A few years ago, when we’d just launched Food Republic, I read a post on another food website that declared that the biggest trend to look out for in the year ahead would be the New Nordic — followed by a declaration that you’d see many restaurants appear in New York peddling smoked fish and foraged ingredients. At the time, the post made me so angry I vowed to avoid ever publishing such drivel; all this time later, I still can’t find a decent plate of lacto-fermented forest-floor lichen at my neighborhood spot in Brooklyn.
That said, as when passing a car wreck, it’s hard to look away when the food trend pieces just keep coming. Given the proliferation of food media, it’s not surprising that there are so many voices straining to declare seaweed the new kale, but I find the whole exercise dispiriting. Why reduce food and drink culture to a bullet point? Or downplay the individualism of hard-working chefs? Or pigeonhole diners? The cynical answer is to chase readers and to create content at a time when not much news is happening. I wish some of this energy would be directed at helping enrich people in the food ecosystem who are trying to effect change, like the first-generation farmers I’ve been meeting during forays into upstate New York. I find it strange that I have seen not one mention of such ambitious souls — but I don’t want to reduce their efforts to a trend, so I’ll leave that story for another day.
In the meantime, I spent a bit of time combing through notable trend listicles to see if there are any accurate-seeming projections, but also, I’ll admit, to find the latest version of the “New Nordic” declaration. And yes, I’ve found many! I’ve broken down the food trends of 2016 stories into three categories: the good, the not so good (I don’t want to go more negative than I’ve already gone) and the befuddling:
Not surprisingly, The Guardian‘s commentary is among the best I found. In a story called “10 Ways to Improve British Food and Drink in 2016,” writer Tony Naylor calls for more thoughtful cheese platters at restaurants, a return to the small one-chef restaurant, later opening times for currently lunch-centric sandwich shops and a more enlightened approach to the national dish, fish and chips, using better ingredients. The list is sharp, to the point and presents a roadmap to better food trends rather than blithely naming things that are happening; it’s aimed at Brits, but mostly applicable anywhere.
Eater smartly sidestepped the task that it almost seems destined to have — to at least weigh in on the moribund food trends of ’16 list frenzy — instead enlisting author Jaya Saxena and illustrator Matt Lubchansky to present a graphic-novelized take on 2016. What does it hold? “Some chef had a 2-hour layover in Skopje,” one panel notes, leading into the next, featuring a chef presenting a dish to puzzled diners: “…So break out the Tavce Gravce, because you’re eating Macedonian food next year.”
Though it’s not a trend story per se, increasingly connected New York Times food writer Jeff Gordinier got the scoop on changes to Eleven Madison Park’s menu, which de facto became the first true trend story of 2016. The story, published this week, notes that chef Daniel Humm and restaurateur Will Guidara are going minimalist with their tasting menu, while allowing diners more choice. Gordinier picked up on this theme, deftly noting another groundbreaking restaurant with a similar idea. “At spots like the Progress, in San Francisco, where guests glance at a sheet of paper and use a pencil to check off which tasting menu items they desire, there is evidence that restaurateurs are coming back to the old-fashioned idea that customers want some control over what they eat,” Gordinier writes. A Food Republic editor ate at the Progress last week and expounds on the experience: “Every meal comes with five smaller plates that are set, then you choose four larger dishes from two lists — medium and large plates. There are also smaller one-off items that you can order. They’ll also return your marked menu to you for reference.”
It’s a late entry that appeared while I was writing this, but Bon Appétit‘s “11 Healthy Food Trends We’re Psyched for in 2016” is witty, well presented and comes with examples of restaurants putting the trends into practice — a nice touch. Some of it is obtuse (chlorophyll?), but picks such as designer oatmeal, better grass-fed meats and fresh turmeric are spot-on.
