Coming to America: How immigrant chefs enrich American cuisine

By Ana Kinkaid

Since colonial times immigration has been key to the development of American cuisine. New Orleans would not be the culinary wonder that it is without the influence of its Spanish and French cooks and chefs. For Boston’s love of potatoes, we can thank the Irish, who came fleeing cruelty and famine in their homeland. German immigrants crossed the sea and brought new methods of beer production to the nation. Meanwhile Jewish chefs converted Russia’s traditional Pashka into America’s beloved cheesecake.

These are just a few examples how immigration has enriched American cuisine. But lest you think the contributions are all in the past, take a moment and celebrate these modern immigrant chefs whose talent and creativity continue to make American cuisine one of the world’s most amazing.

Cecilia Chiang

Born to wealth and privilege, Chiang fled the brutal Japanese invasion during World War II by walking hundreds of miles across China. Without servants for the first time, she had to learn to cook the various dishes of the provinces she traveled through to survive. She finally escaped poverty and terror by immigrating to America. At 40 she took over her sister’s failing restaurant and changed the menu, a change that altered American cuisine forever.

Shocked at the inauthentic nature of the entrees being called “Chinese,” she drew on her knowledge of the dishes she had encountered while fleeing war as a young girl. As a result, American diners were able for the first time to enjoy authentic Hunan, Szechuan and Mandarin cuisine. Her restaurant quickly became a must-go-to destination in San Francisco.

In 2013 The James Beard Foundation honored her enduring contributions to American cuisine by awarding her their Lifetime Achievement Medal.

Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson was orphaned during the 1971 Ethiopian War. Fortunately he and his sister were adopted by a Swedish family, changing their lives from one of exploding bombs to one of peaceful forests and silent falling snow. As a young chef, Samuelsson cooked and studied in France, Switzerland and Austria. In 1994 he journeyed to America and began an apprenticeship at New York’s Aquavit. At the stunningly early age of 23, he was named an executive chef and received a three-star rating from the New York Times.

His innovative cuisine brought the soul of Harlem and the rich heritage of Africa to national awareness, earning him The James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef Award in 1999. Currently he oversees the operation of 11 restaurants and has written 7 cookbooks — surely a lasting contribution that has enriched us all.

Roy Choi

Born to Korean parents, Roy Choi emigrated with his parents to California in 1972. Initially happy in his family’s Korean restaurant, he later struggled with the growing wealth and affluent lifestyle of his family. At 15, in an effort to help him fight drug use, his parents sent him to the Southern California Military Academy. Later, in an effort to find his place in America, he studied philosophy and law in college, but drifted, unable to find connection or purpose for his life.

At 24 years of age, Choi became obsessed with watching Emeril Lagasse’s “Essence of Emeril” television show. The show inspired him to attend The Culinary Institute of America — a decision that changed his life. As a CIA student intern, he interned at no less than Le Bernardin. Post-graduation jobs followed at various hotel systems including Hilton and Embassy Suites. His resume up to this point was traditional, so it was a shock when he suddenly decided to shift from classic white-tablecloth restaurants to the frowned-upon, down-and-out world of food trucks.

Yet it was his enduring heritage of ethnic cuisine blended with his classical culinary training that enabled him to elevate the food-truck concept from a “roach coach” to that of a highly sought-after rolling restaurant. He launched a culinary trend so influential it led to an explosion of food trucks all over the nation, changing our modern culinary landscape. For the 2014 movie “Chef,” Choi served as technical adviser and appears in the final credits.

Choi’s introduction of ethnic food, prepared with skill and innovation, available in any city thanks to food trucks, offers culinary equality to everyone everywhere. Because of his courage to chart his own culinary path, Choi opened the door for thousands to enjoy an ever-expanding global food experience. Today American cuisine is rich beyond words because of the culinary diversity brought by these and countless other immigrant chefs.

From the earliest days of our nation to today, our cuisine has reflected both our national diversity and desire for meaning and purpose. Without the contribution of immigrants, our national table would be plain and boring. When everyone is welcomed at the table, we are all part of a great feast called democracy.