Friday, February 29, 2008


We've gotten through January, which means the full run of "let's predict what's going to be hot in the food world in 2008" pieces have now been published, circulated, and forgotten. I prefer to wait a little while to make my own predictions not only because it gives me an extra month of observation but also so I can crib off of smarter, more in-touch commentators.

So, without further ado, here are the official Al Forno prognostications of what's gonna be hot and what's gonna be not in the world of food (particularly the world of Lowcountry food) in 2008:

Anything harkening back to old, original preparations and heirloom ingredients is going to be huge in 2008. You'll see more chef's planting their own gardens, carving up whole pigs, and making pates, rillets, and terrines. But that's an easy call. These things have been hot for months and the trend still has room to grow.

Charcuterie and cooking with the whole animal and seasonal heirloom vegetables is both an extension of and a reaction against the "use the best ingredients" school of thought, which was in turn a reaction against the older "technique is everything" philosophy which used so many creamy sauces and complex preparations that it didn't matter all that much whether the meat it covered was top-notch or just fair-to-middlin.

When cooks started seeking out only the very best cuts of meat to use, you saw a lot of filet and pork tenderloin medallions and tuna medallions. But after a while it got a little dull--sure, you serve the finest imported foie gras and Wagyu beef, all the very best stuff, but isn't that sort cheating? I mean, how much of a compliment to the chef is it to say that he really knows how to "source" the best ingredients? "That isn't cooking, it's shopping," the old sneer goes.

The response has been to take a look backwards to traditional, local, and seasonal ingredients--still seeking to use "the best ingedients", but redefining what that means. The chef's challenge now is not just to find a reliable distributor; instead, it is to take what's fresh and locally available and make great meals out of it. This is a blend of good shopping--that is, seeking out local artisanal and heirloom producers--and good cooking--the traditional techniques of hog butchering and sausage making, for instance.

The high-end chefs in Charleston have been doing this stuff for a while, but in 2008 you're going to see it going much more mainstream. T-Bonz in Mount Pleasant, for instance, was a pretty ordinary steak-and-chicken brew pub kind of place, but it just closed down for renovations and will soon reemerge as "Liberty Taproom & Grill" with a theme of "celebrating the American farmer and the rich bounty they put on our tables." I predict you'll see similar changes in the mid-market chain restaurants, in a dumbed down form. O'Charley's and T.G.I. Friday's will update their menu verbiage to proclaim stuff like "Double-Cut Smithfield Farms American Yorkshire Pork Chop" and start adding a few slices of heirloom tomatoes or Niman Ranch bacon into their chef salads.

Which means the high-end boys will have to take it up a notch. I predict:

Sean Brock at McCrady's will establish a machine shop where he will assemble vaccum cookers, foam extruders, and other singular kitchen devices of his own design that will allow him to create a deconstructed a chef salad with "lettuce leaves" made out of spun turkey, "cheddar cheese" created from carrot essence, and "bacon bits" that are actually freeze dried tomatoes.

Down the street at High Cotton, Anthony Gray, in defiant violation of outdated 19th Century "health" codes, with build an on-premise abattoir where he will slaughter cattle that have been grass-fed in specially-contructed paddocks in Hampton Park.

Mike Lata will go in a different direction, providing patrons at FIG with hand-woven baskets and handwritten guides to all the secret spots on the Peninsula where they can forage for their own nuts, berries, and edible weeds, which he will prepare for them back at the restaurant in awe-inspiring combinations.

But, with time, these trends will be displaced, too, just as the low-fat diet craze was supplanted by the low-carb diet craze. (And, by the way, I am officially projecting that the next new health craze will be the low-protein diet. All the sugar and pork fat you can eat, but stay away from lean beef, chicken breasts, and skim milk!) The pendulum can only swing far enough in one direction before it has to come back the other way. The old classics of haute cuisine have been thoroughly pooped on, and soon cooks will start picking up their old Escoffier and saying, wait a minute . . . what about these old classics of high dining? Hey, maybe a little flour in a sauce isn't such a bad thing . . .

That's right, I'm calling it: the next big thing by the end of 2008, or maybe in 2009 if it's slow to develop, will be the return of grande cuisine. Restaurants will ditch their mismatched chairs and rustic farmhouse decor and buy a truckload of fine old Chippendale furniture and velvet curtains, then triple their waitstaff and put them back in coats with tails. Meals will last six hours with a no fewer than fourteen courses. The hot menu items will be Beef Wellington and Steak Diane and Duck a'la Orange, with a dessert of Baked Alaska followed by brandy and cigars.

The celebrity chef thing will run its course, too. Diners will grow weary of plunking down 200 bucks for a meal at a restaurant where the supposed "chef" has actually set foot in the building just once--to cut the ribbon at the grand openingbefore hopping a private jet to the next outlet. One by one, these name-driven high-end "concepts" will start to close their doors.

Highly-leveraged and cash-poor, formerly high-flying chefs will start shilling even more for prepackaged food products and schlocky restaurants. Bobby Flay will endorse Spam (it's great on the grill!). Mario Batali will hold out as long as he can, but he'll end up on a nationwide tour of shopping malls whipping up "genuine Italian recipes in 15 minutes" using Rice-a-Roni. Most pathetic of all, Tyler Florence will cut a deal with the Applebees chain "to bring the culinary creativity of a celebrity chef" to their menu. (I feel really confident in that last one.)

And there will be a backlash. Young cooks will fire their publicists, mothball the chef's table, and take their names off their restaurant's web sites, preferring instead to practice their art in obscurity behind opaque kitchen doors. This trend is already underway--see, for example, Charleston's Guerilla Cuisine--but it will continue.

Soon, America's leading chefs will not even have restaurants at all. They'll just show up randomly at various people's houses with a few sous chefs and waiters in tow and cook an unbelievable dinner for their surpised hosts, accepting in return whatever honorarium the diners think meal deserves. Like modernist poets and atonal composers, these cooks and waiters will lead a life of relative obscurity and poverty, working dull office jobs during the day and maybe even taking up acting to pay the bills while perfecting their art.

You heard it here first.


Airlie said...

I am so happy I stumbled across your blog! I recently moved to Washington DC from S.C. and I miss everything S.C. and Charleston have to offer. Thanks for giving me a piece of home each day!

Pam said...

God, I'd love a chef to show up at my house one night - that's a trend I'd thoroughly love to see!


Robert said...

Airlie: glad you can get a little taste of home here!

Pam: My hidden agenda is to plant the seed and help create the trend so maybe I can get on the secret underground chefs list!

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