Features Holiday Baking 2008
Culinary Trends 2008
December 2008

Over twenty cities, half dozen countries, hundreds of tastings, and quite literally nearly two thousand dishes, a dozen or so industry conferences, including our own International Chefs Congress… Well, it goes without saying that we came away with a pretty solid sense of what's going on in the industry, from trends to emerging philosophies. Following is a somewhat exhaustive list of the major and minor trends we took note of in 2008.

Call it a national trend or call it a philosophical shift (we're going for the latter ourselves), we couldn’t leave out mention of the continued and growing effort among chefs and restaurants to be more environmentally responsible. In our travels to cities all over the U.S., what we noticed in 2008 was an unprecedented level of awareness amongst chefs; rarely did we encounter someone who didn't know what sustainability was or who didn't have ambitions to do more to have less of an impact on the environment.

The chef-farmer connection is growing stronger as well, with more and more chefs buying locally grown or made products, going to farmers markets, and developing customer growing partnerships with farmers. We were surprised to find that even chefs in the desert town of Las Vegas talk about trying to find and buy more local products, and striking up relationships with nearby growers, including the agriculture department at the University of Nevada.

In the national effort to be better stewards of the environment, bottled water companies have come under greater scrutiny for their indirect contribution to landfills and impact of water transportation. In response to the backlash, restaurants started ditching imported or transported bottled water, and installing tap water filtration systems, like Natura and Nordaq FRESH . Thomas Keller's French Laundry and Per Se are two top-tier restaurants to buck the bottled water; so did Suzanne Goin's Lucques in LA, Le Cirque in New York, and Graham Elliot in Chicago. But green technology like these filtration systems come at a price, so some restaurants are off-setting the expense by selling their filtered water successfully and with a profit, no less.   

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Other beverages are also getting some green attention these days with sommeliers and mixologists finding ways to be more environmentally keen. We've seen an increase in sustainable, organic, and/or biodynamic wines and wine menus, like at RM Seafood in Las Vegas and Tilth in Seattle. More mixologists are hip to using organic produce, juices, and spirits, as at Uncommon Ground in Chicago.

We've got a ways to go, certainly, but 2008 did show us that sustainability and eco-consciousness is on the rise. From recycling and composting to purchasing sustainable seafood, the word is out and we anticipate that chefs and the industry as a whole will develop a deeper understanding of how to be greener while also sustaining their profitability.

Liquid Culture
Overall, Americans are increasingly clued-in on the topics of wine, beer, and spirits. In 2008, sommeliers, mixologists, and beverage directors kept their edge by seeking out more and more esoteric liquids from around the world—from high altitude brewed beers to obscure regional grape varietals to boutique spirits.

Wine and Beer
In the world of wine, we’ve seen Greek and Eastern European wines appearing on a few wine menus, and several upscale casual and fine dining restaurants sommeliers crow about the micro-Champagne they found on a recent trip to France. In general, Champagne has been on the up and up for 2008—growers have even expanded their lots to grow more grapes—but the recession could bring a big slow down for ’09. Diners have already adjusted their wine budgets when at restaurants, so it seems inevitable that the sale of pricier wines, such as Champagne, will decrease—and value-oriented wine sales will go up.

On a larger scale, restaurants are taking advantage of the wine-craze and opening nearby wine bars with hefty (and sometimes pricey) by-the-glass menus and creative bar snacks and small plates. A few are also tapping into the cocktail demand (and avoiding the need for harder-to-get full bar liquor licenses) with wine cocktails. Chef Marco Canora and his wine-guru/partner Paul Grieco opened their small wine/snack bar Terroir around the corner from their flagship restaurant Hearth in Manhattan. Grieco’s wine list is eclectic, featuring wines from lesser-known regions (Brazil, to name one) and several creative wine cocktails.

