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By Scott Reitz
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"In some ways you have to take away some of the authenticity in order to commodify cuisine," agrees Bali Bar's Chris Michael. "You have to speak the language of the American consumer. It's not polluted, but refined, broken down to its most distinguishable elements."
And many chefs enjoy that challenge. "There's so much to go out and see and learn about, and how do I reformat that for the American customer and find something in it they'll enjoy?" Badovinus says. "It's discovery." Rather than scour the world for something utterly new and different, chefs prefer to apply their creativity to traditional, familiar or comfortable dishes--mashed potatoes infused with truffle oil, or garlic, or whatever might excite the patrons.
"People are moving to comfort foods," Ward acknowledges. "People forgot what short ribs taste like, what béarnaise sauce tastes like." Cassel reports a growing interest in "retro recipes"--1950s-era American foods, and others in the industry agree. "What's popular now is really stuff that's been around and reinvented," says James Slaughter, owner of the Firehouse. "History repeats itself in this industry." Fort Worth's star chef Grady Spears believes that the truly undiscovered cuisines hide even deeper in our past: Native American foods. The noted "cowboy chef" often toys with open-flame cooking techniques. "I think Native American is cool," he says. "It's like Southwestern." But the mass audience might spurn parched corn, muskrat stew and other native delicacies.
The real question, to Rathbun, is not the possibility of untried culinary discoveries, but rather the willingness of Americans to extend their interests just a bit further. He knows the boundaries firsthand. While touring Mexico, the refined Abacus chef tried a handful of live bugs. And while he relishes food-related travel and exposure to new and different things, he also admits "there are certain things to which a chef will say 'ehh.'"
Outside of the local oddities, the strange and the unnecessary, have we reached the end of the new, the point where all discovery turns around and heads back? Even the most well-traveled Dallas-area chefs and restaurateurs aren't certain.
"I don't think there's an undiscovered cuisine that the public will support," Kelly says.
And that possibility depresses many chefs. "I would be very disappointed to think we're tapped out," Rathbun says. "It'd be bleak if there was nothing left to learn."