The end of the year has some power—mystical, calamitous, psychological, meteorological—to force otherwise stubborn human beings into reconsideration and reflection. In the culinary world, the turning of that final calendar page tends to signal a sage looking back and a daring peek forward at the preferences, proclivities, and concepts that continue to define cuisine. And every year these trends seem to rise and crest, sometimes evolving into actual change—the kind you can taste.
Indeed, a good number of the food and drink trends this year extend from among last year’s strongest. In her Welcome Address for our 7th Annual International Chefs Congress, StarChefs.com CEO Antoinette Bruno highlighted a year in “Origins and Frontiers”—the thematic coalescence of 2011 fads like heirloom ingredients, culinary historicism, new frontiers, and creative spaces. Chefs are increasingly going to the roots of a dish, concept, or (literally) a product, and taking that information to uncharted territory. This year we see that morph into pockets of micro-regional roots cuisine, and even a new focus on urbanism, as markets large and small tap into the value of place and limitation.
Limitation is the name of the game in pastry for 2012—not self-imposed, but inevitable, as restaurants find themselves unable to support a separate pastry program, or indeed a designated pastry chef. But even as we watch last year’s Dea(r)th of the Pastry Chef continue—this year we’re calling out pastry realms beyond the kitchen—the quality of what’s actually out there continues to inspire. As often happens, pastry chefs are working gamely in the realm of savory innovation, incorporating the naturalistic platings we saw so much of in savory last year, and integrating a bolder array of savory elements into desserts. There are fewer but ultimately more imaginative hands in the pastry game, and we’re curious to see where they take it.
Mixology and beverage culture in general is as robust as ever with an evening out of last year’s mixology vs. bartender trends (think pretense-free mixology vs. the industry-specific room temperature cocktails). Where last year saw flavor profiles veering toward the bitter, boozy, and complex, this year we’re seeing a pull toward slightly lower-alcohol, even fruitier (believe it) drink styles. (Okay, so the fruit is actually mostly found in the Cobbler, which not only echoes elements of culinary historicism but calls upon a fun shelf of ingredients to explore.) And just as we’re seeing smaller markets emerge with pockets of roots cuisine, we’re noticing just a hint of the same in mixology with a couple markets introducing their own cocktail conferences and/or competitions—localizing the cocktail conversation. The same is happening in wine. Producers and sommeliers are embracing more esoteric and indigenous varietals, the kind we can’t quite pronounce at first glance. And in another showing of strong local roots, we’re seeing wine culture (almost) everywhere.
Maybe that’s no surprise. The culture of food is pervasive. And it’s changing the way we do business. If the city is the new countryside, culinary empires are no longer the vertical restaurant-upon-restaurant tower of yore; we’re seeing last year’s chef-driven restaurateurs diversify, creating actual neighborhoods of varied culinary outlets. And perhaps most importantly in food culture, we’re seeing the culture of sustainability extend to include the human element—as the industry (by force, or by choice) takes into account quality of life from production to presentation.
Not that 2013 will be the year they institute hour-long mandatory breaks for every line cook, waiter, and fiscally frustrated restaurateur. But given the emphasis we’re seeing on community and creativity despite limitation of place (or population), we’re looking forward to a good, rewarding year in food and drink. Why? Because the industry is taking ownership, more deeply than ever, and pride in product has never been higher.