Almost a year ago now I sat here and waxed lyrical about how food and the ‘fine dining experience' has so much affiliation with art. Perhaps at that point it did, for me, have an affiliation; and I was able to persuade you to a certain degree that it was true. Well, things have changed, as they always do.
What do I think now? Whilst at some points food can be connected to art, the food world as a whole is much more like fashion than art. Food trends are certainly more changeable than art trends; foams were only cool for a few weeks right? Okay, maybe a few months.
The Fashion of Food
Fine dining is a fashion, being a celebrity chef is a fashion, it's fashionable to own a restaurant, and we haven't even got to the food yet. Foams, micro-greens, sands, dusts, spherification, dry ice, wagyu, kobe, tapas, molecular gastronomy... the list goes on; all fashionable and who knows by next week they could be on the ‘out' list.
The food industry is, or has become, fickle. It's fashionable to eat here, be seen eating there and so, so uncool to be eating that. Why is it suddenly not trendy to eat something? I mean if it works why not still use it?
I suppose the answer lies in the fact that we as a culture are fickle. We want what's new not what's old. We get bored easily, needing constant change to keep up with our appetites.
Impractical, Overplayed and Overpriced
There are a lot trends (read: fashions) that get on my nerves and a few that make sense to me.
Firstly, and some years back now, there was altitude; the higher the food the better. Kitchens around the world were stocked with varying lengths of sawn-off pieces of PVC piping. Towers of food were precariously taken to tables, the waiters copping more than an earful if they didn't arrive at the table still towering. Of course this was really, really impractical and unnecessary.
Next and more recently is foam...foam and more foam. Whilst the invention of flavoured foams was an interesting break-away from traditional, sometimes heavy sauces, they became a tool too often used. Foams became like a great pop song; exciting and vibrant at first, then tedious and annoying after much over-play. Unfortunately they just won't go away.
One trend I'm quite happy to stick around is the food world's rekindled love of cheap meat cuts and offal. The only thing that bothers me about this trend is that now butchers and supermarkets can charge twice as much for the cuts because they are ‘trendy'. For such a long time cheap cuts were frowned upon because they were peasant food. Why would I want to eat something cheap when I'm dining at an expensive establishment? (Another case of the importance of being seen.) Now the reverse is true; it's trendy to serve or be seen eating offal. Morally I support this trend for the sole reason that it's important to respect the animal. It's such a horrible waste to only use this meat or that meat and just throw away the rest.
On the flipside we have the recent trend of excessive, overwhelming decadence purely for the sake of it; a classic example being the gourmet burger. Take some Kobe or Wagyu beef, then do it a complete injustice by mincing it and making a patty. Add some shaved truffle, a nice slab of foie gras, and just in case the fattiness of the foie gras hasn't completely overpowered the subtle flavours of the beef and truffle we'll slap on some expensive, rich cheese to really be sure. You don't have to be a genius to realise they didn't do it for the flavour; they just did it to make money!
And while I'm at it Kobe and Wagyu are a trend in themselves. Whoever brought these meats into popular use has something to answer for. Now I'm not saying they aren't great products, and I don't dispute the effects good marbling has on the end product. What I am saying is just because you say it's great doesn't mean it is. It seems that every suburban housewife and budding cook has to have ‘wagyu marble score 10', when frankly their palates may not be able to tell the difference. Also some people's palates prefer leaner meat, not everyone likes a high fat content. There is also the problem of authenticity. How do I know it's Wagyu? Just because it says so on the menu and has a higher price tag doesn't make it so.
In the Mood for Food
Now I may have the taste for the finer things, but can I afford them? This is by far the most important question being asked across the world right now. Whatever the reasons for the world's economic downturn the consequences are clear. The whole world is penny pinching and the first thing to go is the luxuries. Yachts, sports cars and mansions are all being sold off, so where does this leave the fine dining world?
This brings me to not so much a prediction as an observation of a new trend. Fine dining chefs are abandoning fine dining and going bistro. In Australia, at least, there are a number of chefs embracing the financial hardship of their patrons as well as themselves and opening restaurants at a medium price range, serving well-made comfort food. Fine dining restaurants are expensive to run; most only make money off the alcohol as food costs can be astronomical when dealing with gourmet produce. So why not open a little bistro, make some decent profit off cheaper, simpler food and use this money to keep your fine dining venture afloat. Makes sense right? Another wonderful part of this trend is that some chefs are also putting in their own kitchen gardens. Now this isn't new, but it certainly helps to keep costs down and allows the freshest of produce to be showcased.
This trend couldn't come at a better time for me. Let's just say I'm a little tired of the pretence. Of course I think fine dining food is beautiful and artistic, creative and innovative. I'm just in the mood for food. I'm in the mood for food that looks like food.
I've never been one for fashion; in fact I dislike things that are popular. Perhaps that is the problem at the moment, everyone is a foodie, everyone is a gourmand. I like to like the cool before (or after) it's cool. The heartening part in all this is that I know trends will pass, and good food will always endure.
Images: Homepage - The Bostonian, 2 - Lily & Bloom, 4 Gary Danko