Artisanal and craft beer are also bubbling to the forefront of many beverage menus due to their lower price points and the sheer variety of craft beers available these days. Additionally, sommeliers are continuing to branch outside of their comfortable grape varietals and pair specialty beers with dishes. We’ve seen an incredible variety of ales and lagers from around the world this year, and, as with wine, the more rarefied, the better. The question that we’re asking is: when will we start seeing beer sommeliers at restaurants? 2009 may reveal the answer.

Mixology continues to be in the hot seat and in the past 12 months we can tell you that the most successful bars are those that combine smart bar management with creative cocktails. Example: Eben Freeman of Tailor (New York) who keeps his drinks on the cutting edge of originality and technique while consistently meeting his numbers. At Restaurant Charlie in Las Vegas we were introduced to their take on how to integrate cocktails into the dining experience—beyond just a little lubricant preceding the meal. Beverage Director Desmond Echavarrie and mixologist Jeremy Merritt paired a cocktail with each dish, but—here’s the catch—not all contained alcohol. Their philosophy behind the idea is two-fold: it gives diners who do not wish to drink alcohol an opportunity to enjoy specialty drinks and it also gives diners a “break” from alcohol during the stream of a multi-course meal. But Restaurant Charlie isn’t the only venue pairing cocktails with dishes. Licorous in Seattle has a whole menu with paired mini-cocktails that you can add on for an additional fee.

As the Charlie team shows, mixology is also permeating restaurant beverage programs—exceptional cocktails are no longer the privileged domain of swank lounges. We’ve seen more restaurants hop on the mixology bandwagon this year and sell their spirited concoctions as though they were appetizers—and at the same prices! And this means more opportunity for mixologists, as full-time employees or hired consultants.

Of course, the culinary influence on cocktails continues to expand: foams and molecular gastronomy are still gaining ground and diversifying—Manhattans to mojitos and beyond. Mixologist David Nelson of Spur in Seattle recently served us his Smoky Martini with a whisky foam and “liquid olive” filled with pureed olive, gin, and brine. Foamers, like iSi’s, are becoming modern mixologists’ new BFFs. And in general the range of tools and gadgets for this class of mixology is growing, from high tech carbonators to specialty ice cube machines, such as Kold-Draft. Another culinary influence we’ve encountered in ’08 are cocktail menus with detailed descriptions of ingredients, and often with the drink’s history (if applicable), creator, and year of inception.

And,like the other categories of liquids, mixologists and bar managers are on the hunt for carefully-crafted, hand-picked, specialty sprits, bitters, tonics, natural sodas, and other ingredients to help set their offerings apart from the rest. Freshly squeezed juices, natural ingredients, and organic spirits are appearing on bar menus (presumably preferred for their perceived health benefits); along those lines, gins, particularly boutique gins, are experiencing a renaissance—at long last replacing vodka as the spirit to mix of choice! And what can we say about St~Germain that isn’t already painfully—but deliciously—obvious? Few can argue that it wasn’t the cocktail enhancer of the year.

Casual is Cool
With French-defined fine dining no longer de rigueur for restaurants and chefs, we’ve experienced a shift in the way we dine in the U.S. It started with the relaxing of dress codes, even in the finest of restaurants and along with it a move toward less formal service. If not extinct then certainly rare and endangered are the days of white gloved waiters, synchronized entrée arrivals, and tableside flambees.

This shift is partly explained by American-born and American-based chefs coming into their own and defining their own standards for presentation, service, and overall ambience (influenced but not restricted by Old World rules and regulations). But other, more recent factors have also played a role, too: the small plate phenomena (arguably introduced by the massive influence of Spanish cuisine, specifically tapas), the arrival of the gastropub concept, and the integration of street food into proper restaurants, certainly helped push the industry and American diners in the casual direction. Come to 2008, and within the framework of an economic downturn-cum-official recession, and what was an option for a restaurant concept has developed into a driving force—if not a practical necessity.

Of course, the concept of casual dining in and of itself isn't new—diners have been around for decades. What separates this brand of casual from the diner is that the food is top-notch—sometimes on the same level as fine dining. Graham Elliot Bowles' eponymous restaurant opened in Chicago in June with the goal of redefining fine dining: Bowles is preparing fine dining level food, but stripped the restaurant of tasting menus, table cloths, flowers, and a dress code (even the servers wear t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers).  

