The American Pioneers

These are the chefs and restaurateurs changing what it means to cook American food on this side of the pond. There's more to it than burgers and fried chicken.
2021 BM Oct 78
Rita's ambition has helped it to become a near-instant success.

Ask any Brit what they think American cuisine is and the first thing that probably springs to their mind will be some form of fast food. Hamburgers. Fried chicken. Towering stacks of pancakes. Maybe one out of a hundred people you ask would be able to conjure up an image of stewed collard greens or étouffée. The unfortunate reality is that, for most of us who live in the UK, the only encounters we really have with American food are through the medium of fast food.

There’s an irony in that although the vast majority of us consume a wide variety of high-end American culture through books, movies, and prestige TV shows (I’m looking at you, Succession), when it comes to food, we’re only ever presented with the bottom of the barrel.

Most UK cities are haunted by a surfeit of American-style restaurants with names like ‘Guy’s Diner’ and ‘Electric Avenue’ serving soggy burgers, claggy loaded fries, and milquetoast milkshakes. They are all, for the most part, painfully bland. US-born fast-food franchises are equally unavoidable. McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Wendy’s – it’s rare to find a high street in the country that doesn’t have at least one of those in attendance with UberEats and Deliveroo drivers flitting in and out of the establishments like fruit flies in an orchard. The country’s first Popeye’s even opened up in London’s Westfield last November.

One impact of globalisation on our appetites is that we all want to eat the food that we see gorged in American media and, as a consequence, fast-casual chains like Five Guys and Shake Shack continue to rake in customers as British chains like Byron and Gourmet Burger Kitchen splutter. Most of the diners at Shake Shack on Oxford Street are, admittedly, teenagers on dates but it's hard to deny that they’ve nailed the formula. So with the United States having such a cultural cache and allure, why is it then that so many independent restaurants struggle with defining – and cooking – American food?

Jay Rayner eviscerated steakhouse chain Smith & Wollensky when they opened up shop in London around 2015, noting the cultural difference from the British approach to beef and mourning how “Americans like to celebrate steaks based on tenderness, as if being able to cut a piece of dead animal with a butter knife is an aspiration.” The yanks do things differently, for sure, but it’s not like someone doing an American concept couldn’t theoretically succeed in creating food that appeals to palates on both sides of the pond. In fact, there’s a growing number of intrepid chefs and restaurateurs who are doing just that.

A bumper crop of restaurants has appeared with the intention of proving that American food is more than deep-fried corn dogs, cheesesteaks, and Bubbagump shrimp. Not content with everyone thinking that the food culture in the States peaks at good charcoal-crusted beef burgers and barbecued brisket, these restaurants are changing the game with unique riffs on modern American cooking and setting out to change your perspective on what the food from the land of the stars and stripes can taste like when it’s cooked with care and consideration. These are the American pioneers of the UK's iteration of new New American Cuisine. I’d like you to meet them.

Decatur

Southern food in this country doesn’t really exist. Sure, there’s a couple of restaurants that’ll boast about the bang average gumbo they’ve got on the menu but the cultural significance of the South, and what it means to cook Southern food, is almost always lost in translation. That’s not the case with Decatur.

After returning back to the UK after a prolonged stint in the USA, chef Tom Browne decided to do something about that lack of bonafide Southern cooking. It was then, in 2014, that Tom’s Louisiana-inspired concept, Decatur, was created. The aim was simple: to serve quality food to the many homesick Southerners in London missing a taste of home.

“Initially, it was about trying to cook the American food that I loved and missed,” Tom tells Mob, “now it's become more about trying to share good Southern hospitality and some of the harder-to-find regional specialities of the American South, specifically Louisana, with a British audience. But doing them in quite an honest and respectful way. I only really see myself as a custodian of this cuisine really because I'm, y'know, from Nottingham.”

Over the last 8 years, Decatur has grown from strength to strength through sell-out pop-ups, viral meal kits, and restaurant residencies. The food is good. Very good, in fact. You can actively taste how the elements of West African cooking have melded together with more classically French styles and techniques to create something wholly unique.

Two of the dishes that Decatur is most well-known for are their chargrilled oysters and steaming New Orleans-style shrimp boils. The latter, which you can get in the form of a meal kit from Decatur’s website, has become Tom Browne’s calling card: a steaming pile of prawns trawled out onto a sheet of newspaper with corn on the cob, potatoes, and smoked andouille sausage. Decatur’s special seasoning (a secret blend of 12 herbs and spices) is what takes the boil up a notch; garlic butter combines with the subtle sweetness of the prawns to create a restaurant-level dining experience that you can knock up on your stovetop with minimal effort.

“I'm not American but I have a great respect and admiration for the cuisine, culture, chefs, cooks, stories and history of that region,” says Tom, “in translating that to the recipes, there's always a challenge with not having access to the same produce and ingredients. But it’s about being creative to find those similes of those foods here.” If there’s something that doesn’t exist, Tom simply creates it. The Decatur team grind their own grits and work directly with a specific dairy down in Oxfordshire so they can get real deal buttermilk. If it’s literally impossible for him to get his hands on the product he's after (you can’t find blue summer crabs on this side of the pond), Tom will simply use the British equivalent (like brown cock crab) but treat it in the "same way it would be treated in the South”.

