You know something is authentic when you just know it's "the real deal," right?
Have you ever wondered about The Elephant Walk and how authentic we are?
Probably the most fascinating ad hoc debate I've observed play out on online "foodie" message boards like Chowhound and Yelp, as well as other restaurant listings sites that accept comments such as CitySearch, Zagat, and others, is over whether or not The Elephant Walk is "real - or really Cambodian," or "true - or truly Cambodian." As celebrated as The Elephant Walk has been over the years, we've also taken a lot of hits - some from native Khmers - for NOT being authentic.
Sigh... Of course we brought that on ourselves first when we chose to serve French food in addition to Cambodian food. But we really invited criticism from native Khmers and others who know Cambodian food well when we took the risk of creating NEW Cambodian food.
I remember well the evening in late 1992 when Nyep and I sat down at a table in the dining room of our orignal Somerville restaurant to talk about making some menu changes. After a tumultuous first year serving Cambodian food to primarily non-Cambodians in America, we had learned a few things about our guests' preferences. One of those things we learned was that the really strong and unusual Cambodian flavors were frequently rejected.
Customers sent back significant percentage of dishes that had enough shrimp paste, fish sauce, or prahok [the one truly unique Cambodian ingredient: preserved featherback fish - a VERY pungent fishy and salty paste that our primarily Western waitstaff dubbed "Cambodian cheese"] to really dominate their flavor profiles. And the people who ordered them sometimes left unhappy, panning us to their friends, and sometimes to our faces!
To tell you the truth, those experiences worried us. We wondered about the potential long-term affect on our business of serving people food they wouldn't like. Our most creative adaptation was to create a boxed-out section on our menu we called "Challenging Flavors." "Caveat Emptor!" we wrote, warning people that the flavors in those dishes were not for the faint of heart, or palate, and that people who didn't want a relatively extreme experience ought to think twice about ordering them. But even then we still had what felt like too many people leaving not having enjoyed their first Cambodian meal.
That was the context when Nyep and I sat down that night to talk about our next menu. She confided that she was worried, feeling like she had already presented most of the traditional Cambodian food that she thought our guests would enjoy. Well, what about presenting some new Cambodian food?, I said.
I'm not sure that even today most Asian chefs are comfortable creating new food for their their native culture. Even today most "ethnic" restaurants - Chinese, Mexican, Greek, Cambodian, you name it - tend to have menus very similar to one another. But now and then chef-driven restaurants serving higher-end "continental" cuisines - I'm thinking French and Italian, primarily - offer menus likely to be entirely unique, or original. More to the point, rarely in my experience do Asian restaurants in America take the "risk" creating an entirely new, original dish.
And I'm sure Nyep felt the same way that night; one just doesn't create new Cambodian food. It is our duty to serve the traditional, the familiar.... But of course, that leads to a dead end.
I pressed my case: "Who makes the rules, anyway? You're Cambodian. You're the best Cambodian cook I know, probably among the best in the world. If you prepare a dish that uses traditional Cambodian ingredients and techniques, is it not Cambodian just because no one's ever had it before? I think you are a culinary artist with the talent and this wonderful opportunity to continue to develop the medium in whatever direction your instincts take you.
"Chefs create; cooks re-create. You're a chef! You have every right to create new Cambodian food - as long as you respect the art of Cambodian cooking as you understand it.
"Plus, if you create new Cambodian dishes, you guarantee that The Elephant Walk will always remain unique, unlike any other Cambodian restaurant. And by continuing to evolve, we'll keep things interesting for our guests who will inevitably become bored if we limit ourselves to the strictly traditional."
Yes, we were worried that we'd reached a dead end. I tried to convince Nyep that new Cambodian food was the way out.
Late one evening about a week later Nyep emerged with a dish of chicken stir-fried in a rich, deep golden curry-like sauce fragrant with garlic, galangal [a ginger-like root] and its slivered kaffir lime leaf garnish. It was beautiful. I dove in. It was absolutely delicious.
"What do you think?" she said... I asked her what it was. Haltingly, she told me she didn't know, exactly; she'd just made it up... I smiled. We were free!
That was Nyep's first original Cambodian dish. She named it "Poulet Dhomrei," and it was a MAJOR hit, immediately. Many more favorites - Avocat Kanthor, Poulet Malika, and more have followed.
This is straight from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language at my favorite online wordsmithing referent, bartleby.com:
"adjective: 1. Conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance or belief. 2. Having a claimed and verfiable origin or authorship; not counterfeit or copied...
"synonyms: bona fide, genuine, real, true, undoubted, unquestionable..."
The most visible change we made with our recent menu change was to reduce our prices so that all of our entres cost less than $20, in line with what we've learned people expect of Asian and ethnic restaurants.
But the other major change is almost as important insofar as it attempts to address the authenticity issue, by clarifying who we are and what we do at The Elephant Walk. We re-classified our dishes so that each item we serve comfortably resides in one of three categories: Traditional Cambodian Food, Original Cambodian Food, and Original French Food.
There has been occasional and understandable confusion over the meaning of "original" in this context. Original Cambodian certainly could mean "First" Cambodian, or to some "True" Cambodian.
However, we refer to those dishes we serve that are known to people already familiar with Cambodian cuisine as "Traditional." Our Traditional Cambodian dishes - and a good synonym in this sense of the word would be "orthodox" - are the old-time recipes, food you'll often find in Cambodia today and served in Cambodian homes and restaurants the world around - dishes Khmer natives recognize as "the real thing."
At The Elephant Walk, our use of the word "Original" in describing our food is - and this is straight from Roget's Thesauraus: "characterized by new things or new ideas; not the sames as what was previously known or done..." - and also "arising from or going to the root or source." In other words, our Original Cambodian dishes are new Cambodian food created by our Cambodian chef/owners, using traditional Cambodian ingredients and techniques, a natural evolution of the Khmer culinary art.
Is The Elephant Walk authentic? Perhaps that's not for us to say, for some people don't think a restaurant that doesn't serve strictly traditional food can be authentic.
But I think The Elephant Walk is authentic in the sense that our restaurants are an honest expression of who we are. The Elephant Walk is authentically us. We all [the owners] come from multi-cultural backgrounds. I grew up in Asia. Grard [Lopez] is half-French, half-Spanish. The De Monteiros were raised in a Cambodia that was a French protectorate; they were educated in French schools. I think it's fair to say that the bi-cultural aspect of The Elephant Walk is more true to who they are than if it were Cambodian alone.
Our new menu format now makes it possible for anyone to enjoy a strictly traditional Cambodian meal anytime. Someone else will inevitably prefer to dine on some of our Original Cambodian [or French!] dishes instead. But either way, both can feel confident that their meals are authentic!