Other examples of casual-with-quality abound across the country: Donald Link of Herbsaint and Cochon (in New Orleans) is just weeks away from opening Cochon Butcher, his own brand of old school butcher and charcuterie selling and serving his house-made sausages and salami (among other specialties) in a wine bar setting. Paul Kahan in Chicago has avec alongside his white table cloth restaurant Blackbird; in Seattle we recently found Justin Neidermeyer's Cascina Spinasse, with upscale Piemontese food served on wooden communal tables, and Sitka & Spruce, situated in a strip mall next to a 7-Eleven, but dishing out well-executed Mediterranean menu items.

Communal Dining
Communal dining is another element of the casual trend in restaurants. During our recent trips to Seattle at the end of this year we saw communal tables in several restaurants, and some chefs taking it to the next level, like Colin Patterson and his partner Amber Tande of Sutra. For these two, "community dining," as they call it, is not simply a trend they're tapping into, it's a philosophical approach to the way we dine. Sutra has just two seatings a night where diners are invited to be seated at the same time at several communal tables and the four-course prix fixe meal is commenced. Persimmon in Manhattan has just one communal table with 24 seats; diners can reserve their seats at the time of their choosing, pick three small plates of neo-Korean food from a prix fixe menu, and rub elbows with neighboring diners. Bill Kim, a 2008 Chicago Rising Star, designed and opened urbanbelly this year with long communal tables.

Restaurant Concepts
With the advent of a casual-is-cool attitude among chefs and diners alike, an increasing number of fine dining chefs are making the leap from high-end to super casual, some bordering on fast food (and many with a direct or indirect ethnic influence): Anita Lo (of Annisa) opened a dumpling place in Manhattan; Jerry Traunfield (of Herbfarm fame) launched his Indian-inspired Poppy in Seattle; Traci Des Jardins in San Francisco has her super-casual Mijita Cocina Mexicana; and Ken Oringer also went for Mexican in Boston with La Verdad Taqueria. For some chefs opening these venues is about fulfilling a long held desire to do something quick and casual, and for others it's about sheer economics: expansion and profits won't come from opening another multi-million dollar high-end restaurant, but it can from a low-cost, high revenue gourmet hot dog shop with the potential to multiply.

In a similar vein, protégés from top kitchens across the U.S. and internationally are choosing to take the low, informal road when opening their own places. Jean Georges alum Josh Eden opened the 32-seat, laid back, American comfort food oriented Shorty's .32 in Manhattan; Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi met at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House in New York and opened the Seattle Korean-American bistro Joule; El Bulli graduates are moving to the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, Spain and launching their own casual venues. In New York City, in particular, Brooklyn neighborhoods are reaping the rewards of Manhattan's high real estate costs and cut-throat competition: Nick Morgenstern, pastry chef maven from Gilt and Gramercy Tavern before that, opened neighborhood haunt The General Greene in Ft. Greene; Bouley alum Bryan Calvert, along with his wife, put together a mom-and-pop restaurant in the Prospect Heights neighborhood called James. It's a smart move on their part, particularly given the current global economic state: go low-key with less cost and bring in the local folk.

Ethnic Goes Upscale
In our 2007 trends assessment we mentioned the increase in upscale casual ethnic food restaurants. Not to toot our own horn too much, but 2008 was a boon year for these establishments. Vongerichten's Spice Markets continue to open across the country thanks to the deal struck with Starwood Hotels, and on a smaller scale the David Chang—and David Chang-backed—East Village (Manhattan) empire of Asian-influenced eateries continues to expand (e.g. Momofuku Ko and Persimmon). Another Manhattan-based chef/restaurateur is making waves with a series of Asian-styled restaurants. This year Zakary Pelaccio opened pan-Asian Chop Suey, expanded his Malaysian-focused Fatty Crab to the Upper West Side, and will soon launch Fatty 'Cue in Brooklyn. Additionally, Kampuchea came into being in Manhattan's Lower East Side with its Cambodian menu designed by Chef Ratha Chau. In November of this year, Seattle chef Eric Banh opened his second iteration of the successful Monsoon, Monsoon East.   