That respect and reverence is what makes Decatur so special. It’s a fightback against the “dude-ifcation” of American food seen in shows like Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. “Everyone loves Guy Fieri,” explains Tom, “but that's just one element of American cuisine, which tends to get painted with a really broad brush. Just like any foodway from any ‘foreign’ country, there's so much nuance that gets lost during that journey across the Atlantic. If your sole consumption of Southern food has been through Man Vs Food and Paula Deen recipes loaded with sticks of butter and double cream, you’re missing out on all of the region’s nuanced history and culture.”

There's a very sad history to the South but, from a culinary perspective, it's also incredibly fascinating. Paths of slavery, immigration, and bloody conquest have directly affected the gutsy cuisine of Louisiana. “Influences stem everywhere from Benin and Ghana and Sierra Leone – as a result of the slave trade – to fine French dining to Spanish spicing to German sausage-making,” says Tom, “the history of America is fascinating and a lot of that history is played out in those foodways and in those cuisines.” Decatur might just be the best way to get a taste of that history without flying to the US.

Rita’s

2021 BM Oct 56

Gabriel Pryce and Missy Flynn opened Rita’s, the long-awaited follow-up to their much-loved East London restaurant of the same name, in October of 2021. Opening up a whole decade after the original Rita’s pop-up made waves in Dalston, this new iteration from the duo had been a long time coming.

Having headed west to the heart of Soho, Rita’s offers a menu that’s heavily inspired by Missy and Gabriel’s travels across the Americas; an edible ode to the nation’s nascent food trends and varied food culture. Dishes on the menu include hot bean devilled eggs, jalapeño popper gildas, and salt cod taquitos. Larger plates like grilled sugar pit pork collar, whole fish a la plancha, and a steak dinner for two served with all the trimmings are equally nu-American, balancing carefully between classic and creative. For dessert, there’s even a homemade key lime pie.

Walking into Rita’s is almost like walking into a film set. There are classic Americana diner booths, all glossy and Danny Zuko-like, that contrast neatly against rustic Mexican tiles. The decor is a play on Missy and Gabriel’s love of America’s star-spangled optimism as well as its symbiotic relationship with Mexico at the south of its border. Rita's is a must-visit.

Louie

Louie is described on its website as a restaurant that is “an ode to multiculturalism,” and one that “celebrates the soul of New Orleans, the suaveness of Paris and the sass of a New Yorker – all set on London’s stage”. I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard a restaurant refer to itself as sassy before but I honestly wish that more of them would.

When it comes to places that nail what it means to be (and eat as) a modern American, Louie is one of the most committed to the cause in London’s dining scene. Executive chef Slade Rushing is a New Orleans native and his French/American restaurant – named after King Louis XIV and Louis Armstrong – is proud of its genre-defying brand of cooking that encompasses elements from Creole cuisine, haute cuisine, Cajun cuisine, and soul food. Louie, much like America itself, is a real melting pot of flavour and a ballsy baseball-meets-La Belle Époque spot to dine.

Slade, who tells me his favourite American dish is turtle soup with sherry, is tired of the misconception that the country’s cuisine is all about burgers, fried chicken, and barbecue. “We have some of the best chefs in the world in America,” says Slade, “we learned all the rules from European chefs of how to cook but, what we do is teach how to break the rules since we don’t have long sacred culinary traditions like they do in Italy or France. That is why American food is quite naughty. Now we have American Michelin starred chefs in America doing riffs on comfort food they ate as a child which is pretty amazing.”

Plates of asparagus veloute with crawfish and brioche croutons nod tenderly to Louie’s Creole influence; the New York strip steak wouldn’t look out of place in Peter Luger’s; the corn bread-crusted lamb loin with anchovy jus is a tasteful reference to a classic American side; and the Southern pecan pie is as fireworks-at-Thanksgiving-while-saluting-the-flag as it gets. Even the option to get 50g of Beluga Imperial Kaviar for £385 seems in keeping with America the beautiful’s signature swagger.

The food of New Orleans, in particular, is one of the nation’s most interesting – a cuisine that presents the diversity of America in the most delicious fashion imaginable. “Creole food has roots in Portuguese, Spanish, German, French, African, and Native American cooking. That’s why it has merged together into a flavour bomb,” agrees Slade, “New Orleans cuisine is full of richness and spice which is truly original. I believe the British enjoy it because it seems like a distant cousin to Indian food.”

Lucky’s Hot Chicken

Dubbed by one Instagram commenter as the “Best Nashville hot chicken sando this side of the Mississippi”, Lucky’s Hot Chicken serve some of the meanest fried chicken sandwiches in the whole of London. They’re big (like, “you’re going to need two hands to lift it up off the plate” big) and are available in spice levels that run the gamut from a light brush of the lips to a full-on snog of chilli heat. Nashville hot chicken in the States is typically served atop slices of white bread with pickle chips – Lucky’s riffs on that by serving their fat, cayenne-spiked thigh of fried chicken between two slices of thick brioche with pickles, slaw, and comeback sauce for company. It’s a clever take on a classic that delivers stupid amounts of flavour.

