But as the “spirit of the age” seems to be leaning towards getting back to normal, however delusional that aspiration may be, it’s worth considering whether the restaurant business will pick up where it left off.
So where did it leave off?
Well, with a fascination with well-sourced ingredients, farm-to-table dining, with the origin of your raw materials often appearing on the menu.
The farm-to-table obsession with origins has of course been with us for some time and it was certainly a positive development over all. Fresh ingredients are the first step in great cuisine. But they are a necessary, not sufficient condition for good food. What you do with the ingredients counts as well. I can’t help but think that some of that obsession with origins wasn’t always genuine. After all, how would a diner know if a restaurant’s claims about where they sourced there ingredients were true or not. As the movement spread over the last two decades it became required as a matter of etiquette to opine about the importance of origins even if you didn’t care much about it.
Me-too-ism afflicts not only the edible arts but any art form, especially in the age of instant communication. When someone has a successful approach to music or the visual arts, it is instantly communicated around the globe, and the temptation to capitalize on the trend is more than up-and-coming artists looking for an angle can resist.
Chefs are no different.
But I suspect there are financial reasons for excessive conformism in the edible arts. In the increasingly low-margin, risky, restaurant business, playing it safe might seem like the prudent approach, especially given the conservatism of diners and the uncertainties of appealing to critics.
A more recent trend that also caught on was taking risks and surprising diners with unusual flavor combinations, as chefs sought greater self-expression in their work. At top-shelf dining establishments this often meant 22-course meals which became challenging for chef and diner alike. It’s hard to find harmony and unity of purpose over these multi course meals unless the chef is remarkable skillful at conceptualization—many are not. Too often, showing off was the point.
Both of these trends were accompanied by a transformed dining experience. Linen and crystals, stuffy waitstaff, and overdressed clientele were replaced by small, casual, downscale venues with earthy, inviting decors, and more informal interaction between kitchen and dining room. That emerging cooking style was eclectic, from rustic, home-style to dishes intended to surprise and challenge diners.
The new formula seems to be this: self-expression minus the pretense of upper class snobbery equals authenticity. Again, this trend has been on the whole a good thing. And the emphasis on personal self-expression aspiring to excellence brings cooking much closer to the activity of the fine arts. But does this formula give us great food or just interesting food?
This question poses a real dilemma for cooks aspiring to be artists aiming at self-expression. In the visual arts, self-expression accompanied by an interesting idea in a compelling package is enough to attract notice. A work needn’t produce sensual pleasure—vile, disgusting, or disturbing works are common in exhibitions of contemporary art.
However, chefs cannot dismiss the demand to produce sensual pleasure. It is one thing to view something unpleasant, quite another to take it into one’s body. In this, chefs are like musicians. If they want an audience, their work must gratify the senses. Although some musical works have received notice despite being difficult to listen to—I have in mind the modernist avant-garde works of the mid-20th century—their audience was tiny and largely restricted to academics. Sound, like food, enters the body and our response is similarly visceral.
It thus remains to be seen whether diners are seeking creativity or just a good meal. I always come down on the side of creativity but that’s just me.
As the dining scene regains momentum, what new trends will emerge?