It’s that time of year when everyone is making their Top Ten lists. Not to be left out, I’ve compiled one of own. But unlike some others, my list names five food, drink or restaurant trends that everyone is sick of hearing about but I believe are keepers into 2014 and beyond. On the bottom of my list are five industry trends that I wish would finally come to an end—maybe forever.
1. Farm-to-table menus. Just hearing the overused “farm-to-table” phrase is enough to tempt a frequent restaurant goer to make a meal entirely of processed, mass produced foods. But terminology aside, this has been a really good thing for the dining public—not to mention chefs and farmers. Produce, dairy and meats sourced locally or from small farms and ranches really taste better. And chefs are working to support producers who are growing and raising carefully tended ingredients, providing a good livelihood for some who were ready to turn in their tractors a few years back. Maybe we just need to ditch the wording and come up with more creative language to replace farm-to-table, but this is a trend that has true benefits for the long term.
2. Master mixology. I’ll admit I get impatient waiting for a cocktail that takes ten minutes to prep because it requires hand-picked herbs, housemade bitters, freshly made simple syrup and expert muddling by a bar chef. But the mixology movement has so upgraded the drinks selection at many establishments, the cocktail program is now the draw—sometimes surpassing the food. I for one can never go back to a margarita made from a mix. But the best compromise to emerge is the batched drink in which top- tier, fresh ingredients are mixed ahead of time to speed the cocktail making process.
3. Shared plates. Okay, sharing can be annoying, especially when you know exactly what you want on the menu—and you want it all to yourself. But I like to try a lot of different dishes when I go to a restaurant and ordering many items for the table to share is the only way to do it without going into a food coma—or a monetary crisis. I even think the much-maligned communal table has its place. On a recent visit to ABC Cocina in New York City with a friend, we sat next to a group of strangers and we all tasted from one another’s plates. The sharing expanded all our palates and created a bond with new foodie friends. Millennials and baby boomers sharing a love of food.
4. Kale. You can barely pick up a menu these days without seeing a kale salad or a bed of kale accompanying an entree. Some futurists are predicting that broccoli will be the “it” vegetable of 2014. Others are saying kale is giving way to all brassicas, including broccoli as well as Brussels sprouts, cabbage and Swiss chard. But kale was the gateway green; the vegetable that chefs embraced and turned into a craveable menu item. Now people are eating more greens, which can only be a good thing.
5. Food trucks. When they park in front of your restaurant, food trucks are downright evil. But they are a necessary evil in today’s food culture. They have introduced countless customers to global specialties and culinary adventure at a price point that is gentle on the wallet. What’s more, the food truck provides an affordable entry for the chef or operator who wants to test out a concept before taking the brick-and-mortar plunge. Portland, Ore. and a handful of other cities have successfully solved the competition problem by establishing food truck centers as dining destinations.
1. Celebrity chefs. I’ve had my fill of Top Chefs, Iron Chefs and most other TV cooking celebs. It’s gotten to the point where every culinary school graduate wants to go straight from the classroom into the TV studio and land lucrative endorsement deals—before chalking up much hands-on experience. It’s time to renew respect for chefs who are committed to honing their craft by slowly and professionally working their way up through the kitchen ranks.
2. Better burger concepts. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good burger made with premium ingredients and customized to my liking. But how many times a week do I eat a burger—and how many choices do I need? Is it really necessary for yet another better burger concept to join the crowded field…especially when it’s pretty similar to its neighbor down the road?
3. The next Cronut. The Cronut is a scrumptious sensation that deserved attention—but probably not the long lines—it generated. But now every professional and amateur baker is trying to invent the next pastry hybrid. Biscuits, scones, brioche and muffins are really great on their own—why not let well enough alone? Or put more effort into making these the best in class.
4. Gluten-free everything. Doubtful the millions of gluten-free eaters were lining up for Cronuts (unless they were sneaking in a crumb or two.) The truth is, many customers who request gluten-free menu items are not gluten-sensitive and do not have celiac disease. There’s a widespread belief that avoiding gluten is a healthier way to eat. It’s admirable that restaurants are accommodating gluten-free demands with expertly prepared food. But similar to the low-carb and oat bran crazes of a few years back, it’s time for Americans to realize that there is no magic diet bullet.
5. Nose-to-tail extremists. Crispy pig ears and pickled lamb tongues can be a treat, and it’s heartening to see how creative kitchens are getting with various parts of the animal. But some chefs have gone too far, thinking they are enticing diners by putting the animal’s whole head on the plate. Maybe I’m a bit squeamish, but I kind of lose my appetite when I see my dinner staring back at me. Please skip the eyes.