Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Best Food Country in the World

Recently I read an article in the Huffington Post by Lewis Krell titled: I Just Got Back From Italy… And America Is the Best Food Country in the World. It was clearly a provocation aimed at enticing readers to read on. Basically, the premise of the article was to praise the variety of food available in the US, and “to show you that there really is no better country on the planet for cuisine than […] the United States of America.” 

Although I don’t disagree that the US offers an incredible amount of culinary diversity - which is perfectly normal considering that it is a very large country made up of immigrants from all over the world - this article doesn’t really hit the mark in trying to defend the statement that the US is the best food country in the world. It is only successful in pointing out that the US has the most varied cuisine in the world - which is in and of itself a no brainer. After all, what is “American cuisine”? It is nothing more than a fusion of the different cuisines brought by the country’s settlers over the years: English, Mexican, French, Italian, etc.  

One important thing to consider is that you cannot define the US by its major cities, (i.e. New York, LA, SF, Chicago, etc.) which clearly do offer incredible cuisine and variety, with restaurants that can compete with the best in the world. I too have eaten amazing food in these metropolises, and whenever I return to NY (my native US home), I focus on getting my fill of classic American fare, as well as those of international cuisines which are certainly not plentiful in Italy.

Personally, I think that the author of the article offers an elitist's perspective (despite claiming that “Eating 69 hot dogs in 10 minutes […] (is) damn impressive”) to defend his assertion that America is the best food country in the world. In order to present his case, he must base his argument on dining in large cities. In my mind, this is exactly where he trips himself up. In all countries, the more sophisticated and educated part of the population has a greater opportunity to enjoy and understand good food. People who have the chance to travel and become informed are more likely to appreciate and gravitate toward better cuisine - and if they live near a city they will find more venues serving excellent food. However, not everyone has this possibility.

 La Torre Restaurant at Castello del Nero in Chianti just got a Michelin star
The real challenge comes if you leave the big cities, and head to the more provincial areas of the US, where it is a fact that haute cuisine (international or otherwise) is not something you will find everywhere. After all, Taco Bell certainly doesn’t represent the author's claim of having the “second-best” version of authentic Mexican food! Personally, I am sure that you would do much better dining in rural Italy - even if you are forced to eat Italian food! The reason for this is primarily because many Americans (unlike their Italian counterparts) aren’t accustomed to excellent, wholesome food - in fact this is what spurred the recent campaign in the US to promote healthy eating. Not something you’d think necessary in the best food country in the world.

Ristorante Vun in  Milan

The author criticizes Italy’s cuisine as being monotonous and lacking culinary alternatives. However, what one has to remember is that European cuisine is rooted in national tradition, which means that it is more than just about the food - it’s about the culture. So, when your food is good and the recipes are intertwined with your history and cultural identity, it becomes harder to move away from it.  And while it is true that when you seek “foreign cuisine” in the form of an ethnic restaurant, Italy can’t really compete with the US, it is also true that if you explore some of the newer restaurants in Italian cities, you will find some exciting culinary experiences which won’t force you to eat only tagliatelle al ragù or risotto alla Milanese. 

 Michelin-starred Executive Chef Michele Griglio - Winter Garden da Caino, St. Regis Hotel Florence

Recently, Italy’s chefs have been widely recognized for their flair and creativity. Many are exploring world cooking more than ever before, revisiting local dishes or creating new ones drawing on the influence of foreign cuisines and flavors. So, while it’s true that Italy is still lagging behind when it comes to international restaurants, where you find the traditional food of a specific country, there is a good chance that in the future this too will begin to change, as we see certain categories of ethnic restaurants emerging already. In the meantime, when you are in Italy, do try some of the new Italian restaurants on the scene; I assure you it will be hard to claim you had a monotonous meal! 

a creation by the Michelin-starred Italian Chef Andrea Berton

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