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.
Japanese ingredients, like green tea powder (matcha), shiso, and black sesame, were also common currents in pastry dishes across the US. Jordan Kahn (of XIV by Michael Mina, LA) coated white chocolate “vines” with matcha to arch over his wood ice cream—yes, wood ice cream; yes, it tasted like wood; yes, it was delicious; Daniel Skurnik used matcha for a sponge and black sesame as a dark and deeply flavored paste and powder to go with chocolate ganache; Ron Paprocki of David Burke Townhouse (NYC) also makes a green tea sponge for his raspberry crème.
Clearly sponges are the innovative pastry chef’s cake of choice these days. We saw the airy, springy confection pulled apart into shaggy pieces strewn over molded custards, piled next to semifreddo, and nestled next to orange blossom Bavarian spheres and blueberry bubbles. And gel sheets of various flavors were used to gracefully sheath components on the plate.