If anyone is likely to know what fusion is, Eric Johnson would be the guy. The Long Island-born chef who trained in classical French, learning to add gentle Asian inflections under chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Market in Paris and Jean-Georges in Shanghai…well, this is a chef who knows how to marry cuisines, particularly ones he loves.
“My greatest strength as a chef is that I’m always interested in learning,” the 45-year-old Johnson told me by phone recently. “I’m pleased to be back in the states, but in Vietnam and all over Southeast Asia, you don’t have to go very far for things to become different very quickly. I miss that sense of constant discovery. I love that part of the world. And now I’m going to be forced to go back every year for R and D!”
The reason is Stateside, the Vietnamese marvel he opened late last year on Pike. Why Vietnamese? “When I was considering restaurant concepts, I thought about my background in fine French and my professional years in China,” he says. “Culinarily, they meet in Vietnam.”
And so he wrote a menu with items like spicy pork ribs and shortribs with celery root puree and fried chicken with three sauces. Fusion? “For me, everything is fusion,” Johnson muses. “Chiles are not native to Thailand, they’re native to South America. Potatoes aren’t native to Europe. At some point it’s all mixed. It’s difficult for me to believe that the Italians invented noodles, let’s put it that way.”
Somewhere along the line, fusion picked up a negative connotation—but what else can one call the entire Vietnamese culinary canon, which blends French and Southeast Asian cuisines? It’s no coincidence that banh mi are made with baguettes, after all. And did pho comes from the French soup, pot au feu? Some think so.
“I’d never use the word fusion to describe this restaurant, because of what it’s come to mean…but I can’t tell you it isn’t,” Johnson notes. “Then again, I can’t tell you a restaurant anywhere that isn’t.”