Related, though not always strictly ethnic, is the rise of the noodle bar. In Manhattan, we've seen Jean-Georges Vongerichten open Matsugen, a high-fashion restaurant that focuses on handmade soba noodles Tokyo-style among other items, and several Tokyo-based noodle chains have planted their first U.S. roots in the Big Apple as well; Boom Noodle in Seattle is a fusion of Japanese noodle techniques and local Northwest ingredients; and Chicago's urbanbelly serves a variety of pan-Asian noodles in its minimalist dining room.

Restaurants Flying Under the Radar
Going off the grid with underground restaurants or supper clubs is another surging trend in cities across the country, especially amongst the 30's-and-under set. They offer creative freedom—not to mention health department and tax freedom—and an alternative to the established restaurant industry for both trained chefs and ambitious un-trained cooks. For self-described "foodies" and gourmands, it's yet another way to explore and experience food in an intimate and informal setting (i.e. the host's dining or living room), and usually at a considerably lower price point than at a traditional restaurant. Of course, the secrecy element of these supper clubs adds an element of mystique and exclusivity that many find exciting, too. (We had the fortune to attend a supper club in Seattle, called Cache that's run by Lorna Yee; the $50 per person supper consisted of a three-course meal served on a communal table for twelve.)

The usual dish or bowl fits the bill for many chefs' sense of presentation, but for others pushing the aesthetic envelop is a life pursuit. Heston Blumenthal of Fat Duck in England knows no limits, not even sand is off the menu. Of course, it’s not really sand, but his replication of sand (made of baby eels, ice cream sugar cone, panko, and maltodextrin to name just a few ingredients) that accompanies “seashells” (i.e. lily bulb) and “sea” (i.e. a broth made from clams, mussels, cockles, seaweed, oyster liquor, and white soy sauce). The entire dish is called “Sound of the Sea” and is presented with a sea shell containing an i-Pod and earplugs for the diner to quite literally listen to the sounds of the sea while eating it.

Not everyone goes to the same lengths as Blumenthal, but redefining—or perhaps you could even say un-defining—plating remains a philosophical pursuit for many experimental chefs. Grant Achatz of Alinea (Chicago) fame centered his entire 2008 ICC presentation on the subject of plating, service ware, and the challenges he faces when trying to adapt his ideas to actual dishes. Achatz custom-designs many of his service “dishes” to meet his presentation needs, one example of which is the wax bowl for his well-known Hot Potato/Cold Potato dish. (You can see Achatz's ICC presentation in our ICC 2008 Mainstage Pack DVD set.)

As always, inspiration from industry leaders like Blumenthal and Achatz have trickled down to up-and-coming chefs and more casual restaurants; chefs in various cities in the US are using aromatics in their dish presentations for a more “experiential” dining experience. Hand-held smokers are adding puffs of smoke under tiradito and other dish lids to be released at the table; hot plates are placed on evergreen branches to release their piney essence a la Thomas Buckley’s Steamed Hog Fish Snapper at Nobu, Miami; at Guy Savoy in Las Vegas Pastry Chef Uyen Nguyen creates an aromatic chamomile tea steam that envelopes the dish and diner. 

Chefs are also finding inspiration from the food that they grew up with. At the edge of modernity, Italy's Carlo Cracco of Cracco in Milano reinvents classic Italian dishes, like risotto, but not with rice. Rather Cracco rolls pieces of wafer paper into tiny rice-size "grains" and flash cooks them until they replicate an al dente texture. In the same vein, Enqrique Olvera of Restaurante Pujol (Mexico City) interprets Mexican classics through a modern lense resulting in the classic bold flavors, but presented with a minimalist aesthetic.  

