By Benjamin Norris
Food and gastronomy has always been at the mercy of the whims of fashion. Like everything else in our society, it flows to the beat of what’s in and out, of what’s hot and what is most decidedly not. This is by no means always a bad thing: as much as some of us enjoy grumbling about the fripperies and transience of certain trends, food fashion has historically had as many hits as it has had misses. Indeed, much of the international cuisine we all enjoy on a regular basis is a product of trends which, although may now have passed, left us with a multitude of new flavours to familiarise ourselves with, and more colour and dynamism on our high streets.
However, while we can happily talk at length about the positive aspects of a globalised food culture, there is plenty to say about the flipside. When gastronomic historians look back at the second decade of the twenty-first century, there’s a decent chance that it will be labeled as the era in which cultural food norms lost their way; it was the epoch of fusions for which nobody asked (Vietnamese-Welsh street food, anyone?), headline-grabbing concoctions featuring lists of eye-wateringly expensive – and yet tasteless or clashing – ingredients, and perhaps worst of all, trendsetting dishes seemingly designed to be Instagrammed rather than eaten. This latter point, that of social media’s hijacking of contemporary dining, is the one which reveals the most about social life in general – and what it reflects really isn’t a pretty sight.
Walk down any gentrified high street of the modern world – from Dubai to Dublin, Berlin to Brooklyn, London to Lima, and you’ll probably come across the same rash of faintly ridiculous contemporary food trends. Towering ‘freakshakes’, with their artery-panicking stacks of additions which do nothing to add to the drink itself. Rainbow doughnuts. Rainbow Bagels. Rainbow ice cream cro-nuts… it seems that nothing is free from the multicoloured dyes of the millennial kitchen entrepreneur.
Ask yourselves: who are these delicacies aimed at? Had you asked anybody ten years ago this question, the chances are they’d hesitate serving them at a nine year old girl’s birthday party for fear of appearing patronising. Today, people hand over their cash, select a fashionably over-exposed filter on their smartphone camera, and share it on social media before (we assume) eating it. The pleasure comes from the fact the consumer is in on the scene, rather than from the titillation of the tastebuds – the Instagram account exists to show proof of purchase, rather than any evidence of enjoyment.
Plates of nothingness, fit only for cyberspace
Perhaps the most pristine example of all this faux-foodie narcissism came about this year, in the form of the raindrop cake. Invented by New Yorker Darren Wong, it supposedly takes its inspiration from a range of desserts popular in (where else?) Tokyo and takes the form of a round, transparent gelatinous blob on a wooden board. Raindrop cakes are made from two ingredients: spring water and agar – an algae derived jellifying substance, and taste of essentially nothing. To counteract their lack of flavour, they are served with a sprinkling of roasted soybean flour and a lick of brown sugar syrup, both of which are ingredients you’d never think of eating on their own, and yet with the raindrop cake, this is essentially what you are being asked to do.
Despite the fact that the raindrop cake is little more than a flavourless, formless mound of matter, a deep sea horror which has somehow found its way into the kitchens of only the trendiest eateries, it has been a hit. So much so, in fact, that raindrop cakes are being served in select restaurants worldwide, and are flooding social media where their smooth surfaces and sense of intrigue are more than adequate at covering up their utter blandness. Darren Wong has been catapulted from obscurity to fame, and the dish’s success is measured via Facebook likes, retweets and Instagram shares. And here we find the essence of this entire movement: a new genre of food has been born, free from the old boundaries of national borders. Not French, not Mexican, Tibetan or Australian Bushtucker Outback Fare, but Insta-friendly, and the ultimate expression of style over substance.
Society, plated and served
Few chefs would admit to producing dishes specifically with Instagram and social media in mind, but the power of these user-led marketing tools is now impossible to deny. In a highly competitive restaurant market, getting your meticulously constructed dishes snapped and shared by a key influencer on social media can see your profit margins boom, and this is all the more likely to happen if your food has a visible element helping it stand out from the crowd. While contemporary chefs go on and on about wanting their ingredients to shine, and reflecting the highly hashtag-able concept of ‘authenticity’ through their food, who is going to say no to effective, fast-paced free advertising?
It could be argued that most chefs merely provide that which we hunger for, and as such, are just giving us what we want. As a society, we no longer go online. We are online; our lives are lived through the screens of our smartphones. Virtual reality has become reality, computer games now resemble life, and life has become gamified. It could be said that we have become somewhat infantilised as a result, and the food we flock to and our response to food may be the strongest indicator of this. Just look at the other key trend this year, of ‘unicorn food’; a nightmarish flood of glitter and sparkles, sprinkles, whipped cream and complex sugars that can only be for the purpose of sharing online. After all, nobody would be able to actually eat the stuff. Isn’t there something tragic about that? The balance has tipped so far that certain foodstuffs have become primarily something to look at, to buy, to tell friends about… but not to eat.
The return of substance
While food trends will always come and go, it is clear that the purveyors of raindrop cakes and unicorn ice cream need to at least be aware of one thing: that their fad soon too will pass, and as history has demonstrated time and time again, people will soon be looking once more for gastronomic experiences of substance, and not merely of style. Food should not exist to be enjoyed via a screen, it should be revelled in physically, shared among friends, savoured on the tongue and used to expand the palate and the mind. When we think back on our fondest food memories, it is not to the ephemeral, fashionable dishes our minds turn. Instead, we reminisce about the hearty, the rustic, the dishes made with passion, by people who genuinely care about feeding you a meal to remember.
Great food – indeed, the greatest food – can be impossibly simple: fresh, flavourful tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil and spread over artisan bread still warm from the oven can bring tears to the eye of even the most jaded of chefs. It can also be incredibly complicated – just ask anyone who has slaved over a consommé, making reductions and building up layers of flavour to achieve that depth and powerful savoury hit. When dishes are served with love, pride and attention, in a restaurant where the physicality of the food takes centre stage, diners don’t immediately reach for their smartphones – they inhale the aromas, catch each other’s eye, and reach for their fork, instead.
Benjamin Norris is an avid food writer and has contributed to many well-respected food publications around the world. He now contributes to FoodSheikh. FoodSheikh is looking to expand his content offerings. If you have any good ideas or want to collaborate, give me a shout.