Comfort food, the bites of Americana typically associated with home, wields tremendous nostalgic power; the desire to return to the figurative womb of one’s childhood kitchen is so potent, there are programs on the Food Network extolling the virtue of grits and chic New York eateries soliciting twenty-dollar meatloaf.
But here in New Haven, a small but diverse community, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, apple pie, and burgers fail to represent the diversity of the population. While a native New Englander salivates at the memory of Mom’s clam chowder, a Korean immigrant reminisces about the kimchi (a spicy cabbage dish) that his ommafermented from scratch. Over the last two decades, the flowering of a densely packed multicultural restaurant community in the Elm City has come to reflect this plurality.
For a chef or restaurateur hailing from a distant locale, reproducing familiar food in a foreign environment is not unlike the process of assimilation itself: Ethnicities intermingle, the new world meets the old, and a certain je ne sais quoi is inevitably lost and gained in translation. To create this sort of comfort food, cooks must replicate their native cuisine from a vast spatial, and often temporal, distance—a far cry from a bowl of Easy Mac.
Unique, indigenous ingredients can be difficult to import, and satisfying the tastes of a foreign audience is a complex art. Moreover, in the contemporary gastronomic climate where fusion has made easy bedfellows of ingredients like goat cheese and wasabi, the literalization of the “melting pot” poses a new challenge to maintaining one’s culinary identity. These days, can a French restaurant really be French if it employs influences from Southeast Asia?
In the face of these questions, a group of New Haven restaurants has taken different approaches towards the process of recreation. A renowned Spanish chef, trained by the greatest cooks in the world, focuses on selfexpression and creativity. An Eritrean refugee and businessman seeks to spread the gospel of sharing. Two Taiwanese brothers hope to expose their new homeland to authentic Chinese cooking. Ultimately, all three aspire to redefine the notion of “comfort food”—and of American cuisine.
Luis Bollo, the gastronomic mastermind behind Ibiza, one of the most esteemed Spanish restaurants in the world (it was hailed by The New York Times as the best of its kind in the US), refuses to serve paella. The traditional rice dish, perhaps the most widely known item on the Spanish menu, is notably absent on Ibiza’s carte du jourand its omission is no accident.
“It’s true,” he says, folding his arms as if preparing to defend his culinary ideology. His thick Spanish accent softens the “z” in the restaurant’s name to a “thh” sound. “We’re doing something different here—our food represents a new Spain.”
Bollo’s desire to reconceptualize the native Spanish diet is the product of a transnational existence. Born in San Sebastian, in Spain’s northern Basque territory, he attended culinary school there as a teenager before moving to Mexico City. In 1992, Bollo immigrated to America, then returned to Europe to fine-tune his art. Later, in a partnership with Ignacio Blanco, he converted Pike Tapas, a modest restaurant nestled between a barbershop and a fraternity on High Street, into Ibiza.
The staples of a Spanish diet—ham, cheese, fine wines, olive oil—can all be found in the restaurant’s kitchen. Bollo, readily analyzing his country’s gastronomy, points to the significance of its lengthy border on the Mediterranean Sea. “Because of their shared coastline,” he notes, “Spanish food is not that different from, say, the provincial food of France. Like Italians, we use tomatoes—but in a different way.”
This difference is magnified at Ibiza, where a glance at the restaurant’s menu may simultaneously elicit awed delight from the epicurean and trepidation from the inexperienced diner. Bollo and his staff infuse regional delicacies, like squid cooked in its own ink and roasted suckling pig (a Castilian dish), with accoutrements and flavors extracted from a wealth of intercontinental sources. The result is Iberian cuisine infused with a whiff of outside influence.
“I borrow aspects from every part of Spain,” states Bollo. “Towns in Andalusia, Galicia… but I also look to other countries for inspiration. I’ve taken walks on the streets of my home country with a French chef… I’ve expanded my knowledge of food through my travels. For example, ceviche is on our menu, and I learned what it was when I was in Mexico City.”