At long last we have arrived at the end of the foam backlash. Once derided for its alleged superfluity and hyper-celebrity, foams have finally settled into a comfortable supporting role for the dishes on which they appear. The bubbly, barely-there liquids are a useful, ethereal element when done well and no longer the flashy showpiece of the dish. What’s more, foams are no longer the exclusive domain of experimental or fine dining chefs. Upscale-casual and even casual restaurant kitchens are more carefully using them as a humble way to deliver a flavor without saucing up the plate. Case in point, Sam Crannel's "aerated" blue cheese with buffalo frogs legs casually dished up at Quinn's in Seattle; in Maria Hines’ (of Tilth, Seattle) Sous Vide Wild Alaskan Halibut with Cranberry Beans, Lacinato Kale, and Preserved Lemon, the lemon foam, judiciously spooned over the fillet, isn’t even mentioned in the dish description.

Where Have All the Pastry Chefs Gone?
Textural contrast, incorporation of spices, modern mignardises, and table service were four significant pastry trends we noted in 2008. Amongst a certain class of pastry chefs, the repertoire for dessert dishes seems without boundaries. Pastry chefs are playing with foams (frozen or not), aromatics, various spices typically seen in the savory world, eggless "puddings", and liquid sablés. And new terms are entering into the national pastry lexicon, like liquid sablé (which we were introduced to in 2007 by Jordan Kahn formerly of Varietal).

Pastry Chef Rick Billings demonstrated his frozen and shattered foam technique in his ICC workshop this year—showing us the potential for textural and temperature contrast in a dish. Similarly, we've seen other pastry talent conjure temperature and textural wonders, such as Sandro Micheli's (Adour, New York) Dark Chocolate Sorbet, Coffee Granita, Caramelized Brioche Croutons: a warm chocolate sauce is poured into the sorbet and granita and, along with the toasty croutons, it melts into the dish. Micheli's chocolate sauce table service wasn't the only one we saw—the savory trend we reported in '07 seems to have migrated to the sweet side for '08. Sauces of all sorts were served tableside for pastry this year. 

Another ground-breaking pastry magician created modern mignardise for another ICC pastry workshop that summarized some of the ways pastry chefs are breaking barriers with flavor combinations and technique. Michael Laiskonis of Le Bernardin (NYC) worked menthol into an agar-gelled mint jelly served on a wafer of dark chocolate; in another peanut butter powder filled a chocolate cup; and in a third, a square of chocolate ganache was garnished with ground freeze-dried corn and piment d'espelette.

However, if we could only make one observation about the state of pastry in the US for 2008, it would be without a doubt that there is a dearth of excellent pastry chefs across the country. There are just a few (compared to the wealth of savory talent) who represent the potential of the sweet arts, Alex Stupak, Rick Billings, Michael Laiskonis, and Kamel Guechida are a few at the forefront. And we've discovered a handful of up-and-coming talent this year in our Rising Star cities: Uyen Nguyen of Guy Savoy (Las Vegas); Vera Tong of Dovetail and Sandro Micheli of Adour (New York City); Elissa Narow of Spring and Custom House and Tim Dahl of Blackbird and Avec (Chicago); Malka Espinel of Johnny V's and Joel Lahon of Nobu (South Florida). If there's ever a time to focus on pastry, now is the time.

The Recession Effect
Business is down, expansion projects are being put on hold, and there's a lot of industry belt-tightening and bated breath, hoping that 2009 will bring a turn-around—and we certainly hope it will. (Check out our Economy Survey results here and our Summer Economy Survey here.) For chefs and beverage directors it's an imperative to cut back on food costs, but while still maintaining quality and standards. Cutting back on portion sizes is always an option, but we've seen chefs getting creative with low-cost prix fixe deals to keep their customers coming in and filling their vacant seats. Naturally, fine dining will be hit the hardest; casual/upscale casual will fare better, as they have been already pre-recession. Somewhat ironically, alcohol sales tend to remain the same or even increase during times of economic hardship. Needless to say, it's a good time to develop or re-introduce that cocktail program.