Greg Baker, chef-owner of the Refinery in Tampa, Florida, is a 20-year kitchen veteran, having worked in Portland, Oregon, and Austin before opening his James Beard Award–nominated restaurant in 2010. He stops in from time to time to drop some wisdom upon us, including his year-end report. Hold your pickles close — it’s time to say goodbye to the worst food trends of 2016.
You’ve been a proper goat rodeo, ain’t ya? I’m not even including politics, whichever side you stand on, and it’s still been a sight to behold. Luckily for me, I took notes on the worst food trends of 2016 while studying this dumpster fire of a year, because the fine folks here at Food Republic have asked me once more to write about my favorite and least favorite trends.
As with most things in my life, I put them into clearly definitive list form: Those that I like go on the list called HK (High Key, or All In, as the kids are wont to say these days). Those that need to disappear, never to be spoken of in their present form again, go on the list called DIAF (Die in a Fire). For full disclosure, some of the items on the latter list I am guilty of perpetuating myself, because that’s what the dining public demands. But that’s a rant for a different time.
Speaking of burned things, by the way, the photo at the top of the page is something I like to call an “amuse douche.” It’s an assortment of bones and ash I save for “special clientele” at times. And with that, trend #1:
FOR THE LOVE OF HUMANITY, STOP BURNING THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF EVERYTHING!!
DIAF rating: A charred husk
There’s a certain beauty to a wedge of blackened cabbage basted in beurre noir — the texture and charred sweetness of the cabbage mixing with the nuttiness of almost burnt butter. But then again there is the proliferation of raw carrots that have been charred to a point that uhm… they’ve died in a fire, yet somehow maintain that crunch and lack of sugar that would result from full cooking which would balance out the carbon coating the outside. Instead, we get burnt horse food.
A sprinkle of herb or onion ash is fantastic in the right place. A liberal saucing of tarragon charcoal suspended in cheap olive oil? Give me that blowtorch — you’ve lost the right. It’s time to put this idea back on the shelf until we’ve learned some restraint.
DIAF rating: A Pittsburgh steak, double word score if the octopus is charred
Raising its head from being relegated to Italian and Greek restaurants and bad sushi joints in the ’90s, octopus is back. It’s been insidiously creeping its way to rival obligatory crudos/oysters/charcuterie and cheese plates this year on every freakin’ menu, short of Applebee’s or a convention center in Omaha.
I did my time with octopus 20 years ago and have long since stopped serving it, but for my own personal reason. I have a problem cooking an animal that has demonstrated superior intelligence to mine.
Octopus breaks about even on sustainability ratings, but I’ve got a sinking feeling that dubious catch methods will become more the norm in the coming years in order to meet demand.
DIAF rating: A smoked Baltic porter
I love beer. That being said, shit’s just going over the top, with technique replacing substance and scarcity being prized over quality. The market and innovation is completely fanboy- (or fangirl-) driven at this point, as few people get excited about a proper lager or pilsner anymore, styles that actually take more skill than producing the brewery-only release of the latest smoked, barrel-aged, triple imperial IPA that has been brewed solely by left-handed amputee single fathers.
Have we reached critical pickle yet?
DIAF rating: Smoldering
We’ve all bought into it. A couple of years ago, every dark space that I could find in my kitchen was filled with pickled whatever, spaghetti squash kraut, koji for making plantain miso and anything else that I could try in order to turn scrap into flavor. Hell, I even have some Watermelon Four Loko vinegar aging to make Koolickles with.
In the case of pickles, I have two trains of thought: 1) To make a surplus of fruits or vegetables shelf-stable before they end up in the compost, and 2) For when I want something that is going to bring sweet/sour/salty to the party in one bite. But are we pickling for pickling’s sake at some point? Just fermenting whatever weird accoutrements can be thrown on a cheese or charcuterie platter? Cuz quince paste is so 2015.
DIAF rating: Dance, Dance Immolation
Another year brings another opportunity for the arbiters of junk science to sell us on their next great tomfoolery. Bone broth, or stock as it’s been called since Escoffier codified French cooking in 1903, has been touted for its ability to cure everything from facial wrinkles to leaky guts, yet there is little to no actual science to back those claims. While far from new in 2016, this tragedy reached peak this year at the point where one no longer needs to wait in 30-person lines to get a thermos full of ramen broth, because it can be bought in K-cups on Amazon and delivered to your door!!! It’s like no one has ever seen Cup o’ Soup in the grocery store before. Eat some damn soup every now and then. It may not cure crow’s-feet, but occasionally eating something with actual nutritional value might prevent a leaky gut (whatever the hell that is) in the first place.
Unicorn and Galaxy Desserts
DIAF rating: But it’s shiny!
We’re all adults here, so please explain the popularity of doughnuts, ice cream, cakes, waffles and any item that combines two or more of the aforementioned to look like My Little Pony met a Three Wolf Moon T-shirt and exploded all over them. I’ve seen less gaudy displays in tourist gelato shop windows in Venice. I’m a firm believer in the idea that food should be fun, that we’re never too old to revisit being a kid without guilt and that sprinkles are good, but this? We can do better.
HK rating: Cautionary
The rise of popularity of ancient grains like teff, kamut, amaranth and farro is actually on the good list. Not only do these provide alternatives for traditional starches on the plate, but they also add the diversity of economically viable crops to less developed countries — with increased revenues in rural areas quite common.
But let’s take some lessons from quinoa production in Bolivia. On the good side, producers of quinoa have seen higher revenues for their work. On the “it all comes out in the wash” side, there has been an increase in pricing of quinoa for non-quinoa-producing consumers in the country. At the end of the day, there is still an increase of GDP over the last decade.
But then there is the bad side. The rise of quinoa prices have led farmers to up their production, resulting in monocultures as they abandon other crops that have been traditionally grown in addition to the grain. Also to be considered: With more than 3,000 types of quinoa in existence, only a handful are being purchased for commercial export, leaving culturally important types of this once-sacred grain to dwindle into insignificance or even extinction.
Let’s embrace these grains, but bear in mind that increased consumerism comes with a big-picture cost to those who produce them.
The Rebirth of Raclette
HK rating: Oh, hell yeah
I’m referring to the technique, not specifically the cheese. I mean, a block of cheese meets a hot pan and the resulting molten cheese gets slathered over just about anything? GTFO! Who doesn’t want that?
HK rating: Overdue
This was the year that the dining public became aware of the problem of food waste, whether through high-profile efforts, like Dan Barber’s wastED pop-up series, or more under-the-radar initiatives. Take, for example, Hari and Jennifer Pulapaka’s efforts to repurpose their restaurant’s food waste into animal feed for one of the farms they partner with, or their project to install a high-temperature composter at Stetson University.
According to World Food Day USA, 30 to 40 percent of the food produced in the USA alone is wasted. This accounts for approximately 20 pounds of food per person, per month, with organic waste being the second-biggest component of landfills and the major source of methane emission from those landfills. With food insecurity existing in every part of our country (and the Atlantic Ocean creeping steadfastly into South Florida), this is a spotlight well pointed.
If 2016 is any indicator, 2017 should make for a target-rich environment. Let’s see what it holds in store for us. I’ll be right here with the popcorn.