THE DIRTY SECRET in today's top kitchens isn't illegal charcuterie, MSG or even paid-under-the-table labor. It's fusion.
Though the culinary blending of cultures is more popular than ever—from Italian-Japanese at Orsa & Winston in Los Angeles to Afro-Asian-American at the Cecil in New York—you'll rarely hear chefs using the "Bright Lights, Big City"-era buzzword to describe what they do. Instead, they'll tiptoe around the term, calling their handiwork "mash-ups," "globally inspired" or simply "modern-American," the phrase employed to describe the Korean- and Italian-inflected menu at the elegant new Piora in Manhattan's West Village.
It's easy to see why. When it comes to fusion food, said Piora chef Chris Cipollone, he envisions what most of us do: "sesame-crusted tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes…and it's right next to a Caesar salad." Indeed by 2007, when writer David Kamp published "The Food Snob's Dictionary," fusion "had come so far out of fashion, it didn't warrant inclusion," he said. "The term itself had been discredited by poor execution in the '80s, [thanks to] desultory places who didn't know what they wanted to be, grabbing for a buzzword."
Mr. Cipollone, who is Italian-American, believes the term "cheapens" what he does. It doesn't express the "passion, love, conceptual thought and labor" that went into Piora signatures like black-garlic bucatini laced with maitake mushrooms, chilies and crab. If Mr. Piora is borrowing liberally and creatively from the Korean palette of ingredients and flavors, he is doing it in a respectful and informed way. For inspiration, the restaurant's Korean-American owner took him on an intensive tour of rural Korea, where the pair ate up to seven meals a day for two weeks.
In fusion's defense, its original practitioners were just as impassioned. In the 1980s, Florida chef Norman Van Aken borrowed the term from the world of music, where it is used to describe compositions that blend jazz with elements of rock, funk and R&B. It seemed to him an apt descriptor for his contemporary, place-based cooking that was influenced by Florida's mix of Spanish, Cuban, African American, Native American and West Indian cultures, as well as French techniques. "I wanted the best of both worlds," said Mr. Van Aken. The concept went mainstream in the 1990s with the rise of multi-outlet chefs like Nobu Matsuhisa, a native of Japan who created his signature style—traditional Japanese techniques meet South American ingredients—after years of living in Peru.
Wolfgang Puck was another early standard-bearer. In 1983, the Austrian chef opened Chinois on Main in Santa Monica, Calif., blending French techniques with flavor profiles he was discovering in Los Angeles's Asian neighborhoods. "I'm gonna do Chinese food the way I want to do it," the chef recalled telling stunned investors at the time. It was a smashing success, and soon the term "Asian fusion" was being used by countless cut-rate copycats—the kind of place, as Mr. Kamp put it, "that does sushi, but they also do Thai."
"It's such an abrasive and impersonal word," said Bill Kim, the Korean-American chef who runs UrbanBelly, Belly Shack and BellyQ in Chicago. These restaurants marry the noodle, rice and dumpling dishes Mr. Kim grew up eating with the pan-Asian flavors he's encountered over the years in travels around the world and time in restaurant kitchens. Those included such places as Susanna Foo, the celebrated temple of contemporary Chinese cooking outside Philadelphia, and Le Lan, the late, lamented French-Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago. Latin American ingredients and techniques are another touchstone. At Belly Shack, for example, there's the crackly-skinned pork roast recipe borrowed from Mr. Kim's Puerto Rican mother-in-law. "We live the life that we cook," explained Mr. Kim. "I often say Belly is a love story told through the food."
Joseph "JJ" Johnson, whose own heritage is Puerto Rican and African-American, spent two weeks in Ghana to prepare for opening the Cecil in Harlem, where he makes African diaspora-fusion fare like raw collard-green salad with a spicy coconut-milk dressing, and an elegantly composed riff on the beef skewers typically served on the street in Nigeria. He calls it "Afro-Asian-American-brasserie" rather than fusion, but prefers not to think about it at all. "Alice Waters always said don't classify your restaurant," he said "just cook."
According to Ann Mack, director of trendspotting for global ad firm JWT, Americans are showing an increasing tendency to blend various traditions into "something entirely new," and personal. Often, it's connected to an overarching quest for authenticity—another bandied-about buzzword with its own set of tricky implications.
At Killer Poboys in New Orleans, April Bellow and Cam Boudreaux were among the first natives to stuff their city's beloved sandwich not with fried seafood but with creative, wholly new fillings: "Dark & Stormy" pork belly, say, glazed with the rum and ginger used to make the Caribbean cocktail of the same name, or sweet potato with collard greens, black-eyed pea purée and citrus pepper jelly. Their po' boys aren't fusion, said Ms. Bellow, but "reinvigorated." Indeed, while food historians define fusion as the intentional blending of disparate food cultures—as opposed to a gradual dovetailing of traditions, as in the Creole cooking of New Orleans—today's fusion chefs don't see what they cook as "forced," as Mr. Kim put it. Instead, as for Mr. Puck and Mr. Van Aken before them, it's an organic extension of their own heritage, interests and experiences.
"I'm just doing what is natural to me," said Preeti Mistry of Juhu Beach Club in Oakland, Calif., who is Indian by heritage but grew up in Ohio and moved to San Francisco at 19. (Ms. Mistry is the sister of an Off Duty editor.) As a result, her ghee-grilled Bombay sandwich—Jack cheese, chaat masala, pickled onions, Chiogga beets and Yukon Gold potatoes—is a mix of modern Mumbai, California cuisine and Midwestern comfort food. Most people order it with spicy tomato soup.
Just don't call it fusion. Ms. Mistry bristles at the term—and the suggestion that her cooking is anything but an authentic expression of her first-generation immigrant experience. "This," she insisted, "is who I am as a person."