Unlike a lot of mediocre fast food outlets (I once ate a supposedly Nashville-influenced plant-based “chicken” burger that was, pound-for-pound, one of the worst sandwiches I’ve ever eaten), Lucky’s has done its homework when it comes to ensuring “Nashville” isn’t just being used as a marketing buzzword. Owner Ben Cook is half-American and has been using Lucky’s as a means of getting back in touch with his roots.

"I’ve got ancestors from mid-west and Virginia," says Ben, "the family once had farms in Indiana and I spent most of my summers as a kid in the South where my family are now. Although there’s an allure to Southern sensibility that I may have found on my own, having the roots I do in this culinary melting pot is the reason I got into food. So Lucky’s owes everything to my family’s history."

As a self-professed “hot pepper freak”, Ben first got into the street food game a couple of years ago with Lord of the Wings. Lucky’s Hot Chicken is the natural evolution from that fiery wing stall: a concept focussed on introducing Londoner’s to a taste of Tennessee that’d be otherwise butchered by chains like KFC.

"We don’t try to fly an authentic flag, but we do chase an experience," Ben tells Mob, "we want to make sure we pay homage to those that paved the way. We wouldn’t exist without Prince’s, or Bolton’s, Pepperfire, Hattie B’s or Howlin’ Ray’s. In their own ways, they made hot chicken the global phenomenon it is today."

Plaquemine Lock

Steven Joyce Plaquemine Lock
Plaquemine Lock does a mean shellfish boil. Photograph: Steven Joyce.

Plaquemine Lock is a very English pub in Angel that serves very American food. The Regent’s Canal might not seem like it’d provide the most optimum conditions for Cajun and Creole cooking on paper but Plaquemine Lock offers a relaxed atmosphere and anything-goes environment where the restaurant’s chefs can get down to business on shrimp and grits, eggs sardou, and thicc po’ boy sandwiches.

Set up by Jacob Kenedy (who is perhaps better known for being the chef-patron of Italian restaurant Bocca Di Lupo), Plaquemine Lock doesn’t just have an All-American pedigree behind it but a genuine affection for the food of Louisiana.

“It wasn’t specifically (or generically) American food I wanted to serve, but the twin cuisines of Louisiana – Cajun and Creole," says Jacob Kenedy, "having trained as a chef in the US, I acquired a profound appreciation of the food from the Pelican Stata from my colleagues – all admired it, and the few I met from Louisiana really knew how to cook. I also had a fascination with the state as, though I first visited only when I was 20, my grandmother came from there – a town called Plaquemine, where I still have a large family. Multiple, and ever-longer visits to Louisiana made me fall deeper and deeper in love with the state, her people, and their culture, music, food and drink. I knew it was something London was missing.”

The andouille is all made in-house, as is the sugar cane ice cream they serve generously alongside slices of sweet pecan pie. Kenedy has put the same effort and attention to detail often given to “authentic” Italian restaurants into making Plaquemine Lock as satisfying a showcase of American cuisine as it can possibly be.

Blame Butter

Blame Butter Pie

Asa Balanoff Naiditch is the Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef behind Blame Butter – a hush-hush microbakery in Notting Hill that specializes in all-American pies and what Asa describes as "other scrumptious treats". An online pie shop is a pretty forward-thinking idea for a food business and Asa's pies are pretty forward in terms of flavour, too. Made by hand using high-quality ingredients, each pie (whether it's a pumpkin pie with brown butter and blowtorched marshmallow on top or a beautiful glazed apricot raspberry pie) is available for collection every week Friday to Sunday from 10am to 4pm.

Asa's kept her eyes on the pies (sorry) since starting her business over lockdown, navigating the cultural and culinary difference between British and American pies with a deftness of touch that shows in her short and crumbly crusts. Through her deviously tasty yet carefully crafted creations, Asa's worked hard to alter perceptions of American cuisine as one big fat, homogenous, deep-fried entity.

"To me, talking about 'American' food makes as much sense as talking about 'European' food," she tells Mob, "could you imagine trying to describe Italian, Spanish, German, and Greek food as one cuisine? American food makes me think of unhealthy and processed food in big portions, but that’s just the stereotype. Yes, we are the land of fast food, but that's not the full story. Every state and region has their own delicacies that contribute something unique to our culinary landscape."

When it comes to pie, there's no better example of that regional diversity than the tart and refreshing key lime pie – the official state pie of Florida made from key limes native to the state's southernmost Key West area. "I think American food is awesome because we don’t have any one thing that defines us, and it’s all delicious," continues Asa, "anything you can dream of can be turned into a pie. I always say, 'what doesn’t taste better wrapped in a flaky pastry?'"

Not much, I'll tell you that.

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