(Aug. 18) The year was 1987, and Norman Van Aken, owner-executive chef of Norman’s restaurant in Coral Gables, Fla., was doing what he loves doing second best — reading a book. It was about the history of cuisine from the 1500s to modern day.

The writer noted that throughout history, food has moved in a pendulum from ornate, fancy and aristocratic to simple and rustic. Cooking trends go from rejection of these changes to assimilation and reformation, according to the book.

Van Aken evaluated his culinary interests and concluded that his passion was both haute, intellectual, white-tablecloth cuisine and rustic.

“I wanted to declare my interest in fusion between the two,” he says. He wrote a paper called “Fusion,” thus coining the term in a culinary sense, and distributed the paper at a speech he gave to journalists at a convention on American cooking. “Everyone took the paper and blew the seeds to the wind,” he says.

His original concept of fusion was “the unification between rustic, earthy sensuality with fine, classical and aristocratic unified with dishes, menus and restaurant experiences,” he says.

Over time, fusion has come to mean two countries on a plate. “Or a more recent evolution of what is described as fusion means putting seemingly diverse, random things on the plate — ingredients that might cause argument with each other rather than harmony,” he says. “Fusion in the wrong hands is not at all what I’d call great food.”

To some chefs, all fusion is wrong.

The Asians, French and Italians have cooked the way they do for thousands of years. How dare someone in the 21st century think he or she can do anything to improve it, says Kenny Giambalvo, co-owner of Bluehour restaurant in Portland, Ore.

Giambalvo’s heritage is Italian, but his training is in French cuisine. At his restaurant, he cooks with both influences, but keeps them separate, he says. He defines fusion as taking something from one cuisine type and bringing it over to another.

Van Aken encourages those who have written off fusion to rethink it. Being against it “is an easy bandwagon to jump on. It’s silly to do that. It’s like writing off modern jazz and blues. They are different forms of expression,” he says.

Consider these five keys to effective fusion.


Adopting from other ethnicities is a must for Alan Wong’s restaurant in Honolulu. Hawaii is a bridge of East and West and often is called the melting pot of the Pacific, says owner-chef Wong.

In one dish he may feature tempura batter-coated fish marinated in a butter sauce with lemon grass, cilantro and Thai chilis. This combines a French butter sauce, Japanese tempura and Asian flavorings.


Understanding the nuances is Wong’s key to effective fusion. If you really understand ginger, for example, you know that you have to use it judiciously, he says. You also can use it many ways: the whole head, bruised, smashed, sliced or crushed. You can use it in marinades or in cooking. “You can wash and slice it with the skin on in cooking. You can peel it and put it in the food processor and mince it. You can juice it. You can course-chop it with or without the skin. It’s like garlic. The finer, more exposed you make it, the more potent it is. It’s also a tenderizer. If you put too much in a marinade for too long, it will break the proteins down and turn them mushy. You can very easily overpower a dish with it,” he says.


Discovering that bridge is Van Aken’s key to effective fusion.

Using fruit as an example, he looks at the keyboard of acidity found in fruit. “They have ascending and descending levels of acidity, from mild grapes to expressive and tart passion fruit. Think of them as keys on the keyboard moving from one end to the other. That acidity you would match,” he says.

“Something fat and rich like foie gras needs something acidic like passion fruit, while something delicate like poached fish wants something with a more mellow acidic answer, like grapes,” he says.

While you may not think to add grapes to a savory dish, it’s been done since the 1800s with the popular sole Veronique, he says.


Ingredient harmony is the key that separates good fusion from bad, says Carol Wallack, owner-chef of Deleece restaurant in Chicago. She labels her cuisine “globally inspired” with some fusion.

“There has to be a subtle harmony. If you (add) Asian flavors to Italian technique or Latin flavors, you have to find that balance,” she says. She likes to work with balance between sweet and sour, hot and cold and crunchy and soft.

For the sake of balance and harmony, you don’t place too many odd things on the plate that don’t work together, she says.

Her most popular dish is caramelized salmon with pear ginger beurre blanc sauce served with Chinese sticky black rice. The ginger flavor is more dominant with the fruit flavor coming across very subtly, she says.

She adds an Asian element to her barbecue pork tenderloin with succotash salad by using edamame in place of lima beans in the succotash. She also combines corn, onions, diced blanched cold potatoes, green beans and scallions tossed with an Asian-style vinaigrette.

The barbecue sauce also has an Asian flavor with tamarind, pineapple and ginger.


That includes others’ trials and errors.

Food and catering consultant Mary Chamberlin, Carmel, Calif., almost wrote off fusion cuisine after a bad experience at an expensive San Francisco restaurant.

Her entrée featured Hawaiian fish served with wasabi mashed potatoes topped with deep-fried rice sticks, she says. “The texture was disgusting. I found that it didn’t go together. I had the sensation after eating of being nauseated because the combination was such a turn-off.”

While the wasabi mashed potatoes were wrong to Chamberlin, Wallack with Deleece says it’s classic fusion. But it’s easy to do wrong.

The creaminess of the potatoes rounds out the heat from the horseradish. But the key is to fold in the wasabi just before serving the individual order. Otherwise, it doesn’t hold up, she says.

Fusion dishes that just didn’t fuse also have turned off Wallack.

A restaurant once served her a conglomeration of pasta with chicken, peppers, grapes, pine nuts, olives and blue cheese. After another similar experience at the same restaurant she was convinced that they just throw in whatever ingredients they have as an afterthought.

She admits that sometimes the combinations you think will work don’t. “You have to know where to find harmony and when to stop.”