The term “modern American cuisine” is often stretched to include a panoply of cooking styles and restaurant concepts, but in its narrowest sense it connotes the fusion of traditional European and Asian classic cooking techniques with a stress on high quality, fresh, locally produced, in-season, often organic and healthful foods. One of the pioneers of this style of food preparation and presentation was Alice Waters, who in 1971 founded the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California.
Modern American cuisine is popular, and hence has spawned many imitators; the best chefs combine crusade-like ingredient activism—supporting local artisanal producers and farms, for example—with a top-level handle on cooking techniques and presentation. It is unfortunately possible to find mediocre, “try-too-hard” examples of this cuisine all over the United States, often in over-priced venues. The simplicity inherent in modern American cuisine is not always easy to obtain. The innovators and dedicated local chefs produce modern American cuisine with imagination and consummate skill; the casual bar/restaurant or hotel dining room that jumps onto this bandwagon often produces little more than a meaningless mash on an over-garnished plate. Whether done properly or not, modern American cuisine tends to be expensive.
Modern American menu items can vary infinitely, though in general they do not match the standard comfort foods widely available on the conventional American menu. Rightly or wrongly, these menu items may sound affected or pretentious. The diner might begin such a meal with a salad of fresh field greens, warmed goat cheese and caramelized pecans, a cream of zucchini soup with a hint of nutmeg, slivered poblano pepper and roasted garlic croutons, a small plate of skewered chicken in a Singapore peanut sauce, perhaps pan-seared sea scallops in a reduced balsamic vinaigrette. The main course could be a free-range chicken filet with asparagus polenta over a bed of steamed bok choy, or Dover sole with artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes, roasted butternut squash and fresh egg vermicelli. Dessert, in addition to fresh local berries and an artisanal cheese selection, might include exotic items like Earl Grey tea sorbet or wildflower honey and ginger cake.
Because there is no intrinsic limit to the variety of foods and combinations that can be thrown under the rubric of modern American cuisine, the genre is open to unlimited abuse. That said, the movement itself has spawned a wonderful array of artisanal producers and growers in every region in the United States; it is a positive trend that can only serve to improve American cooking in all its aspects over the long run.