Finding an identity through Food

By Beth Kessenich and Hannah Harnest

People come from all over the world to live in this great city filled with diverse people, languages, cultures, and cuisines. Columbia University Reporters Beth Kessenich and Hannah Harnest are both New Yorkers, although one of them grew up in Europe and the other one in America. In our globalized world, the concepts of belonging and identity are very much expressed through a love for a certain kind of food. What makes New York so exceptional, is that everyone belongs here, and the varied food tradition makes it possible to learn about other cultures. We set off on a journey, starting in lower Manhattan, and making our way up to the neighborhood of Columbia University. On our way, we stopped at a Taiwanese Dumpling Shop, an Italian Restaurant with live classical music, a French bakery, and the iconic Tom’s diner, as seen in the Seinfeld TV series. Come on a tour with us, and experience the melting pot that is New York City.

Reporting in Central Park: What is the quintessential NYC food for you?

Our first stop was Mimi Chengs dumplings on the Lower East Side. Mimi Cheng’s is an authentic and delicious Taiwanese dumpling’s shop started by co-founders and sisters Hannah and Marian Cheng. They started the dumpling shop on the Lower East Side. The inspiration of it came from their mother, Mimi Cheng, and the dumplings she would make for them as young girls. It is a secret family recipe that has become a hit with New Yorkers. The ingredients in the dumplings are locally sourced and organic, which is something they are also proud of. By combining the concept of Asian cooking, and still honoring the traditions of their mother, they have made a dumpling empire. In fact, they have been so successful that the original shop in the East Village is expanding and they just opened another one in NoLita. Apparently, their biggest problem is that they sometimes run out of dumplings, because they get so busy!

After the savory starter, we felt like something sweet. What better way to satisfy this urge, than going to a pâtisserie? The French are world-famous for creating aesthetically pleasing artworks of sweet pastry and chocolate, which can carry you into a wide universe full of colors and culinary sensations, and you just have to make your way to the buzzing Greenwich Village to experience this. The French bakery empire François Payard has been on the American food radar for a long time now, and I recently spoke to their young and up-and-coming chef chocolatier François Behuet about the high art of epicurean temptation and the merging of different cultures. When he came to America three years ago, he experienced New York’s melting pot to the fullest by living in a small studio in the center of Harlem. As quintessentially French, he believes in influencing the Americans with his creations, but his new home has also shaped his culinary identity a great deal.

A bar of pure dark chocolate
Macarons in every flavors
Delicious chocolates with a crunchy heart

Listen to how Hannah Harnest interviewed Executif Chef Chocolatier François Behuet on how the French and American cultures come alive in his creations.

Presentation is most important
The sweets are as colorful as the people

Our next stop was in Midtown East at a well known establishment called Rossini’s Restaurant. In the restaurant business it is a rarity that one stays open for over 40 years. We see mom-and-pop shops open and close all of the time. Reporter Beth Kessenich sits down with Gerry Bernaz owner of Rossini Restaurant to get the inside scoop of how after all these years, this family business remains a New York City staple in the Italian food scene.

Our last stop was at Tom’s Diner on Broadway and 112th street in the Columbia University neighborhood. This place is an American institution, since it was host to the famous ‘Seinfeld’ sitcom, which was broadcast on NBC between 1989 and 1998. This show emphasized the relevance and beauty of everyday life situations, and to what extent encounters between different human characters matter. In a way, it is the varied menu of the American diner and its atmosphere that embody the experience and trajectory of the immigrants who came to the US (and everyone of us is an immigrant. It is here where all the cultures come together and feel at home. Tom’s is the perfect place for the international body of Columbia University students to learn more about the colorful and manifold American way of life, which is a product of all the foods that we have experienced on our short culinary excursion through New York.

Very friendly server at Tom’s
All smiles in this kitchen. Photo by: Beth Kessenich

Thank you for coming on this journey with us. As you can see, you can find many different types of cuisines in New York, and people who are passionate about the food they create and how they identify with it. If you felt inspired while reading this, and this short piece spoke to you, please leave a comment and tell us about your journey to find your identity through food.