In assessing this year, the 800-pound gorilla is surely the economy and its dire effect on the culinary industry. Sadly, many restaurants couldn't bear the storm and shuttered their doors, while others underwent painful cutbacks (to staff, food costs, and other expenses alike) to just squeak by. A seldom few found 2009 to be a windfall year. Fortunately, the tides are turning; 2010 is looking up.
It comes as no big surprise that comfort food and back-to-basics cooking are the largest trends of '09-who wouldn't want a big dish of gooey mac and cheese or bowl of steaming noodles after reading about unemployment reports, or getting a pink slip yourself? Snickers, donuts, burgers, pigs in the blanket, and pizza were the plates du jour this year coming out of restaurants and food trucks alike. And fast-casual Asian concept restaurants are selling steamed pork buns and bahn mi like hotcakes.
Splurges were spent on cocktails (again, not a surprise-alcohol sales tend to increase during times of economic hardship), but certainly not on big-ticket wines. Champagne houses are far from bubbling over with excitement over their sales numbers; yet moderately-priced wines sales are same as they ever were, if not better. The cult of mixology is stronger than ever and becoming a pivotal component of the restaurant industry.
New frontiers were still discovered nonetheless. Umami is the new foam; street food is making tapas look Old School; high concept vegetarian cuisine is chipping away at the foundations of meat-and-potatoes ideology. Technology is also claiming a piece of the culinary mindshare. Chef blogs are commonplace, but not breaking any new ground. Meanwhile, social media networks, like Twitter, are giving even greater public access to chefs, restaurants, and food trucks.
The multifarious relationship between chefs, technology, and their often adoring public continues to deepen. The public is eating up chef-driven TV shows like Top Chef; the role of the chef in the public realm is real and cemented into the fabric of American life. Chefs have the potential to hold real power in steering the way Americans eat and think about food. What's more, they are continuing to grow and mature within the industry itself, leveraging their influence to gain more power for real equity in their restaurants. The Bobby Flays, Daniel Bouluds, and Todd Englishs as chef-owners may not be the exceptions to the chef/owner rules much longer.
Reviving traditional artisanal cooking methods (i.e. canning, pickling, meat curing) goes hand-in-hand with the widespread popularity of comfort cooking and nostalgia cuisine. Cases in point: BLT Market Chef Ed Cotton’s pigs in a blanket (NYC); Tavern Pastry Chef Breanna Varela’s “Snickers Bar” dessert (LA); The Dining Room Chef Michael Voltaggio’s deconstructed pastrami sandwich with pigeon pastrami with a Swiss cheese puff and sauerkraut jelly (LA); No. 7 Pastry Chef Amanda Clark’s house-made cornflakes with freeze-dried strawberries (Brooklyn, NY); Salts Chef Gabriel Bremer’s peanut and jelly with concord grape sorbet, peanut butter powder, melba toasts, and compressed celery sticks (Cambridge, MA).
Dishes inspired from childhood memories seem particularly aprospos with the economic climate of the year. Of course, this nostalgia was often done using cutting edge culinary techniques like freeze-drying, jellifying, and compressing. The end product might be a bit unrecognizable once served, but customers are lured in with the familiar idea, such as pastrami or p.b.j., as presented on the menu—a fantastic way to innovate and stay in the diner’s comfort zone.