By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
I took my first cooking job in 1988. Fifteen years old, I walked into a neighborhood pizza shop knowing precisely nothin' about nothin' and proceeded to prove it at every opportunity. That I wasn't fired after my first night was odd. That I survived my first week, near miraculous. It wasn't like I'd taken this job because I had any particular love of cooking or cuisine; the husband-and-wife owners of the joint were simply the only people in town willing to take on an underage kid with a sketchy work permit and pay him actual cash for doing little more than regularly endangering himself and the customers.
For me, 1988 was a good year. I found my trade in that kitchen, a life-long love for the crashing din and clamor of a working galley, for the mindless, comforting tedium of prep and the somewhat laissez-faire attitude of kitchen crews and owners. They'd bum me cigarettes when I couldn't sneak across the street to buy my own and let me play with knives when I didn't have more pressing, equally dangerous tasks to perform. I remember my time there with a fondness completely out of proportion to how much fun it probably was in reality.
For food, though, '88 was not a good year. Neither was '87, and '86 was worse. In fact, the '80s were generally a terrible time for cuisine in this country, full of strange excesses and stranger obsessions. This was the decade when American cooks went crazy with coke and ready cash — a kind of American gilded age where nothing seemed too far out and ingredients from around the world began flooding into kitchens, going to cooks who had no goddamn idea what to do with them.
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I, of course, was aware of none of this. Concerned only with turning dough, scraping trays, running the recalcitrant dish machine and huge Hobart mixer in the basement, I was shielded from the worst of the waning decade. In upstate New York, there was little opportunity to experience the madness that had seized kitchens on the coasts. Foie gras dumplings and wasabi and champagne-poached lobster wrapped in gold foil were not appearing on the boards of the restaurants in my home town. But just over the horizon, these things (and worse — much, much worse) would come with uncontrollable regularity.
It was a decade of experimentation — like the '60s had been with drugs and the '70s with sex, the '80s were about testing the boundaries of money, power and food. And an argument could be made that it was a necessary period of madness, a kind of pure-science time when cooks and chefs pushed the boundaries to find out exactly where those boundaries lay. But what's always fascinated me is how many ideas that came out of that time and previously uncharted territory persisted through the '90s and on into this decade. How many truly dated and, in some cases, terrible flights of fancy remain central conceits of menus still being cooked today, reanimated like zombies and left to shamble like bad dreams through the waking world.
Don't get me wrong: I loved the '80s. Still do. I believe "Safety Dance" was one of the greatest musical achievements of the twentieth century and that Wall of Voodoo never got the credit it deserved, particularly for the song "Mexican Radio." Some of the best movies ever made were made in the '80s (Blade Runner, Red Dawn, The Breakfast Club and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, just to name a few). I lost my virginity in the '80s, got my first car and had my first run-in with the cops. And in the dining realm, America's passion for sushi emerged in the '80s, along with the first, bare inklings of local cuisine.
But fusion was born in the '80s, as well, and fusion broke more hearts and destroyed more careers than Molly Ringwald and Ivan Boesky combined. I understand all too well the gravitational draw of the style for chefs — the chance to do anything, to exist in a culinary universe with no rules and no law — and fell victim to it myself many times over the years. When you think about the number of ingredients out there, the vast panoply of techniques, the temptation to stick wasabi in those mashed potatoes or to add a little Thai chile to the fried chicken is powerful. And even today — when everyone should know better — restaurateurs are still flogging fusion, still betting on the old combination of all things to all people rather than picking one thing and doing it really well.
Daniel Wong, owner of Lo Coastal Fusion, couldn't resist the siren song. When he opened his restaurant in 2007, he made it a time-warp portal back to the DeLorean days, with the extremes and culinary immoderation of the '80s just a jumping-off point. Lo has a raw bar. It has a sushi bar staffed by really well-trained guys who deserve better. It has a small-plates menu (another trend that just won't die), a large-plates menu, a tempura menu, two sushi menus and a kitchen crew that must be on a daily dose of Haldol just to keep the schizophrenia at bay. It is primarily a seafood restaurant, but it also offers steaks and a half chicken that alone straddles three culinary canons, coming with an apricot-molasses glaze and root-vegetable fricassée. It is an Asian fusion restaurant except when it is an Asian-Mexican fusion restaurant, a Chinese-Japanese fusion restaurant, a Japanese-American-Italian fusion restaurant or something else completely indefinable, like when the kitchen cooks up a portobello mushroom bisque with gremolata or (deep breath...) grilled Hawaiian ono with cold soba-macadamia nut salad, grilled mango salsa and a reduced soy syrup.