THE BLOG

Have Chefs David Chang and April Bloomfield Really Changed America?

07/07/2014 02:44 pm ET | Updated Sep 06, 2014

My admiration for the work of New York chef/restaurateurs David Chang and April Bloomfield is exceeded only by that for New York Magazine's restaurant critic Adam Platt, whom I consider the best in the New York media and who this past week wrote an article entitled "The Chefs That Changed America: A Decade of David Chang and April Bloomfield."

Knowing that editors usually write the titillating titles for authors' articles, I shall take the hyperbole with a grain of salt, although Platt does say that, despite the importance of New York restaurants like Thomas Keller's Per Se, Dan Barber's Blue Hill at Stone Barns (in Tarrytown, NY), Masa Takayama's Masa and restaurateur Danny Meyer's Shake Shack, "none of these landmark establishments ended up being quite as influential, or as subtly subversive, as Chang's original Noodle Bar or Bloomfield and Friedman's snug, unassuming little pub," all opened in 2004.

Platt credits Chang and Bloomfield for causing restaurants to "grow smaller [and] louder," the food "heartier and heavier." They were "were the first to break down the age-old barriers between the front and the back of the house and to officially introduce the kitchen culture (tattoos, hip-hop in the dining room, pork belly) that had been hiding until then, in the shadows, to a new generation of eaters." He credits -- if that is the word -- the couple with creating byzantine reservation policies or taking none at all, and for, in Bloomfield's case, pioneering the gastropub. Platt even goes so far as to contend that because of Chang and Bloomfield massive media exposure, many of America's best chefs "felt empowered to follow their own tastes and instincts, rather than endlessly repeat the lessons of the grand French masters."

He sums up his hyperboles by writing, "You can thank them for a food world that's more democratic, more accessible, and generally a whole lot more fun than the one these two young cooks, coming from different worlds, stumbled into, ten long years ago, in the summer of 2004."

Now some of Platt's assertions have weight, but the gorilla-like domination he awards Chang and Bloomfield really has more to do with power of the New York media, the same ones who coined the fatuous word "Brooklyn-ization" to describe how chefs and restaurateurs in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston suddenly fell over themselves to copy a handful of Brooklyn restaurants' brick wall décor, ear-splitting playlists, and tasting menus only policy. Which was nonsense.

Of course, the New York food media often exalted novelty for its own sake, because that's what news media do, and it was their myopia -- having rarely eaten anywhere else but New York -- that caused them to credit local chefs with every advance in American gastronomy over the last decade.

Chang's "pre-ordered fried-chicken dinners" are exalted by those who've never eaten fried chicken in New Orleans or Nashville or Kansas City. His steamed buns are considered epiphanies, without critics' sampling the best in New York's Chinatown -- a neighborhood the media almost totally ignores.

The same goes for Bloomfield's serving of pork belly, which Chinese restaurants have always had on their menus.

I'm not sure what to make of Platt's insistence that Chang and Bloomfield made food "heartier and heavier," when anyone seeking out just that kind of fare could go to hundreds of
Italian, Thai, Indian and other ethnic restaurants all over the city. Think of the food at Mario Batali's Babbo and you've got the idea.

Nor did Chang and Bloomfield chefs "empower" (the trendiest word of the decade) chefs to stop "endlessly repeating the lessons of the French Grand Masters." In fact, by 2004, chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Jean-Georges, the late Gilbert LeCoze of Le Bernardin, Gray Kunz of Lespinasse, and David Bouley of Bouley had long before shaken up the rigidity of French haute cuisine, and that direction is as strong today as it was then. Jean-Georges also created Spice Market in 2004 -- big (not small), loud, and with a menu of Southeast Asian street food that includes spicy Thai fried chicken wings with mango and mint, which didn't need to be pre-ordered.

Was Bloomfield's modest Spotted Pig -- bankrolled by Mario Batali, who brought in high profile celebrity crowd to a tiny space only they could get easy access to -- the first gastro pub? By no means: the word gastro pub itself has been in print since 1996, to describe modern London pubs like The Eagle and the Landsowne.

that by then were serving menus beyond shepherd's pie and bangers and mash.

Back in 1989, I co-authored a restaurant guide to New York and could hardly keep up with the myriad new hot spots making waves as part of the evolution of the city's rapid food culture: there was the Odeon in Tribeca and Balthazar in Soho, opened by Keith McNally, one of the smartest innovators in the business; Montrachet, opened by another pioneer, Drew Nieporent; Da Silvano and Il Cantinori, which kicked off the Tuscan trattoria trend; Gotham Bar & Grill, still an iconic New York restaurant, with a chef's chef, Alfred Portale Florent; a grunge French bistro named Florent in the Meat Packing District; Danny Meyer's Union Square Café, whose new style of cordiality changed everything about American hospitality; the beloved art déco Empire Diner, small, loud, with a counter just like Chang's Momofuko Ko. There were many more -- all of them downtown, long before Chang and Bloomfield made that area hip.

The same vanguard spirit should also be credited to young chefs and restaurateurs in other parts of the country working long before Chang and Bloomfield arrived on the scene: Guillermo Pernot, who spearheaded the arrival of modern Latino food at ¡Pasión! in Philadelphia; Mavro Thalassitis did the same for Hawaiian-French cuisine at Chef Mavro in Honolulu and David Link for modern Creole at Herbsaint and American charcuterie at Cochon; Michelle Bernstein created a wondrous Florida-Caribbean style at Azul in Miami; Ming Tsai contemporized Chinese food at Blue Ginger in Wellesley; José Andres brought Spain's molecular gastronomy to the U.S. at minbar in D.C.; and no one has had more of an effect on Japanese food that Nobu Matsuhisa, whose original sushi bar was in Los Angeles before bringing his namesake restaurant to New York.

I am not trying to suggest that Chang and Bloomfield have not had considerable influence on American gastronomy, but both have been hyped by the New York media all out of whack with the reality of what goes on in the rest of the United States. For while it is easy enough to make a case for the explosive mark groups like the Sex Pistols and Nirvana made in their time, it would be difficult to compare their influence on contemporary music to that made by hip hop artists like Jay-Z, rockers like Bruce Springsteen, the concept albums of Paul Simon, and the jazz soul of Alicia Keys.

As ever, time will tell about Chang and Bloomfield -- two excellent, innovative chefs and canny restaurateurs -- but did they actually "change America?" No, but they are a respected part of what makes America's culinary culture the most fascinating in the world right now.