David Santos is one of New York’s most creative chefs, with more than a decade’s experience in some of the city’s top kitchens, including Bouley and Per Se. While serving as executive chef/partner at Louro, David garnered acclaim from The New York Times, Zagat, Michelin and others for his uniquely personal style of cooking. He is currently hosting pop-up dinners and hot chicken events around the country while planning his next venture. You can reach him at chefdavidsantos.com.
To talk about the crazes of today, I think we really have to look back in time as the dynamic of it all has changed. By literal definition, a craze is something that people go crazy about for a short period of time. The real transformation takes place when a craze becomes a trend — something long-lasting that may have started with a huge bang but then holds on for a while, perhaps even years. When I look back, I don’t recall many crazes the way we see them today.
In my lifetime, the first food trend that I can really remember is the height trend. Beginning in the ’80s and well into the ’90s, dishes became almost impossibly tall. The higher the better, and if it was under four inches, well, you just weren’t trying hard enough. I’d bet that many an injury was suffered by macadamia-nut sugar spikes! Height held on for a long time, and shortly after height, (I hate using this word) “fusion” cuisine arrived. Perhaps this trend was the beginning of people becoming more comfortable with different foods in general, though that would have been the very early stages of this movement. We saw some great stuff come out of this trend, like French/Japanese cuisine, but there were also some absolutely terrible things that came from it, too. Like Chino-Latino.
I even went as far as making a dish that combined three crazes together when I paired pork belly with uni and fermented cabbage — we couldn’t keep enough of that dish in-house.
I would say that this was the first time where a chef had to make a decision. Trends aren’t the same as crazes. So if you are making quality French or Italian food, there is no reason to start doing fusion. But if you are just opening a place, that’s when the decision comes into play: Do I do what I know best or do I do what the public may be chasing at this time? Again, this was not quite the same as it is today, but it was the beginning.
When the 2000s came around, things really started to change. You started to see trends morphing into crazes. Still not the crazes we know today, but looking back, it’s funny to think about. Through this era of food, we saw all these buzz words. Things like farm-to-table, organic, sustainable and seasonal all started breaking their way into restaurants’ dynamic. Still, these terms were more trend-like then craze-like. But then along came bacon, and if I had to put a finger on the first true craze, it would probably be that. I’m not sure how it happened. Maybe it was the Atkins diet, but sure enough, bacon became a craze. It became harder and harder to have menu items without bacon in them. But hey, at least bacon is fucking delicious, right? Bacon went from being a craze to being a trend — a trend that still lasts today. A bacon restaurant opened in New York City in recent years and is holding on strong.
With the advent of social media, Yelp and blogs, things started to change. Chefs were faced with the pressure to keep up with it all, but at what cost? The dining public all of a sudden seemed focused on what was hot right then and there, rather than issues important for the future, like sustainability and ingredient sourcing. Recent crazes that I can remember are things like pork belly, uni, ramen, s’mores, fermenting, burgers in general, and the latest, chicken sandwiches (Momofuku founder David Chang, East Coast burger fave Shake Shack and Southern mega-chain Chick-fil-A are among those presently competing for NYC poultry-patty supremacy), just to name a few. There have been many, and with every year that goes by there are always more.
Chefs are put into a predicament that can be uncomfortable. My best career example of this would be the burger. Now, I love a juicy burger. But do I want to cook burgers for a living? Not a fucking chance. That’s not what I feel I was put on this earth to do. If you polled chefs across the States, they would say the same. But we are forced to embrace the craze or trend because that is what people are talking about — it’s the thing people are looking to eat at that time. As a chef, you can do one of two things: Say “fuck it,” stand your ground and don’t do a burger; or embrace it and make the best damn burger you can, which is what we did at Louro. I still didn’t want to serve a burger at dinner, so my compromise was to do a burger at brunch only. We did an amazing belly-goat burger that The Village Voice declared the city’s best non-beef burger two years in a row.
The examples of this sort of thing are endless in my career because we were constantly pressed to make the decision. I even went as far as making a dish that combined three crazes together when I paired pork belly with uni and fermented cabbage — we couldn’t keep enough of that dish in-house. I eventually took it off the menu because I was so tired of seeing it, and while it was delicious, I just had had enough. It’s a tough choice, though, for a lot of us. Do we jump on the current bandwagon and try to keep getting the “foodie” crowd to come in or do we take a risk and just keep cooking what we do? I’ve had a lot of friends get fired or go out of business because they didn’t want to bend to the will of the masses. I guess it really depends on who you are and what kind of place you have. I mean, there are several restaurants in this city that do whatever the fuck they want and that’s cool — basically that’s every chef’s dream right there. But at most places, you just can’t do that.
The chef is still stuck in the middle of all this. I can recount many times when my PR team was contacted about whatever the craze was, and they, in turn, contacted me. Knowing my menus are constantly evolving, they would ask, “Do you have anything in the works for that?” Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t, but either way I always let creativity take over and came up with something. I felt that being involved with as many stories as possible would help promote the restaurant and keep Louro at the forefront of people’s minds as a place to check out. I tried to use the various crazes at Louro in the same way a big business uses a loss leader: Get the public in the house spending money and give them a great time.
Now, not all crazes are bad, and some of them can even be a lot of fun. I have a vested interest in this chicken-sandwich craze that we have going on right now. I did Nashville-style hot chicken at Louro for about a year before we closed, and people had a blast with it. I continue to use the momentum that the chicken sandwich has for my hot chicken pop-ups, and I think it’s a fun challenge to make the best sandwich. But it could also be the next golden goose. It has all the potential that the burger did in the way that it appeals to the masses.
Most chefs are now looking for that thing that will help them launch a financial success and not just a media or success with notoriety. I mean, which one of us wouldn’t trade places with Danny Meyer? With the agenda of “How can I use this to maybe do what I dream of doing?” I believe that the chicken sandwich is one of those crazes that will indeed become a trend. We are going to be talking about this one for quite some time. But even after we are done talking about it, places will continue to open serving chicken sandwiches.
Where is this all headed? I know as far as myself and many other chefs are concerned, we probably miss the days where we didn’t have to do so many things just because. It can feel a lot like being in a rat race. Every story that comes out in January is always about the next top ten crazes or what the big trend will be in the coming year. Most of us would probably prefer if things slowed down just a hair. Most of us want to find the success we dream of and be happy with what we are doing in the end. At times, being forced to keep changing and adapting is tough on chefs — even someone like me, who embraces change and has always tried to have a lot of fun with it. But I would still love if people worried less about what’s next and more about what’s great.