The Not So Good
Sadly, we’ll have to wait for USA Today‘s food trends of 2016 story — the newspaper seems to publish ’em a couple of weeks in — but I came across some clichéd doozies from previous years, such as “Peruvian is the New Thai” (2014) and “Toast is a Flavor” (2015). I’m guessing the $2 daily will predict that we’ll all be eating sushi and sauerbraten on pumpernickel bread or some such nonsense.
That said, others would like to contend with middle America’s paper of record for outlandish predictions in the meantime. UK-based the Food People suggests that we’ll be burning things like lettuce on purpose (“Black is the new black”) and swapping out our favorite liquid base (“Souping is the new juicing”). That said, the list, presented as an infographic, does point to some relevant trends, albeit fairly well-known ones, such as seaweed and high-end delivery options.
I’ve never been a fan of Adam Platt’s restaurant reviewing style at New York magazine; he always seems to pass judgment based on whims rather that reality. And while I chuckled at one entry out of his “11 Dining Trends We’re Tired Of” (the one about radishes: “Sure, we love the radish, just not when it’s served on carved wood plates, with a delicate garnish of rock salt, before every damn restaurant meal”), the piece was mostly just tired jabs from an overly sated restaurant critic.
Navigating a post on Forbes reminds me of that Dave Chappelle skit where he wonders what would happen if the Internet was real life, and he gets waylaid into buying bootleg CDs and eventually lured into bestiality. Not that the pop-up ads and come-ons are so lurid, but after several attempts to get past item 3 of How 10 Food Trends for 2016 Will Transform Restaurants, only to get besieged by calls for newsletter signups or to click here for more — after already waiting a few seconds for an ad to play before allowing me on the site — I just gave up. From what I can tell, restaurants will serve more GMO-free Sriracha via delivery. Beyond that, I’m left to guess: Farm to space to table? Fast casual gets slowed down? No-tipping policies go extreme, with severe punishments for those who leave gratuities? Possibly!
OK, I see why Nation’s Restaurant News would want to publish a trends list (“Chefs Predict Hot Food Trends for 2016” — presumably with the “hot” referring to the trends, rather than the food), but the trade mag went nuts with the concept, surveying 1,600 chefs, making a video and ultimately coming to the same conclusions as the proverbial pajama-clad blogger. Namely, that chef-driven fast-casual restaurants and ethnic spices will be BIG in ’16. Here’s the video, FWIW:
Miami’s Ocean Drive magazine also farmed out their list to chefs, and my old pal Sean Brasel of the excellent Meat Market comes through with the prediction that more chefs will explore using fermented ingredients. Other Miami chefs are on-key for the most part, calling out vegetable-focused entrées, smaller chef-driven bistros and the use of exotic spices. This actually would have been a solid list if the writer had bothered to frame it better, pointing to prescient local trends beyond what her subjects supplied rather than using tired phrasing in the too-brief intro about “heralded toques” citing “gastronomical trends.” (Disclosure: I am the founding editor of Miami magazine and maybe still harbor hostility toward this rival publication.)
Last but certainly not least is Yahoo Food, which is the latest food media entity to instruct me to eat raw fish prepared in the Hawaiian style Poke, which I will not be doing intentionally in 2016. I also won’t be eating Spam, and while I love bread, I hardly think that bread went away enough to herald “the return of bread.” These are three of what Yahoo Food claims are the “16 Food Trends That Will Take 2016 by Storm.” Then there’s artisan ice cream (yawn), seaweed (again!), “veggies take center stage,” pop-up restaurants and healthy fast food (note to editors: “by storm” implies bold choices), all pretty weak entries, while “fermented everything” and “New Jewish cuisine” redeem this list somewhat. Still, I kind of wished for an out-on-the-limb choice like Old Jewish vs. New Nordic: Battle of the Food Trends.
OK, so lest I seem like an armchair critic, here’s my token prediction for 2016: Expect more Asian-Western mash-ups*, as evidenced in this video featuring chef Tim Maslow merging Japanese and Italian ingredients to tantalizing effect:
*While I was writing this story, Eater surmised that David Chang’s newest planned restaurant could be a Korean-Italian hybrid. So there.