Restaurant Report

Douglas Rodriguez bit into the dish he created for a $325 "Indulgence" dinner at the Kahala Mandarin on Thursday. The oyster ceviche was served with a crab-potato terrine and caviar.

New York chef is a stickler
about Latin fare

By Betty Shimabukuro

If there's anyone who has earned the right to mix-and-match culinary traditions, it's Douglas Rodriguez, chef of New York's acclaimed Chicama and Pipa restaurants and trailblazer of nuevo Latino cuisine.

He brought the ceviche bar to the big city and a sense of elegance to the traditional foods of the Americas. The title of "high priest of nuevo Latino" has been thrown his way.

Rodriguez doesn't duck the signs of his influence, but notes that such labels give too many chefs mistaken ideas about the boundaries of innovation.

"When you use the word 'nuevo,' it gives you permission to make a mistake. When you make a mistake you say, 'It's not classical, it's an interpretation.' That's wrong."

If you're going to use a Cuban mojo sauce, learn to make it correctly and classically, he said. If you put Argentine chimichurri on your menu, make it right. Then you can vamp on the concept.

"Chefs have a responsibility," he said. "When they call something something, they have to understand the dish."

Rodriguez was among the all-stars imported by the Kahala Mandarin Oriental for the Food & Wine Festival that ended last weekend. While preparing for dinner one night, Rodriguez took a few moments to talk about fusion and good food.

He said he's found far too many examples of Latin food mistreated.

"I come across it a lot when I dine. I let the chef know. In a nice way."

His own roots are found in his mother's Cuban cooking, but when he began his career in the restaurants of Miami, he learned from cooks who hailed from other parts of the Latin world. Soon the influences of Colombia, Peru, Nicaragua and Venezuela infused his cooking.

"It made me curious," he said, and he still is.

"I just feel that forever I'll probably be a student of Latin culture."

He predicts that those individual Latin cuisines will come into their own soon.

"In my opinion, the food is going to elevate. It's going to be more specialized."

Coastal Mexican, Venezuelan, Argentine, and Peruvian cooking will achieve separate identities (think of the way Asian cuisines are clearly delineated into Japanese, Chinese, Thai, etc.).

But Rodriguez's greater prediction is fusion in the ultimate sense: "My real prediction: 100 years from now, the food of the whole world will be one thing: world cuisine."

Local diners will serve it all, he said, "hamburgers to sushi."

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