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Book excerpt: Why we’re crazy for cupcakes but fed up with fondue Add to ...

From The Tastemakers by David Sax. Copyright © 2014 by David Sax. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd. All rights reserved.

In the battle to establish the next food trend, chefs are the equivalent of Marines. Many aspire to join the top ranks of their field, but few are chosen. Most cannot survive the gruelling hours, the physical and psychological hardship, and the shockingly low pay it takes to get to the elite ranks. Their dreams of becoming the next Top Chef champion evaporate during that initial service rush, as orders pile up, proteins overcook, sweat pours from their bodies and their bosses hurl verbal abuse. For the few who do endure, there’s still no guarantee of success. Everyone wants to be the face of the next big dining trend, but that success is as much a product of serendipity as it is of raw talent and hard-earned experience. Significant new trends often come from unknown chefs cooking out of restaurants scraped together through sweat, tears and a few maxed-out credit cards as the multimillion-dollar temples of dining created for big-name chefs often fizzle upon opening, their only legacy being a for-lease sign in a picture window. …

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Today, chef-driven trends are more powerful and visible than ever before. The media attention chefs have embraced over the past two decades, brought on by the rise of the Food Network, competition shows such as Top Chef (which releases 21 freshly minted “celebrity chefs” into the restaurant world each season), and a ravenous online ecosystem of food blogs, review sites and social-media opportunities, has not only cemented the idea of the chef as artist and celebrity but has also given chefs everywhere a vastly greater audience, well beyond those who actually come into their restaurants and eat their food. The popularization of chef culture is a change to the industry as powerful as the invention of recorded music for musicians. Before the phonograph, bands and singers could only build their audience and influence on the stage, one show at a time.

Once they could sell records, however, their impact was limited only by where those recordings could sell. Today’s chefs are no different. No longer constrained to their physical kitchens, they can create and shape food trends quicker, more widely and with a greater impact than any generation that preceded them. Their ideas trickle down from a single kitchen to a city’s restaurant scene, spreading out across nations and oceans, until one day you find yourself asking the butcher in your supermarket whether he carries beef cheeks, without even knowing how you developed a taste for them. …

 

Unpredictable birth of a food trend

 

The road between a chef’s lofty ambitions and their ability to successfully establish a food trend is long, twisted and littered with the burned-out hulks of unrealized dreams, poorly timed schemes and unfulfilled careers. Food trends don’t just emerge fully formed onto the plates of the chefs who dream them up; they are as unpredictable as they are powerful, and they are more difficult to forecast than picking winning companies in the stock market. Each food trend that begins with a chef is the product of a number of disparate factors, from talent and personality to timing, luck and media attention, all of which have to line up with near-cosmic symmetry to allow something to take off.

First, you need a chef. They need to be talented, young (like musicians, older chefs are rarely trendsetters), independent and just a touch cocky. “You need the conviction and balls to stand by an idea that no one else is doing,” said Sang Yoon, a Los Angeles-based chef who takes credit for two other trends: the gourmet hamburger and the so-called gastropub (basically, a food-focused bar and grill), in the early 2000s. “Today, things either catch very organically, or they don’t.” A native of L.A., Yoon had worked at some of the city’s top kitchens, including Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois and Michael’s, a restaurant that was central to the development of California cuisine, but remained relatively unknown before he bought his favourite Santa Monica dive bar (a place called Father’s Office) in 1999 with an eye on turning it into an authentic tapas bar. …

Business was brisk initially until the day Yoon’s friend suggested he put a hamburger on the menu. Yoon is an obsessive chef who prefers to conduct meticulous research and experimentation in an isolated test kitchen where he hones his recipes. When he decided to put a hamburger on the Father’s Office menu, Yoon set out to make sure it was the best burger on Earth. He would deconstruct the idea of a hamburger down to its essential elements (beefiness, toppings, bun, cheese, flavour, texture) and then reassemble the disparate parts to highlight each element in perfect harmony. He began his research by keeping a hamburger journal, taking notes on over 40 burgers he sampled over many months. Their qualities were eventually inputted into a spreadsheet, with the data ranked on criteria that reflected Yoon’s own tastes. Then Yoon went to work, assembling the different parts of his perfect burger through experimentation and trial and error until he had what he felt was his perfect burger, which he introduced to his customers in 2001.

The beef was dry-aged scrap from a New York strip steak and ground up with fresh chuck, which gave the meat a funky, intense gaminess that was so flavourful, the patty could “stand up on its own,” according to Yoon. Soft buns soaked up juices too readily and often fell apart, so Yoon commissioned a small French demi-baguette from a bakery, with a texture that could be toasted but would still yield easily with each bite. On top he put a pile of fresh peppery arugula because he knew the slightly bitter lettuce paired well with beef from his time at Michael’s, the Hollywood restaurant he had worked at, which featured a steak and arugula salad. For cheese there was a mix of Maytag blue cheese and gruyère, which together hit with a one-two punch of creamy mouth-feel and sharp flavour punctuation. And all of it was topped with an onion compote that had crumbled bacon in it, which hit like a double exclamation mark!! Served in a basket with a mountain of thin-cut French fries, the salty, skunky, buttery juices of the Father’s Office burger dripped down its diners’ chins with each ravenous bite and right into their hearts (emotionally and arterially). Not only was it more expensive than most other hamburgers sold in bars ($10 initially, $12.50 today), but Yoon insisted, without exception, the Office Burger also couldn’t be altered whatsoever. In Los Angeles, where people regularly order along the lines of “can you hold the cheese, but could I get lettuce instead of bread, and also, maybe fish instead of beef?,” it was a move tantamount to declaring martial law. “People said, ‘That’s really ballsy,’ and we got a ton of blowback,” recalled Yoon, talking one evening outside the second location of Father’s Office in Culver City. He stuck to his guns, though, and the Office Burger affected dining in several fundamental ways.

First, Father’s Office kicked off an arms race in gourmet hamburgers that quickly spread from Los Angeles to New York, where French chef Daniel Boulud responded with the Original db Burger at his db Bistro Moderne restaurant. Ground prime rib was stuffed with a centre of braised short rib, foie gras and truffles and served on a parmesan bun, baked in-house. An upscale shrine to American-style excess, Boulud’s burger sold for $32 and set a gourmet burger frenzy in motion nationwide. Other restaurants followed, trying to outdo one another for burger decadence with increasingly outlandish interpretations, from caviar-topped burgers to an edible joke called the Douche Burger, sold for $666 in New York, with a patty wrapped in gold leaf. …

Beyond the towering piles of luxury ingredient-stuffed gimmicks that Yoon’s burger inspired, the overall quality of hamburgers everywhere began to improve as a result of all the attention. This food, possibly the most central to postwar American culture, had been so commoditized by fast-food chains over the years that few put any thought into the burgers they served any more. But with gourmet burgers now popping up on nearly every menu in the country, from fine-dining rooms to family restaurants, and with the press that they effortlessly generated, even the humblest bars and largest fast-food chains began rethinking the quality of their hamburgers. … Hamburgers went from a maligned food to something worthy of culinary attention. Yoon realized the full impact of this when he visited Hong Kong a few years back and ate a gourmet hamburger in a mall food court there. “People were lined up for it,” he recalled. “I think it’s awesome. I planted a seed, and now I see the offspring everywhere.”

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