What comes to mind when you think of American food? Burgers, chips and deep-fried chicken or clam chowder, grilled steak and key-lime pie, mass produced using genetically modified ingredients? Not exactly a country at the cutting-edge of gastronomy. Or so you might think.
Beyond the burgers and hotdogs, the US is awash with innovative chefs who, using locally grown, often organic ingredients and a blend of culinary ideas from around the world, have given rise to a wonderful indigenous cuisine. It was America's green (farmers') markets that led to the arrival of ours. Its innovative wine industry that helped change our perception of New World wine. While the books of pioneering American chefs, most notably Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller, have been a huge influence on British restaurant cooking for years. And now, it is the farming work of Howard Yana-Shapiro with his vast organic-based Seeds of Change catalogue, and Lee Jones who grows bespoke vegetables for some of the US's best restaurants, that are causing ripples of excitement across the gastronomic world.
The celebrated French-born chef Raymond Blanc believes it is time to challenge our preconceptions of American food and has invited an impressive array of British, French and American luminaries to participate in the American Food Revolution. Taking place this month at Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire, the week-long event will not only be an opportunity to sample the food of some of the US's best chefs, such as Daniel Boulud, Alice Waters and Thomas Keller, but to attend stimulating debates about food and eating.
As far as Blanc is concerned, it is time that we all started thinking about how we want to live and eat in the future - a future to which it seems the Americans may just hold the key - and this will be a forum for discussion of such topics as the Future of French Haute Cuisine, How Will We Farm Tomorrow?, Wines and Vineyards, and Fast Food Generation. The chefs, politicians, academics, scientist and journalists taking part will explore how all these aspects impact on the way we eat on both sides of the Atlantic.
To kick things off, we have invited one of the crown princes of the new American cuisine, Wylie Dufresne of New York's acclaimed WD-50 restaurant, to take on Blanc himself to argue the merits of French versus American cooking. Who would you want in your kitchen?
'We use imagination,' says Wylie Dufresn
American cooking was dramatically influenced by France initially. The French got all the credit because they were the first to codify a system of cooking; you need a system to help you learn effectively and understand the basics. By classifying five mother sauces, 334 other sauces, and menus for this and that, it has made it easy for us as Americans to educate ourselves. Mind you, I think it's important to keep an open mind. Some of the best chefs in the world, such as Michel Bras and Ferrand Adria, are self-taught.
America encourages the idea of individuality, we are the mutts of the world a mix of people. My cooking may be grounded in French techniques but it is American because I use ideas, ingredients and techniques from all over the world to modernise it. For example, a supplier offered us sake lees, the sediment leftover from making sake. We wondered what we could do with it. One of my cooks, an expert in Italian food, had the idea of making sake pasta by mixing it with flour. You could taste the amazing banana, yeasty notes of the sake in the pasta. That's very American, applying knowledge in a fresh way.
In French cooking you don't need to know why, just how. I could work at the same job for 10 years, leave and have no idea why I was doing a task in a particular way that's moronic.
I operate an open kitchen here, where everyone is required to participate in the creative process. It's not like a European kitchen where you put your head down and do the work. I want to know what my chefs are reading, thinking and eating. We analyse, think and rethink how a dish works. I insist on their input. What I want to do is to make them think. Why is this done this way? Is there a better way? There is no right or wrong way to cook, provided that you cook well.
It took us a long time to create American food and we're still playing catch-up. Alice Waters's epiphany in France, where she ate food that had come directly from garden to oven to table, started the revolution here. It has led to better ingredients. Farmers' markets were originally for chefs, but now they are so popular that you have to fight your way around the prams.
Generally, Americans do not have a close connection to the ground or a strong food culture. It is part of our culture to try to make everything bigger and better. It can seem like a good idea to try to develop a bigger, sweeter, more-orange carrot that can be grown all year round, which is scary. And it's difficult to know how much impact chefs and the farmers' markets will eventually have on how Americans eat. Most New Yorkers have the attitude that they don't have time to cook.
'We have true soul,' says Raymond Blanc
France has been at the forefront of gastronomy since the 17th and 18th centuries. It established itself as a world leader of style, and food is a part of what has become a multibillion pound business. I've noticed, however, that French cuisine tends to reign supreme in countries where there is no real food culture. You will not find many French restaurants in Spain or Italy, where they have a strong culture of their own.
In France, it works like a pyramid. At its pinnacle is gastronomy which may only account for about 2 per cent of consumption, but affects everything. At its bottom are the small local farmers, artisan producers and family-run restaurants who bring colour and culture to gastronomy. Britain doesn't have this bottom layer.
The British have never understood that food controls every part of our life. The very act of buying a chicken for £2.60 has consequences for the whole of society. When I came to the UK in 1972, I discovered a nation that was separated from its food by a tin opener. Food was not treated as a priority, merely as something to satisfy a primary need. At that time France was leading the world in cooking with the radical ideas of Nouvelle Cuisine. The US was just starting to develop its cooking. The difference between French and American cuisine is huge. The Americans have learnt fast but the French understand from their soul.
I am not classically trained. I taught myself to cook and that has given me freedom to experiment. But I was born in France and I draw my inspiration from there. I take techniques or ingredients from India, Morocco, Spain or Italy to enrich my food, but I never mix more than two cultures. And while a dish may be influenced by another country's food, it is still obviously French.
The US is creating its own brand of cuisine. It began with people such as Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck and Jeremiah Tower. They developed a new form of cooking with a nucleus of chefs and local growers. In effect they created the French equivalent of a culinary region in California. Other US chefs took up the flag and a disharmonious mess followed as they tried to create a modern multicultural cuisine. It takes time to master techniques and understand ingredients, but now the same regional structure is evident across the US and their cooking is coming of age. It may only account for 0.001 per cent but it is very relevant as in future it may influence the consciousness of US consumers.
Up until now the French have fought a romantic battle against globalization, but now they will harden, for they will never allow their culture to be diluted.
The American Food Revolution takes place at the Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons from Thursday until 21 April, for further details or reservations call: 01844 277 286; visit: www.blanc.co.uk; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Wylie Dufresne's WD-50 is at 50 Clinton Street, New York, tel: 001 212 477 2900; www.wd-50.comReuse content