As foulmouthed chefs become folk heroes and food bloggers regularly metamorphose into published authors, the traditional boundaries linking food production, preparation, marketing, consumption and critique are dissolving, if they haven’t vanished already. In this highly profitable rush towards predicting when and where the next multimillion-dollar culinary idea or product will emerge, Toronto-based food writer David Sax is getting in on the action.
In his new book, The Tastemakers, Sax poses and attempts to answer a series of broad questions concerning the food industry and how trends and tastes are born, develop and die. From “First, how did [trends] start, and who were the tastemakers behind them who took an idea, cultivated it, and changed the way we eat?” to “What happened to trends once they were no longer trendy? Did they leave a legacy or simply vanish into history, like the fondue set gathering dust in my parents basement?” the book attempts to corral the forces of marketing, entrepreneurship and modern culinary celebrity into a cogent whole.
The book’s narrative centres around Sax and the influential industry insiders he meets along the way. From romps with heritage grain entrepreneur Glenn Roberts and buzzy southern chef Sean Brock, dinner with Peruvian-born L.A. chef Ricardo Zarate, schmoozing at Chicago’s Fancy Food Show and a walkabout inside the Ontario Food Terminal, this is a breezy account with occasional asides – including a barb at William the Conqueror and the propensity of his countrymen towards alcoholism – of encounters with the culinary world’s present-day Illuminati.
The author’s access to the rarefied world of top-level chefs, critics and entrepreneurs sometimes provides uncommon insight. A chapter on Washington, D.C.’s frenzied food-truck scene, pivoting on a ride-along with gourmet-grilled-cheese-sandwich vendor Patrick Rathborne, is a rare peek behind the curtain at a growing, hard-fought battle most urbanites take for granted. In other cases, the closeness can be discomfiting as Sax’s opinions and friendships pepper the text; many of his friends and acquaintances double as commentators, and the reader is left wondering about a seemingly arbitrary choice of experts. Why does the chapter focused on Indian food, which Sax says could be the next big fast-food trend, only give a passing mention to blockbuster Vancouver chef Vikram Vij, with no word of his wife, fellow chef and business partner Meeru Dhalwala? The couple pioneered their own successful line of pre-prepared food items, Vij’s at Home, which is sold across Canada and out of their second fast-food-style restaurant, Rangoli. Their absence in this passage is definitely felt.
Still, Sax’s book is enjoyably in-depth compared to today’s fast-paced world of food-trend reporting, where stories on everything from artisan ice creams to homemade bitters flare up in popular media and die just as quickly. What could have been a monotonous checking-off of foodstuffs – every current trend makes an appearance, from chia to bacon, branded apples to Greek yogurt – is instead a detailed trip through the backstories of those foodstuffs. There is structure and historical context here, along with plenty of dinner-party facts and figures, although Sax sometimes jumps too fast and too far between subjects. This is understandable as the book did, after all, originate as a series of articles in Bloomberg Businessweek.
Some readers may bristle at the gender stereotypes that permeate The Tastemakers. The grain-growing Roberts is framed as a warrior who paddles a canoe into alligator-infested waters to hand-harvest rice (something a cupcake baker, Sax points out, has never had to do). Conversely, another entrepreneur, a goat-herder and artisanal caramel maker, is described as “a slender, freckly redhead with J. Crew catalog looks,” who is lucky enough to sport an “equally hunky husband” – as if that has anything to do with her professional acumen. A rough count finds nearly twice as many men are quoted in the book as women (who dominate the initial cupcake-themed chapter and quickly fade from view). With a food culture saturated by male superstar celebrity chefs, it would have been refreshing to find more gender balance throughout the book. Couldn’t the author have found a workable alternative to “balls” and “ballsy” when referring to courage?
I so badly wanted to love this book; I certainly loved parts of it. But to target the massive, intricately connected world of food trends in a journalistically reported book was a Sisyphean task. In the end, it feels as if we have been promised too much. The Tastemakers, which is ultimately a collection of anecdotes and the author’s opinions and experiences, leaves us hungry for something deeper.
Karen Pinchin writes about food and agriculture and lives in Fredericton, N.B.