‘New American,’ ‘Fusion,’ and the Endless, Liberating Challenge of Describing American Food Right Now

“New American” got its start in Berkeley, California, in the ’70s at Chez Panisse. At the time, the cuisine it described didn’t have much to do with pulling flavors from around the world. Chef Alice Waters and her peers drew from the same tenets that were informing French culinary movements around that period: simplicity, freshness, and an attention to sourcing local ingredients. Eventually, the New Yorker suggested that Waters had invented at least part of “New American” cuisine, one where the farmers market dictated the meal.

The term came at an ideal time. American food was expanding and evolving, and writers and diners alike were looking to mark a change from the meat and potatoes midcentury food that you might have seen in Leave it to Beaver or Mad Men. In 1984, Jeremiah Tower, who had worked as the chef of Chez Panisse, picked up what Waters was doing and ran with it. His cooking pulled from the canon of classic American cooking, then added something—like, say, a Cajun remoulade or a ginger cream. At Stars, Tower’s restaurant in San Francisco, he served dishes like local grilled lamb with ancho chile sauce, avocado salsa, and cotija cheese. The restaurant was a smash hit, and became a who’s who of A-List celebrities and fawning food critics. In 1986, Tower published his first cookbook, New American Classics