• Beef pesto at The Providores

Food

Fusion evolution

Peter Gordon, head chef at The Providores & Tapa Room, looks back at 20 years of fusion food

Words: Viel Richardson

“It’s like culinary fascism!” These are the words that pioneering chef Peter Gordon, co-owner of The Providores and Tapa Room, remembers uttering in frustration back in 1995. The source of this fit of pique was the hostile reaction from some particularly sniffy critics to the food he was cooking at his first major London restaurant, The Sugar Club in Notting Hill, which opened 20 years ago this year.

Eating at this busy establishment 20 years ago, and it was very busy indeed, was the first time that many people experienced the style of cooking which has come to be known as ‘fusion’. And not all of them approved.

Peter began to develop his food philosophy after moving to Melbourne from Wanganui in his native New Zealand. In Melbourne he discovered an “alternative culinary universe”. “I did a four year apprenticeship at William Angliss catering college, where I spent one day a week in the classroom and worked in kitchens the rest of the time,” Peter remembers.

“It was just amazing. Growing up I had always been strangely obsessed with food, but there I encountered ingredients I simply hadn’t heard of before, so I used as many as I could whenever I had the chance.”

A simple solution
It wasn’t until years later that Peter finally put a name to his approach. “Fay Maschler at the Evening Standard gave us an Eros award for best Pacific Rim restaurant, and Time Out awarded us best Modern British cuisine in the same week. A wonderful chef called Norman Van Aken—the founding father of world cuisine—was calling his food ‘fusion’ at the time, and it seemed a simple solution to describe what we did.”

Even as a young chef, Peter judged a dish purely on whether it worked on the plate and the palate, with no concern for whether the ingredients and techniques being used all came from the same national or regional tradition. But as his reputation grew, so did questions about his style.

“The strength of the belief that certain foods shouldn’t be mixed was frustrating,” Peter recalls. “I remember talking to an Italian chef, who is a friend of mine, about putting lemongrass in risotto, and he said, ‘You can’t do that.’ When I asked why, he said, ‘Risotto is Italian and lemongrass is from Asia.’ I pointed out that rice arrived in Italy from Asia and it was the Italians who added parmesan cheese: people were not putting milk products into rice dishes in Asia.”

Two decades ago, while the public flocked to Notting Hill to enjoy the products of Peter’s kitchen, the foodie establishment expressed distaste, labelling it ‘fusion confusion’. “It is a witty term which, funnily enough, we had used among ourselves to joke about bad fusion cooking,” Peter recalls. “But the thing that angered me most about early critics was the public assertion that there was not a single redeeming feature about the food.” 

Continued iconoclasm
But things are finally changing. The Providores and Tapa Room, which opened on Marylebone High Street in 2001 and is co-owned by Peter and his partner Michael McGrath, very rarely receives anything but the most lavish of praise despite its continued iconoclasm.

In recent years, other forms of fusion cuisine have been increasing in popularity, just under different names. Peter argues that if you were to ask most people about the prospect of Japanese-Peruvian hybrid cooking, the idea might be considered slightly preposterous, but in reality, this fusion of two very different traditions has been going on for more than a century.

Known as Nikkei cuisine, it began when economic hardships in the late 19th century forced thousands of people to leave Japan and settle on the Peruvian coast. “These people found themselves in a foreign land. There were some familiar ingredients but many others they had never seen before, and they just absorbed them into their cuisine.”

What Peter finds interesting is that because of its ‘authenticity’, Nikkei cuisine has been accepted by both the public and professionals alike—Ferran Adria has opened a Nikkei restaurant in Barcelona which has been hugely successful. 

Culinary traditions
“People seem to be beginning to understand and, more importantly, accept the role fusion concepts have played in the world’s culinary traditions,” Peter explains. “I think part of the issue with my style of cooking is that there is no particular cuisine to hang your expectations on, and some people find that disconcerting.”

Peter believes fusion cooking should be seen as a movement, rather than a cuisine in its own right. “It’s a bit like molecular gastronomy, nouvelle cuisine or cuisine minceur. There are specific concepts that define those movements, and fusion cooking is the same,” Peter explains, and he can see fusion cooking evolving. “I think it will become less about exploring Southeast Asian flavours, which seem to be dominant at the moment.”

But as with all cooking, Peter passionately believes fusion cuisine begins and ends with flavour. It takes a skilled chef with an educated palate and a willingness to keep learning to experiment successfully. Which brings us to Peter’s future.

He is widely seen as the ‘godfather’ of fusion food, and has six very successful restaurants in three countries as testament. But it has been a while since that revelatory trip to Melbourne—what does he see as his next step?

“I feel I need to delve deeply into learning something new, so I have decided I’m going to take some time off and travel through South America, from Mexico to Peru. I am hoping I will gain a better understanding of the food of that region. It’s incredibly exciting knowing that there are so many tastes and textures just waiting to be discovered.”