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Something Old, Something New: Chef Simon Majumdar

his is a potential golden age for food in America,” Simon Majumdar tells me as we discuss what inspires the chef both in his public stature as a Food Network star and in a more personal spectrum, naming first the unique position where he sees foodservice and culinary trends meeting next. “We’re sitting on the edge of something possibly very special.”

To strike that revolutionary balance and solidify this potential gilded era of food creation and service, Simon asserts, there needs to be a certain harmony between the legacy of old world traditions and new world mentalities. Simon tells me that the signs are already there as the foodservice industry continues to shape itself around time-tested methodologies, and figures out how a new twist can cultivate itself into a lasting trend.

This culinary equilibrium touches on every conceivable realm for a chef, as the three-time author, TV personality, and accomplished cuisiner sees it; from the personal and the public, to the methods and means utilized for the construction of a crafted dish. 

“I’m a hybrid myself,” Simon laughs easily, explaining that his mother is Welsh, and boasts their culturally pronounced affinity for baking. The Indian roots of Simon’s father inspire the cuisine that now makes up almost half of Simon’s fare, including his favorite dahl dish, which inspired him to take the leap into cooking full time. A leap that landed him in the United States, married, and traveling around the world, writing and existing in a balance of all things culinary.

It seems to be this very recognition for integration and balance which has not only seen Simon publicly assessing new dishes on Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen, Iron Chef, and The Next Iron Chef, but continuing to evolve his own understanding of food and self; as well as recognizing the cusp of a new era when he sees one.

So where does the verge of that new era begin, and how can we see in both the chef-side and buy-side realms of the food sector the markers outlining these possibilities for the plate?

This progression of new and old flavor profiles and approaches has melded into an inventive generation of trends and eating experiences which Simon comfortably calls the “perfect storm” of food production; due to a collaboration of technique, tradition, and accessibility.

“Things got very simple for a while, but now there has been more of a return to chef-driven technique preparations,” Simon divulges as I ask him to pinpoint what specific culinary circumstances are driving the state of the plate. “There was a big movement before of simplicity and respecting ingredients, which I really liked, but at the same time we weren’t using a lot of the skills that people have been taught and have been passed down through the ages.”

These chef explorations into traditional trends and skill sets marks the return of delicate table-side preparations, and old-school fermenting and preserving techniques. As restaurants and chefs begin to experiment with their own twists on table-side preparation of salads and desserts, other food creators are adding in cultivating starters, along with fermenting and preserving to elevate key elements of their dishes.

“For a long time, there was a lot more enthusiasm than experience in the culinary world, but now we’re really getting to this stage where chefs are a lot more experienced in the quality of their crafted dishes, and it’s really shooting out. Some of the best food we have right now is outside of the big cities,” Simon says. 

This shift first appeared five years ago, Simon advises, when chefs stopped being able to afford the weighty prices associated with the busier metropolises, and started settling in small towns across the nation; taking their skills with them when they left. 

This migration of sorts has resulted in culinary oases arising in towns such as Fresno, California, where Simon recently looked in to attend and participate in the most recent installment of the Fresno Food Expo. Events and towns like these, Simon contends, are a chef’s haven of new ideas and cuisine crafted with historical care.

“I think we’re beginning to rediscover those skills of a chef, while also still taking the time to respect the ingredients that farmers have carefully prepared and grown for us,” Simon says of his culinary community.

But, this mentality for a constant evolution of food extends beyond just the plate, requiring a pragmatic step back into the field. Chefs, Simon included, are now paying homage to the producers of the fresh produce utilized to craft their perfect dishes, while also making them accessible to a nation filled with hungry palates.

There’s a bit of a disparity between what is “normal” for a renowned chef and what is “normal” for the average American, Simon recognizes, but he urges that in working with supermarkets and large fresh produce companies, food-crafters can discover a working balance which will increase both the culinary norm on a national level, as well as the longevity of the industry and all involved.

“It’s wonderful to be able to go to a farmer’s market or a small boutique farm and pluck asparagus out of the ground, as I’ve done fairly recently in my travels, but at the same time you’ve got to be sensible and pragmatic and say, ‘We still need to feed three hundred million people,’” says Simon.

These partnerships, both at the foodservice and retail level, perform valued services to the public that gets Simon excited about the possibilities for cooks beyond the top tier restaurants, to those creating and recreating tasty dishes on the stove at home. For instance, when Walmart began selling organic foods, Simon saw a development ripe with opportunity; like getting good products into the hands of more people, with the accompanying education to match. 

“Sometimes you’ve got chefs that will go, ‘Well, if you don’t shop at a farmer’s market then you’re not good people.’ And I go, ‘Well, I just think that’s nonsense,’” Simon says cheerfully. “We just don’t live in that kind of world.”

His own chef practices, and his experiences cooking and creating with others, has led Simon to a well-founded appreciation of not only accessible produce through supermarkets but also the considerable companies which make up our industry.

“The families that are behind these huge operations have often been doing it for years and are very good at it. And I think a lot of times, chefs forget that these large fresh produce companies are people, too; with families behind them who care very much about what they’re doing and how their produce is grown. They’re just doing it at a very high volume,” Simon elaborates. “There’s something very special about them, too.”

This chef-driven respect for farm fresh ingredients and the legacy of produce also extends into another trend which many chefs are learning to navigate with ease and proclivity; cultural dishes and cuisine.

“We’re seeing this burgeoning wave of second and third generation of people who’ve immigrated, and they’re now bringing their traditions onto the American menu,” Simon explains, detailing that ingredients from China, Korea, and other countries are now showing up on American menus alongside more traditional fares.

“From Portland to Vermont, these traditions are on the rise,” Simon expresses. “They’re becoming part of the American culinary vernacular, which is a fantastic manifestation.”

Those familiar with Simon’s televised leap into the public cooking realm are most likely familiar with the tagline that follows him into each food-focused enterprise; go everywhere, eat everything.

With recent travels to Israel, Myanmar, Thailand, Colombia, France, as well as plans made for Spain and Ethiopia to add to Simon’s impressive worldly portfolio over the past few months; he’s certainly making good on that promise.

“When I’m not writing or filming, my wife, Sybil, and I spend all of our time traveling. I’m quickly approaching having been to 70 countries, and that’s what really influences my cuisine; eating new things and falling in love with them,” Simon divulges.

Simon tells me that this travel-based wisdom and recognition of trend evolution comes from the yearly research crusade undertaken by Sybil and himself, launched through the means of social media. The history, culture, and regional differences observed through this endeavor are paramount to Simon’s awareness of culinary trends, and appreciation for how each element and produce item translates to its end dish.

“We post the hashtag #GiveUsABedIllCookYouDinner on Twitter and Facebook, and tell our followers exactly that; You give me a bed, and I’ll cook you dinner,” says Simon of the then thousands of requests he receives to partake in the undertaking, thus providing the chef with a bounty of experiences, flavor profiles, and new opportunities to choose from.

This expedition of unknown territories reinforces Simon’s all-encompassing convictions that to travel and eat is to be the best chef he can. He is constantly taking these new experiences and letting them perpetually change him. It also pushes Simon further past just cuisine boundaries, and into an understanding and involvement with people of backgrounds and ideologies different than his own; whether that be politically, religiously, culturally, and so forth.

“We get a chance to sit down together, and eating food, passing it around, and sharing it gives you a connection,” Simon shares. “I have a saying that you can’t have an argument with a mouthful of ribs.”

And with that mentality in mind, as the industry shifts and melds trends and eras around itself, what a fantastic golden age of cuisine it could be.

 All photos credited to: Sybil Villanueva