This year in food trends we focus on American chefs who have found a true voice crafting a mature national cuisine; vegetarianism becoming not only accepted but celebrated; and the mainstreaming of previously "weird" ingredients. A broadening of consciousness brings our palates in concert with our environment and springboards towards more exploration in 21st century gastronomy.
Rise of the American Chef/American Gastronomy
What does it mean to cook American? U.S. chefs are creating a national gastronomy beyond tradition, using inventive and imaginative powers to cook in a "melting pot" that can integrate flavors, techniques and ingredients influenced by Asian, French, Southern and Latin cuisines, just to name a few. What they do with these inspirations is to create a masterful American gastronomic landscape that defies borders, yet continually challenges them. We need only look to chef David Myers (Hinoki and the Bird) bringing subtle Asian tastes of lime leaf, hinoki and miso to his flawless technique; to Daniel Humm (The NoMad), balancing flavors like morcilla, juniper, kumquat and dashi; to Charlie Palmer's progressive cuisine at Aureole for Thai spiced Maine lobster or roasted venison loin with savory oats and candied seeds. Their cooking is self-confident, just like their country.
"Weird" Foods Are Hip
Anyone hungry for pig's ear? Frogs, tongues and gizzards used to make Americans go "eeeew." But lately, many of the hottest chefs are putting once-disdained offal — and other foods deemed as too "foreign" or "ethnic" — into the haute spotlight. Indeed, it's hard to find a fine-dining spot in any major city without some "weird" foods gracing the menu several times over, and chefs are pushing the envelope even further this year with a longer list of head-to-tail offerings.
In Portland, the trendy Lincoln dishes up elk tongue ragu over gnocchi. Sweetbreads are ubiquitous now, flying off menus at spots like Bistro Bis in Washington, D.C. Bestia serves up roasted chicken gizzards and grilled lamb heart to curious Angelinos, while the more adventurous wolf down Taiwanese stir-fried crickets and Singaporean-style scorpions at Typhoon. OK, bugs and scorpions are still considered weird, FYI, but check back with us next year!
Vegetarianism Goes Mainstream
We are quite familiar with the popularity of steakhouses, but according to the Huffington Post, 3% of the total adult population call themselves strict vegetarians, while roughly 12 percent of women under 35 don't eat meat. NPR reports that 47% of the country eats at least one vegetarian meal a week. Veganism is also on the rise – witness Ellen de Generes' vegan wedding, and even Beyonce and Jay Z giving the meat-free, dairy-free diet a well-publicized try.
Upscale vegetarians toast at Tal Ronnen's chic LA fine-dining spot Crossroads Kitchen, where Oprah's former personal chef offers sophisticated "plant-based cuisine," farm-to-glass cocktails with everything from dandelion root to camu berry, and a wine room for special tasting dinners. The venerable Thomas Keller offers a full vegetarian tasting menu running parallel to his regular one at The French Laundry, with exquisite dishes like creamed parsnip and black winter truffle "terrine." In New York, Daniel Boulud also offers a full vegetarian menu at Daniel.
But it's not just the fine diners and celebs who are going green. The popular casual chain Veggie Grill has 23 restaurants on the West coast and is expanding quickly. Nationwide, Chipotle offers vegan sofritas and burritos. Even McDonald's got into the act by launching meatless "signature McWraps" — in Canada!
Restaurants in Retail Ramp Up
Not so long ago, Barney Greengrass was among the few luxe department stores offering a high-end aesthetic dining experience, but today, stores large and small are using gourmet food to lure in customers — and keep them there. In New York, shoppers can nosh at Macy's giant Italian restaurant Stella 34 Trattoria (run by Patina Restaurant Group) or at ABC Carpet & Home's ABC Kitchen or ABC Cocina from Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Neiman Marcus offers boutique wine under Calder tapestries at Mariposa, while soon shoppers will be able to tuck into a juicy ribeye at the upcoming Makers and Merchants steakhouse at Brooks Brothers' flagship in NYC. Hollywood hipsters buzz about celebrity sightings over organic eggs at Fred Segal's Mauro Cafe, while Blue Stove at Nordstrom's in Santa Monica dishes up lemon scented risotto with seared scallops and French beans as well as miso glazed black cod.
Eat Like a Peasant
While actual peasants may have eaten boiled chaff and bark to fill their bellies, the current romance with "peasant food" more readily hearkens back to rustic dishes with simplicity and flavor. In New York's East Village, Peasant chef/owner Frank DeCarlo evokes a Tuscan rustic romance with his open fire cooking that roasts everything from vegetables to leg of lamb and skate. At The Purple Pig in Chicago, diners enjoy pig's tails braised in balsamic with grated egg and parsley, and pork tripe ala Parmigiana. High-end versions of simple foods like hamburgers and hot dogs have truly taken off – at Daniel Boulud's db bistro moderne in Miami, one can nosh on a sirloin burger made with braised short ribs, foie gras and black truffle on a parmesan bun (for $34). Iron Chef Neal Fraser's casual LA spot, Fritzi Dog, is based entirely on the gourmet hot dog featuring the likes of prime beef and pork with spicy merguez and Chilean merken, or an elite turkey/duck mesquite dog. More eateries are embracing wood-fired cooking as diners are seduced by the romance of the flame.
In Las Vegas at Heritage Steak Tom Colicchio grills all his organic meats over fire – be it a wood-burning oven or charcoal grill – for a unique roasted sizzle. Look for a slew of live-fire cookbooks out this year – including Paula Marcoux's historical Cooking with Fire. Backyard landscaping trends are now showing that outdoor wood burning pizza ovens are one of the hottest in-demand patio items for 2014. Smokin'!