As restaurants become increasingly postcultural, the novelty of chefs' excelling within a tradition outside "their own" has decreased. Still, there are nagging complexities of identity and credibility, even as chefs run their kitchens as experiments in edible egalitarianism.
Originally from Wilmington, Akin opened Stock in Fishtown with his wife, Nicole, and partners Alex Mackenzie and Garrett Neff. He has cooked Greek and Thai in Washington at Komi and Little Serow, and Middle Eastern here at Zahav. His fixation on Southeast Asian flavors, however, informed by extensive travel and Nicole's Thai heritage, was strong enough to carry through to the creation of Stock, which started serving soup June 1.
Akin does not feel he's at a disadvantage in expressing Stock's point of view: traditional Vietnamese dishes, such as pho, green mango salad, or whole steamed fish, prepared simply, with carefully chosen ingredients.
"Ultimately, it's about execution," he said. "It's not about if my mom and dad are from Vietnam. It's understanding the balance."
While Akin self-navigated, other chefs happened upon incongruous paths by happenstance. Lucio Palazzo, born in Italy and raised here, had zero experience with Mexican food before Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook plucked him from another of their restaurants to run Xochitl, which they formerly owned. It sparked a passion that Palazzo has carried through to his current chef position at Manayunk's Taqueria Feliz. He recently returned from a trip to Mexico City.
"It's important, once you find your voice as a cook, to stick with it," said Palazzo, brought on by Feliz co-owner Tim Spinner, another American chef focused on Mexican cooking. "Sometimes, people just fall into someone else's ethnicity."
The spirit of Palazzo and Spinner's cooking is staunchly old-school, shaped by past jobs, travel, research, and - most vital - coworkers. "What we do has been influenced by the people around us," said Spinner, initiated early on as part of an almost entirely Pueblan kitchen staff at El Vez. Spinner now owns three Mexican restaurants of his own, with the family recipes of Spanish-speaking staffers adding shape to his menus.
It's easy to assume that Mexicans would take umbrage at a gringo attempting their grandma's al pastor, but in Palazzo's case, such crossover exemplifies his belief that the back of the house is a marketplace for ideas. He regularly cooks for his employees, and vice versa, trading tips and techniques alongside personal stories.
Benjamin Miller, meanwhile, married into a Mexican kitchen. An Easton native who has worked at Han Dynasty, Amis, and Kanella, he operates South Philly Barbacoa with his wife, Cristina Martinez, who grew up in Capulhuac, Mexico in a family known for its soul-stirring slow-cooked lamb. She and Miller now vend at the corner of Eighth and Watkins every weekend, feeding a mostly working-class Mexican clientele - and, slowly, more Americans. "Any good chef can learn to cook this food," Martinez said, though most don't have the built-in advantage of her instincts, honed by immersion and repetition.
"I trust Cristina's experience over mine, but I help her present it here . . . to bring it to a market that she wouldn't be able to bring it to," said Miller, amused by the occasional Mexican customer who refers to their street-cart operation as barbacoa de güero - the güero, or white guy, being him.
Marcie Turney does hear occasional objections raised at the successful Midtown Village restaurants that she and partner Valerie Safran operate: Jamonera (Spanish), Barbuzzo (Mediterranean), and the recently revamped Lolita (Mexican) among them.
"People are like, 'It's not authentic.' I'm like, no it's not," said Turney.
Unlike Miller, the chef views herself as less an ambassador than a curator of the most appealing aspects of various cuisines, which she interprets her own way. "You get past that romantic story that everybody wants and you win them over with your food."
Palazzo agrees that individual expression is vital, regardless of preconceived culinary boundaries. "The dish should tell a story about where it comes from, but it also must be original to the kitchen that's serving it," he said. "It's almost like covering a blues standard. You're going to want to put your own spin on it."