Jonathan Gold and Evan Kleiman Tackle the Question of Authenticity in Los Angeles Cuisine

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Jennifer Ferro, Kris Yenbamroong, Carlos Salgado, Evan Kleiman and Jonathan Gold.

Jennifer Ferro, Kris Yenbamroong, Carlos Salgado, Evan Kleiman and Jonathan Gold.

“Cuisine has never been static and the idea of authenticity is a constantly moving target…often when food is referred to as inauthentic, the proper follow up question may be inauthentic to whom?”

When Pulitzer Prize winning food writer Jonathan Gold took the stage at the 2013 Mad Symposium in Copenhagen, he chose to speak on an issue close to his heart: authenticity in food.

Such was the subject of an intimate conversation last weekend between Jonathan Gold, KCRW’s Evan Kleiman and chefs Kris Yenbamroong (Night + Market, Song) and Carlos Salgado (Taco Maria). The salon was a special Champions event hosted in the stunning Roy McMakin-designed home of KCRW board member Stu Bloomberg and his wife Mary Farrell.

At the start of the discussion, Gold pointed out that when Wolfgang Puck opened Chinois in 1983, he sought out Asian flavors to reinvigorate and reimagine his European-rooted cooking. Today, young LA chefs like Yenbamroong and Salgado are doing just the opposite – using the flavors and ingredients they grew up with, but borrowing the technique from high end kitchens to reimagine their own cuisine. Is it authentic? Maybe. But, Gold wonders, if it’s delicious, why does it matter?

Both Yenbamroong and Salgado grew up in their parents’ restaurants – one Thai and one Mexican – where the menu catered to the white Southern California communities they had immigrated to. Yenbamroong remembers his grandmother questioning every dish on the menu at Talesai where she was the primary cook. In Thai she would say ,”Would whitey eat that?” Similarly, Salgado remembers the complex cuisine of his Latino roots reduced to the ten ingredients that make up most Americanized Mexican food. In their kitchens now, both chefs are less concerned with what whitey thinks. A globalized palate has become cultural capital – and foodies everywhere are seeking “authenticity,” not combo plates.

In his MAD Symposium talk, Gold says, “While in a sense, authenticity is the most important thing in the culinary world – that sense of grounding, that sense of flavors, that sense of everything coming alive in a way that could happen no where else on earth then where the dish originated – authenticity is simultaneously not important at all. Because the opposite of authenticity – the drive to take flavors and techniques and the soul of traditional cooking and make them thoroughly and unequivocally your own – has brought us the Koji taco…and Momofuku’s Bo Saam which is better than the traditional Korean version to the extent that a slow roasted chile rubbed pork shoulder is better than a slab of plain boiled pork belly. I’ll take that kind of authenticity too.”

Words by Gillian Ferguson

Mouth watering photos by David Young-Wolff

Yenbamroong served Issan Sausgaes and Kleiman served pizzas from the wood fired oven.
Yenbamroong served Issan Sausages and Kleiman served pizzas from the wood fired oven.
Jonathan, Evan and the chefs discuss authenticity.
Jonathan, Evan and the chefs discuss authenticity.
Salgado's marinated tomatoes.
Salgado’s marinated tomatoes.
Guests gathered around the Roy Mcmakin designed living room to listen to the discussion.
Guests gathered around the Roy McMakin designed living room in Venice to listen to the discussion.