A white person becomes the head chef in a restaurant that serves up Asian cuisine; it’s suddenly called fusion and this has been accepted in our culture for the past fifteen years.
What happens when the coin is flipped and a person of Asian decent becomes the head chef of an Italian restaurant here in the states? Is it too called fusion? What if the dishes are not changed in any way? Would it still be accepted as an authentic Italian restaurant though the chefs are not some Super Mario Brothers duo?
I hope so.
Nuovo Vesuvio was inhabited and ran by an Italian network of sorts for sometime. The original burnt down from causes that are still unknown in 2003. I went during this time when it was in its restructuring phase.
The family owned and operated business was rebuilt shortly after but only lasted till 2007 when it was suddenly shut down. The dust was Lysol-ed in late 2013 when heavy-hitting London based restaurateur, Claude Afas, bought Nuovo Vesuvio as his 20threstaurant in the states. It was his first in New Jersey. He had success bringing fine Italian cuisine to London 30 years ago.
He gave the restaurant to his wife for a wedding present. His squeeze being the one and only, Roxanne Yuan, a fit and bad ass, Asian American chef, tattooed from head to toe, who smokes a bowl a night, drinks and curses like an entire Naval fleet, and drives a big truck.
She was the youngest person ever to win the original Iron Chef (not the Alton Brown one). Disowned by her Triad affiliated family in Taiwan, Yuan fled to Spain, Greece, and Italy where she lived all over, learning everything from the raising and breeding of black Iberian pigs to working the basil fields. Prior to its legalization, Yuan reunited with her family and used their underworld connections to smuggle in Iberico hams in the US.
She worked under Robuchon and Trotter. In an interview she said in order to keep her sanity during these testy trials in her life, she would go straight home, toke up, and make pastas all night long while nursing sazeracs.
She started, “traveling pop-up dinners” in all of the major cities across the US. She was a rock star chef. Honestly. Sometimes, outside of her makeshift establishments were merch tables staffed with her freelance hired hands selling shirts with tour dates on the back. She gained sponsors by luxury car companies and traveled with a group of three other of the best chefs in America to areas that were screaming to be gentrified with foodie hipsters. Though her pickling and fermentation on everything from tofu to durian was what gave her fame in Asia in her teens, her pastas put her on the map in the US when she hit her late 30s. She proved her worth in achieving food that was true soigné when her pop-up, “Vernazza,” earned three Michelin stars. At this time, Afas started dating her.
Yuan reopen Nuovo Vesuvio to a lot of haters. Despite raves from the mainstream critics, the loyal patrons refused to go because the chef was not Italian therefore, it didn’t have that “Italian touch”. I feel before Yuan took over, Nuovo Vesuvio only served a certain type of Italian American fare. It had a very niche audience that could not survive with the growing number of diverse, multicultural millennials. The first order of business when Yuan took the command post was that she transformed the menu.
Yuan goes through culinary phases in her life. Right now, it’s her olive oil chapter. She bought a large parcel of space in Valhalla Farms in Northeast Jersey and grows her own olive trees. In labs reminiscent of Walter White’s cooking kitchens, she infuses garlic, bacon, chilies, beer, onions, citrus, and uses them with her assortment of pastas.
She’s into inks too. I’m particularly fascinated with her Spaghetti Rustichella doused in cuttlefish ink and accompanied with sea urchin row, fava bean puree, and house smoked almonds. I’m not a fan of the generic cappelleti. I feel the pinch of nutmeg is always a little too potent and over powering though that is the traditional way. However, Yuan compliments the dish with shreds of turkey neck confit that’s house smoked in a shack out back served in a creamy broth. I prefer the turkey to the usual duck confit, it is cleaner, leaner, and definitely, a few notches meaner. Her lasagna is just how I remembered it. It’s the one thing from the old Vesuvio that remained the same.
Cheeses are all Italian born and bread if they aren’t made in house. Her Parmesan wheels adorn the 800-degree brick ovens. She refuses to use burrata at this time whereas it’s practically on every other restaurant’s menu that serves Neapolitan-style pizzas. The “Gomorrah,” was a bit too much. She topped a regular marinara pie with her charcuterie talents, red onion, arugula and some of that beautiful looking Parmesan. Next time, when I return, I would just order the regular bare-bones pie without any cheese and have it as an antipasto. It’s just sauce, oregano, and a mixture of her oils.
Once a week she’ll put her grilled squid and octopus on the menu. It’s not a regular item because it all depends what her fishermen catch. She doesn’t buy from wholesalers. Around 20 different ma and pa purveyors deliver to her place starting at 7 am and stop around noon when prep is in full swing.
When eating anything Italian, no matter if it is old or new school, one is going to load up on carbs and meat. She has a 30-ounce bone-in rib eye and a pork chop flown in from Kyushu, Japan, but the 1-2-3 punch is her 16-hour, slow roasted, braised lamb shank.
Yuan hired not one but two pastry chefs: Sicilian Isabella Magliano and the James Beard award-winning French chef, Guiseppe Roux. There is no coincidence that his name is a sauce. It seemed that two pastry chefs were too many. But Yuan wanted the New York Yankees of pastries and that’s what she received. After palate cleansers their flan-flavored budino with horchata ice cream, topped with a chocolate toffee crumble is not worth sharing no matter how important your guest is. Unfortunately, a person needs to be over 21 to order their Bellini sorbet sundae with a mulberry caramelized puree along with candied figs and dates. If you are 21 and over, eat your heart out, just make sure you have a D-D because the sugar mixed with the booze creates a double vision point-of-view almost immediately.
The best part of attending Yuan’s Nuovo Vesuvio are the theatrics. Though, the Brian de Palma stuffiness and schmaltz were taken away along with the overbearing waiters, opera singers, and “Mambo Italiano” soundtrack, the open kitchen is worth the price of admission in and of itself.
Yuan is a chef who will always consider herself a simple line cook. She maintains the executive chef duties by managing the plating and the flow of the food between the front and back of the house while churning and burning orders wielding two knives (a machete and a pairing), wearing her hair in Princess Leia braids and dressed in cut-off jean shorts and flip flops.
She is a rebel without a cause, except when it comes to good Italian food.
ATMOSPHERE: Open and comforting. Stylish thirty something foodies dressed to the nines listen to neo-Coachella music like Disclosure. One can have a conversation without being forced to eavesdrop on someone else’s.
SERVICE: It’s steady and consistent without being overbearing. The wait staff is knowledgeable in knowing what takes the longest and shortest time to cook and puts in the orders accordingly. It’s well paced and militarized as if they worked in a Korean restaurant.
SOUND LEVEL: A medium stereo. Not a 7.1 surround sound.
RECOMMENDED: Any pasta mixed with Yuan’s oils, Braised lamb shank, and Bellini sorbet sundae.
DRINKS AND WINE: Yes
PRICES: Wine and cocktails ($8-15), Appetizers, salads and desserts ($5-20), Pizzas and pastas ($15-30), Entrees ($25-50).
OPEN: Tuesday through Saturday from 5-11.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
Restrooms: Yes. Quite large private men and women stalls in the front away from the kitchen.