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Andrew Carmellini, Chef at the Dutch, on the State of American Cuisine

Give Andrew Carmellini a big bowl of Midwestern chowder.
Give Andrew Carmellini a big bowl of Midwestern chowder.
Photo courtesy Andrew Carmellini

Andrew Carmellini celebrates a bounty of flavors at his popular Soho restaurant, the Dutch. Lamb neck mole shares menu space alongside rabbit pot pie and Asian white boy ribs, creating a bill of fare that is uniquely American. He's also recently come out with a new cookbook called American Flavor featuring many of these dishes; it also explores his culinary education and wanderings. We called him up in Miami, where he's been busy opening a Florida outpost of the Dutch, to learn more about why Midwestern cuisine doesn't get the recognition it deserves.

What do you think of the state of American cuisine?

I think it's much different than it was 20 years ago. I guess when new American cuisine started 20 years ago, it was more about French cooking with "local" ingredients, but it was more of a construct. Now, chefs are reaching to their backgrounds and the people that work with them. That's a big part of the construct of America. The way I approach it is just making sure that everything has soul and to not be fusion about it. The lamb neck mole [I make at the Dutch] is made traditionally; it's not about putting gnocchi with it.

What are some under-recognized regional American cuisines?

That's a tough one, because the South in general has the strongest cultural identity, I guess because there's a larger repertoire of history and dishes there than the cuisine of the Midwest. I grew up in Cleveland, which I consider more like Jersey than Wisconsin. I have a recipe for Midwest whitefish chowder in the book. I came across it going to Michigan and Wisconsin as a kid and I did it at Café Boulud, but a refined version with caviar and smoked whitefish and it was super-delicious. I don't think there's enough [in the Midwest] for a cuisine, but there are spotlight dishes that are worth noting.

In American Flavor, you talk a lot about your love of the road. What are some of your favorite American cities for eating?

L.A. is a great food city, especially for Korean and Mexican food. New Orleans is a cliché, but it's great. When you're there, you know you're there. When you get off the plane, it has this inherent culture and you can see that through the food. I love going to New Orleans. On the road, it's the framework for telling how I grew up and discovering what American food is. Like anywhere else, there are great discoveries to have as well as epic failures. You can eat at a shack or at a three-star restaurant. Finding those is part of the fun. Long before the word "foodie" existed, my parents just wanted to eat good things. They didn't want preservatives, just good tasty things and would go out of their way to find it [and instilled that in me].   You also worked extensively in kitchens abroad. How important do you think travel is for culinary inspiration?

I think if you're always striving to be a good cook, travel is great. You can eat something where it comes from before you fuck around with it. ...Traveling is the only way that you can understand terroir.

You've wrote this book and Urban Italian with your wife, Gwen Hyman. What's the process like of working with a spouse?

We're a team. She sits on a chair with her laptop and I go in the kitchen and start cooking and telling stories and she writes it all down and makes me sound smart. Her upbringing was the complete opposite of mine, which was all about sitting at a table and eating food together. My dad makes his own wine, her dad doesn't. When she's writing recipes, she's not making them for foodies but for someone who has never made artichokes before. Some people say the recipes look long, but they aren't complicated. Gwen's approach in writing a recipe is "I don't know how to peel a butternut squash." My approach is that I make each recipe at least twice at my house with tablespoons and cup measures. It's actually really easy working together.

There's a scene in American Flavor where you're working at L'Arpège and one apprentice melts the skin of his hand off when it falls into caramel. What's been your worst kitchen mishap?

Every day I make 10 mistakes, so it's about making sure that five of them go undiscovered, two you fix, and the other three get known. I have had some disasters. In professional kitchens, you have these 80-gallon stock pots with the faucet at the bottom, and I've really melted my foot off from hot, boiling veal and chicken stock.

Check back in tomorrow, when Andrew discusses re-creating the Dutch in Miami and reveals his predictions for the next big food trend.

For more dining news, head to Fork in the Road, or follow us @ForkintheRoadVV, or me @ldshockey.


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