Breaking the rules
Shalom Japan in Brooklyn, New York, is a fusion of Jewish and Japanese food, reflecting the respective heritage of the husband-wife owners. Sawako Okochi trained at the New York Restaurant School before working as sous chef at Anita Lo and then head chef at The Good Fork. Her husband, Aaron Israel, previously worked under some of New York City’s most acclaimed chefs, including Tony Liu at August and Andrew Carmellini at A Voce.
Robert Sniffin worked with the couple as a server just after they opened in fall 2013 and recently returned to the restaurant as general manager.
“It’s important to know the rules and when to break them,” he says of Shalom Japan’s culinary mashups. “You can always find different ways to do things.”
Still, the menu isn’t exclusively fusion. Some dishes are simply Japanese (scallops with maitake mushrooms and miso butter) while others, like the Jew Egg (with hummus, spinach, pine nuts, currants, and feta) are more reflective of Jewish cuisine.
“I think when you get locked into fusion as an idea, you think it must be 50-50, but you can lose the essence of what you’re trying to do with your food if you do,” Sniffin says, adding that the couple has also experimented along the way. “We’ve done fluke dishes—steak dishes, schnitzel, duck—but we’ve streamlined the menu to make sure we’re providing the most ‘us’ dishes.”
A balancing act
Guests who gravitate toward fusion dishes tend to be curious and eager to learn more about different foods and cultures. With a captive audience, chefs have the enviable opportunity to bring old ingredients and cooking traditions together in new ways. In a sense, they are culinary ambassadors who welcome guests into new territory without overwhelming them.
“Diners still need education and bridges to new experiences, so chefs create those bridges,” Nielsen says. “The dishes often end up not as authentic as those intended for native diners.”
Still, there are limits to the combinations and applications of fusion. In some cases, the seasoning of one may clash with the spices of another. Other times, the cooking techniques are too dissimilar to reconcile. “There are fundamentals to how you build taste and flavor so one thing doesn’t drown out the other,” Nielsen says. “You can’t just slap together so many things that don’t taste good.”
That said, if something has proved too difficult to mesh in the past, it doesn’t mean an inventive chef might not finally crack the code. At the end of the day, the final product—and guest reaction—will determine which mashups work. Beyond that, anything goes.
“You can mix any cuisine types as long as the outcome is appealing,” Tristano says.