Bollo’s expression of his Spanish heritage is innovative, both in his willingness to incorporate multicultural influences and in the execution of his dishes. For example, a steamed octopus appetizer is accompanied by a “potato foamy emulsion.” The textural conversion of starch into foam—an impressive effect achieved rather ingloriously by filling a whipped cream cartridge with a liquefied material—is a method that Bollo attributes to Fernan Adria, a worldrenowned Barcelonan chef famous for his new wave practices. Bollo insists, however, on avoiding novelty for novelty’s sake. “I like to play with new techniques,” he affirms, “but only if they enhance the dish.”
The greatest of Ibiza’s challenges lies not in its adhering to tradition or achieving innovation, but in satisfying cross-Atlantic audiences. According to Bollo, the development of one of the restaurant’s most renowned offerings exemplifies this problem. “I knew that I wanted to serve baccalao, which is a white fish that is dehydrated with salt to produce a unique flavor and dry texture. I believed that Americans could enjoy the flavor, but not the texture, so I experimented with the dish in Spain, salting my own fish overnight. I wanted to create something that works for everyone, to compromise.”
Despite such concessions, Bollo maintains that he always intends for his food to express his own experience and background. “My wife says that her country can be found in her language and the food of her people. My personal history is with Spain, and I do not want to lose touch with those roots.”
If Luis Bollo is the T.S. Eliot of the New Haven dining scene, then Gideon Ghebreyesus, the co-owner of Caffé Adulis, is its Shel Silverstein. Ghebreyesus is a warm, broad-shouldered man with a genial grin and an eloquent manner. At age 18, he fled his native Eritrea when the East African nation fought a brutal war of separation with Ethiopia. His affability belies an astute business sense sharpened by years in the restaurant world.
“After immigrating to the States,” he recalls, “I studied at Southern Connecticut State, then quickly began working in restaurants.” These restaurants —all of which served Western cuisine—included 368 Steak House on Audubon, Gentree’s on York Street, Bruxelles, and Scoozi on Chapel. The demise of three out of four of these establishments (only Scoozi still exists) reflects the precariousness of the industry; it also sheds light on the rarity of a success like Adulis, which continues to thrive over a decade into its existence.
“As I was moving up from kitchen manager to floor manager and so on, it became clear that New Haven needed something different. My brother [Ficre Ghebreyesus, Adulis’s head chef] and I came up with the idea of opening up an Eritrean restaurant, which, of course, was a natural thing to do. I think it filled a gap, because the food is interesting and not something that many can reproduce in their kitchens at home.”
Even in a well-equipped commercial kitchen, Eritrean food can be difficult to reproduce because it utilizes a unique set of ingredients. In addition to the basics—spinach, green beans, squash, lentils—Caffé Adulis must import many of its staples directly from Eritrea. “There are many components, like berbere and cayenne, that simply cannot be acquired here,” Gheybreyesus says, dangling a pouch of a blood-red powder wrapped in tin foil. “This is berbere…When you cook with it, you need to let it simmer first.”
The true staple of an Eritrean diet, however, is injera, a spongy, pancakelike bread made of a special type of flour that has been fermented in water and fried. Ghebreyesus proudly notes that Adulis makes its own injera every day; the flat bread is used as an accompaniment to a variety of stews, vegetables, and meat entrées. Forgoing the need for silverware, the food can be sopped and scooped with the bread itself, which is ripped apart throughout the meal. The process is decidedly unpretentious and, set in a white tablecloth atmosphere, elicits a sense of childish mischief and fun.
“We serve our food communally, on a big platter of injera. That is how I ate growing up, and I think that eating and sharing this type of food is a wonderful experience. Communal eating is a big part of Eritrean culture—my brother learned to cook at family gatherings.”
The familial nature of Adulis’ environment is present in the Ghebreyesus brothers’ willingness to embrace as sources the cuisines of neighboring countries, as well as American influences. “We were once a colony of Italy, so there are influences from there in our food… we blend culinary styles and offerings from different African countries, like plantains,” says Ghebreyesus. “We also serve Middle Eastern food—the region is close to Eritrea. I grew up eating fava beans, and we serve shah ‘ani Ful, which is an appetizer made of them.”
