2000s. “Chang pushed it forward for everyone,” says Bowien, who recently went bicoastal by opening a Mission Chinese in New York City. “But Asian food in general, it’s really shot to the forefront. Everyone makes some kind of dashi.”

Dashi, a thin broth used to impart the mysterious taste of umami to dishes, is no doubt a fetish item to most chefs these days. But it’s not the kind of ingredient I think of when thinking of Mission Chinese. The flavors there are over the top, turned up to 11 — think Chongqing chicken wings, aggressively seasoned with Sichuan peppers and cumin and served along with delicious little strips of fried beef tripe and a mountain of whole red Sichuan peppers. Or a new dish Bowien’s perfecting, a Dongbei-style (Manchurian-style) sizzle platter of lamb ribs, coated with a hot seed-and-spice mix, and served with meltingly sweet low-roasted dates.

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Choi’s Korean tacos are the same way: one bite and you have hit your flavor quotient for the day. Even the superpristine chefs in this group, like Corey Lee, whose immaculate style is in direct line of descent from Keller, have an extra gear when it comes to flavor. “Corey’s dishes have very refined plating,” Qui says admiringly of his peer, “but the taste is really explosive.”

One reason is their audience: these are not dishes for American mandarins, or the kind of kaiseki grandees who savor each bite with their eyes closed. When Choi talks about the communities he belongs to, as he did recently in LA Weekly, he’s not just in with the chefs and diners, but “in the low-riding community, in the skate community, in the stoner-drug community, in the gang community, in the college community. I’ve been through a lot of things in my life.” Choi is pure L.A., but even a guy like Eddie Huang, who grew up in Florida and went to New York City as an adult, immediately immersed himself in its street culture as much as its culinary one. (His genius blog, Off the Boat, is written almost entirely in hip-hop lingo and is at its most moving when he is describing his immigrant parents.) If you’re a young person in the big city, cooking for other young people in the big city, you’re going to come big, or not at all.

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Of course, it might be objected that the A-Funk Collective is a somewhat arbitrary grouping. What about Ming Tsai or Roy Yamaguchi, successful chefs a few years older? I’m just going by the guys this group of chefs talk about when asked whom they admire, and they tend to mention each other. There are other names that are mentioned a lot, including two Vietnamese Americans: Tien Ho, who used to work at two David Chang restaurants in Manhattan, and Hung Huynh, who is currently at a rocking, überfashionable seafood restaurant called Catch in New York City’s Meatpacking District and who won Top Chef a few years before Qui did. No doubt there are others I’m leaving out.

But that’s O.K. The A-Funk Collective isn’t a fixed grouping, or a hall of fame; it’s a phenomenon, a moment where cultural history, demographics and delicious food coalesce. Whatever you want to call it, and whomever you choose to include, we’re lucky to be here to see it happen.

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