The hottest food trend of 2011? The world's best chefs paid a little less attention to trends, and focused on big ideas instead. Below, our picks for the 10 ideas that changed food this year. Though they're not all brand new, they all took hold in 2011. We're betting they shape the way we eat for years to come.
1. Chefs are the new historians.
As the food world emerges from its decade-long obsession with modernist cooking, many of its luminaries have discovered something even more interesting: the past. In Chicago, superchef (and arch-modernist) Grant Achatz's latest restaurant, called Next, opened with a menu titled "Paris, 1906," that was built around the cooking of Auguste Escoffier. The menu at London's hottest new restaurant, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, includes dates next to each item. ("Meat Fruit," which Mr. Blumenthal developed with the help of a royal culinary historian, finds its roots in 1500.) As Hugh Acheson, the Ottawa-raised chef who's become a star in Georgia puts it, "Though we live in this massive age of experimentation, you're seeing more historical precedent be put back into food." To cite just one local example: the new (and brilliant) cookbook from Montreal's Joe Beef restaurant devotes an entire chapter to the vanished cuisine of North America's railway dining cars.
2. "Rotten" doesn't have to be a dirty word.
Long welcomed in cheese, pickles and cured meats but disdained most other places, controlled decay got an image makeover this year. Jonathan Gushue of Langdon Hall, near Cambridge, Ont., joined forces with a potato scientist to develop a technique for encouraging mould on the Ratte potatoes he ages in the restaurant's cellar – mould that intensifies the tubers' toastiness, he said. Elsewhere, chefs laboured to perfect house-fermented sauces like soy, and pistachio-based miso paste. Some even began experimenting with garum – an ancient Roman condiment that's composed of slow-rotted fish guts. Modernist Cuisine, the genre-busting reference work that might just be the most important cookbook published in the past 50 years (see: "chefs focused on ideas," above) opens with a chapter called Microbiology in the Kitchen. And David Chang, the Manhattan-based chef behind the Momofuku chain, even gave a lecture about edible bacteria at Harvard last month.
3. Comfort food can be Canadian, too, eh?
Though Quebec and parts of the East Coast have well-established comfort-food traditions, the rest of the country has typically been all too happy to pull its influences – gooey lasagna, nachos – from the United States. But a handful of Canada's best chefs have started to notice the casual culinary richness around them – and they're rewriting the nation's comfort canon. "It's not necessarily just braised meat, and cozy-cozy Canadiana stuff," said Anthony Walsh, the chef behind Bannock, the flagship Hudson's Bay Co. restaurant in Toronto. Bannock's ever-changing menu includes new-Canadian staples like pho, tortilla soup and aloo gobi alongside more traditional comforts, like poutine and bologna steaks. Other chefs have updated pierogies, cabbage rolls and even pemmican. "My hands-down favourite comfort food is Korean pork-bone soup," Mr. Walsh said. "I know it's Korean, but it's also quintessentially Canadian."
4. Elite chefs and producers learn to share.
When Derek Dammann of Montreal's DNA restaurant was in London this fall, one of the chefs behind Noma, in Copenhagen, e-mailed to ask him if he wanted to swing north to visit the restaurant's experimental lab. The meeting sparked a continuing, collaborative dialogue that rarely existed in cooking until recent years. The examples are now everywhere. The Omnivore Food Festival, for instance, a gathering of young, elite international chefs, will make stops this year in Moscow, Shanghai, Sao Paolo, Paris (where Mr. Dammann is scheduled to teach a master class this March) – plus Montreal for the first time. And nothing's helped more than social media: If you care to read about elite chefs' new techniques, ideas and breakthroughs, check Twitter, or popular websites like Ideas in Food. The upshot of all this open-sourcing: New ideas spread faster and get refined more quickly, and chefs have fewer excuses for getting stuck in cooking ruts. We'll eat better as a result.
5. Vegetables are the new meat.
Got kale? If you eat out with any regularity you'll likely find it on your plate this winter. If not kale, then chard or farro or cannellini beans or Brussels sprouts, guaranteed. After years of hard-core meat and umbles love, even the most carnivorous chefs have begun to discover how great a simple tuber or green or brassica can be. The phenomenon isn't merely thanks to meat ennui: Produce these days is better over all than at any other time in human history. Be afraid, meat.
6. Nobody makes food any more. They "handcraft" it.
The true meanings of "artisanal," "handcrafted" and "farmer's market" passed away suddenly this year; the words couldn't stand up to overuse. (Loblaw's even sold "Farmer's Market" corn trucked in from the U.S. and packed on Styrofoam trays.) This is a good thing. "Farmer's market" will have to revert to being a place you go instead of a label, and if you want "hand-crafted," you'll have to watch as your food or drink is crafted with, well, hands. As for "artisanal," that one was always for snobs and suckers, anyway. Great food can finally go back to being produced with integrity and really well prepared.
7. The word "restaurant" is so over, too.
Though it's served us well in the past 260-odd years, the term "restaurant" could stand an update. Many of the most interesting openings of the last while – the pop-ups, food trucks, supper clubs and taco shops, for instance – don't offer much, if any, of the restaurant's traditional trappings, like after-dinner coffee, credit card machines, reservations, table service, or even a permanent address. Perhaps the word is just trying to do too much. "Italy has trattoria, osteria, and locanda, as well as many others that better describe where you are eating," said Chris McDonald, the co-chef at Cava (which is sort of a restaurant, but also a tapas place), in midtown Toronto. The man's got a point.
8. "Local" doesn't just mean local any more.
Cooking with local ingredients has begun to mean more than merely tossing a few 100-mile blackberries over a plate of crème brûlée. What else grew near those berries, and what's the best way to respect their context? At Langdon Hall, Mr. Gushue calls the new approach "sense of place cooking." He pairs local veal with the Jerusalem artichokes that grow nearby, and strawberries from the restaurant's garden with the asparagus next to them. DNA's Mr. Dammann cures fresh mackerel that's caught near a railway bridge on the Gaspésie with buckthorn berries that are picked in the same spot, and the soured dregs of a demijohn of wine that a buddy's Italian parents forgot for a decade in their basement. That's local. Mr. Gushue admits there's a "voodoo aspect" to the proximity principle. "There was an instant reaction from our guests the day we first started doing it," he said. "It was as though everything made sense together."
9. Wine is so overrated (sort of).
When microbrew beer and craft cocktail culture started booming a few years ago, they generally did so apart from the so-called foodie revolution. But progressive sommeliers across the country – from Raymonds in St. John's to Kale & Nori in Vancouver – have caught on to beer's and spirits' range of flavours and their food-friendly disposition. A pairing suggestion this fall at Canoe, in Toronto, matched a pumpkin-spiked caipirinha cocktail with roasted venison. Elsewhere, sommeliers are mining the infinite flavours found in craft beers, from bitter to fruity to sour, sweet, malty and chocolate, to set alight dishes in ways that wine never could. Which isn't to say that grapes are over or anything. But they've got company at the table now, and it's about time.
10. You, too, can be a restaurant investor (and a brewery investor, and an olive oil investor …).
Through special-purpose websites like kickstarter.com, or in-custom on-line appeals, chefs with dreams of opening their own places have started going directly to public for micro-funding. Food and drink producers have, too. Beau's All Natural Brewing Co., in Vankleek Hill, Ont., recently offered 600 beer subscriptions at $300 a piece to raise the funds to install a solar roof. Elsewhere, you can adopt an olive tree (with a return in olive oil), or a goat (for milk and cheese) and even a pig (for a freezer full of yummo). The business's proponents can gauge support long before they open, and their investors can feel like big shots, often for just a couple hundred bucks.