According to Ghebreysus, this amalgam of influences is what it takes to manage a successful restaurant in an environment where the cuisine is often totally foreign to diners. “For example, we came up with an “Injerrito,” he says, pointing to the menu description: a “burrito” made of injera, lentils, sour cream, and vegetables. “What it really comes down to is a cross-utilization of cultures,” he adds. “Food has no boundaries.”
For most Americans, Eritrean and Spanish cuisines are like strangers or distant relatives; but Chinese food is an old, reliable friend. In a country where the average citizen can rattle off a take-out menu from memory, phrases like lo mein and chow funhave pervaded the national vocabulary along with images of fortune cookies, chop sticks, and cardboard cartons. Baccalao and injera may be out of the ordinary, but chow mein we know.
Tony Chin, the owner of Royal Palace (32 Orange Street), has a different point of view. “In the States,” he says, “there are lots of misconceptions about what Chinese people actually eat. The Americanized version of Chinese food is nothing like the real thing.”
Royal Palace, which Tony recently opened with his brother, Tommy, and sister, Jean, in New Haven’s Ninth Square, offers a unique alternative to the MSG-laden stereotype: nuanced, authentic Chinese food served in a fine-dining environment. After ten years in West Haven, the family—Jean and Tony manage the operation, while Tommy is the head chef—hopes that Elm City residents are ready for a genuine Chinese experience.
Tony says the Chins left their home country of Taiwan “for the same reason as many Chinese—we heard that America was the place where all your dreams come true if you work hard.” After arriving in the States, they were stunned by the artifice of the Chinese food they encountered, as well as the scarcity of attempts to accurately reproduce it. “When I first came here,” reminisces Tony, “I remember walking around the streets of New York, looking for something to eat. I realized then that in America, our food is prepared very differently.”
He smiles, then adds, “Personally, I don’t really enjoy any of that stuff.” As he picks at a plate of cold sesame noodles, Tony muses over the differences between the traditional and modified versions of his culinary heritage.
“The main difference between Americanized and traditional Chinese food is that the real thing is lighter and more delicate. Instead of being flavored by heavy, gravy-like sauce”—he wrinkles his nose—”we use spices and vegetables for flavor.”
Tony picks up a copy of the Royal Palace menu, and several inserts fall out. These additional menus, he explains, list the traditional dishes the restaurant serves—regional dishes ranging from the spicy Hunan and Szchezuan cuisine to the lighter Cantonese style. “We used to give out a single, hand-written version to Chinese families, but then other people wanted to see it, too!” He pauses to direct a group of giggling young waitresses clad in traditional scarlet garb, then continues. “No two dishes are sauced alike. And we serve authentic options that you wouldn’t expect, like honey and walnut shrimp. But, with traditional food, our meat is leaner, our vegetables are of greater variety, and our dumplings are lighter.”
With dumplings on his mind, he proceeds to the back room, where his 87 year-old mother is seated in a bulky fur vest, making them from scratch at a table laden with heaps of flour, bowls of ground pork and vegetables, and stacks of paper-thin skins. In her creased, speckled hands, the task appears effortless; she rolls the various components between her fingers in milliseconds, then pinches the results into doughy conch shells.
As Tony animatedly bounds around the restaurant, pointing to different aspects of the décor—the space is airy and bathed in a warm wash of light—one of the waitresses prepares a traditional oolong tea ceremony for two. She lays the authentic stoneware on the table, carefully steeps the leaves in a tiny pot, and then empties it into a pair of shot-glass sized cups.
The quiet, beautiful process encapsulates the essence of Royal Palace. Unlike the culinary architects behind Ibiza and Caffé Adulis, the Chins are wholly devoted to an unadulterated presentation of their heritage; as Tony avows, “We serve and cook what we know, and it’s traditional.” Still, he admits that his adh
erence to authenticity isn’t unbendable. “One of our best dishes, the spicy chicken, is actually called “saliva chicken” in Taiwan.” He laughs, then adds, “We probably can’t call it that here.”
Mina Kimes, a Junior in Davenport College, is Production Manager of TNJ.