Ask Ann: What the Heck Does ‘New American Cuisine’ Mean?

Does this (outdated?) term even have a meaning anymore?

Read all of our Ask Ann questions.

Q: I see the term “New American” cuisine on menus all the time. I haven’t the foggiest idea what it means. Does it really have a definition or is it just a catch-all?

A: I’m now rethinking the “New American” label in our restaurant listings! One of the first things I ask chefs opening a restaurant is what kind of food they plan to serve. And oftentimes they don’t really want to classify it because the cooking either has so many influences or they’re afraid of pigeon-holing the cuisine. When pressed, they might say, “Yeah, I guess it’s New American…”

OK, so what does that mean? The term came into favor back in the 1980s (evolved from what in the ’60s was known as nouvelle cuisine). The definition encompassed the farm-to-table movement and the use of regional and “ethnic” ingredients while also being inclusive of classical European techniques. It gave chefs permission to be creative, and for a while the term made sense – at least to chefs and food writers.

Three decades later, American cooking has changed, but we’re still using that (dated?) term. In 2015, a piece in argued that Americans “deserve a better, less derivative cuisine” than New American, arguing that the melting-pot ethos has been watered down. I have to agree.

But maybe the problem is using a broad term to describe the cuisines of so many parts of the country, with so many ever-changing influences. Where does that leave us? Probably further from a label than ever before. Maybe that’s a good thing. ◆

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‘Ask Ann’ appears in the November 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.