Food trends move into the comfort zone

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Anthony Sedlak has fond memories of dining at the Fat Duck Restaurant—Heston Blumenthal's mecca of molecular gastronomy near London—in 2004. However, while the Vancouver chef and owner of the American Cheesesteak Co. enjoyed the experimental style of cooking, he understands why the food trend hasn't been wildly popular, especially in Vancouver.

“You know, carrot air, that's a great dish, but ultimately I don't think what people are saying on a rainy day is, ‘Oh, I just want to look into a warm bowl of carrot air.' You'd say, ‘I want a warm bowl of beef bourguignon,' or pad Thai, or ‘I want to go to Phnom Penh in Chinatown,' ” Sedlak told the Georgia Straight during a phone interview.

When Straight staffers called up more than 100 restaurateurs, chefs, and floor managers and asked them which food trends were hot and which were waning, many of them talked about how glad they were to see poorly executed molecular gastronomy fade and comfort food return.

“My most hated trend is foam,” said Alessandra Quaglia, co-owner of Provence Restaurants, as she recalled an experience with a foam-obsessed chef. “I remember a couple of years ago, there was one place I went to, it was like every course, there was foam on it.”

Hamid Salimian, executive chef at Diva at the Met, believes that a lot of diners have been turned off by molecular gastronomy because of chefs who misused the techniques. “Everyone was experimenting, and unfortunately, everyone was serving their experimental food to their guests,” he said. Salimian doesn't consider what he does at Diva to be molecular gastronomy; rather, he uses both modern and ancient techniques depending on what makes sense for a given dish.

Danielle Tatarin, bar manager at the Keefer Bar, said she was “blown away” by her recent experience at Diva, where she found the molecular gastronomy executed on a more approachable level. “I was surprised by how easily he put it together, a really simple but unique and creative way.”

 

“The one thing that drives me nuts is entrées served in bowls. Your cutlery falls down inside and gets all messy.…I see it in lots of places, and I don’t know who started it, but whoever started it, I’d like to give a karate chop.”

—Joe Chaput, co-owner of Au Petit Chavignol

 

While chefs such as Salimian are receiving acclaim for their cutting-edge techniques, the return of more simple comfort food is evident across the city.

“There's definitely been a movement towards more rustic, country-style cooking,” Andreas Seppelt, owner of Les Faux Bourgeois, told the Straight.

Lou Mihailides, general manager at the Sandbar, also touted the ascent of comfort food. “I really like the down-home cooking type trend that's rolled through recently,” he said. “It's taking food really back to the simple and clean and hearty type of fare.”

Patrick Corsi, managing partner at Q4 Ristorante, noted that “the days of having an artistic picture on your plate are sort of diminishing and it's more getting back to wholesome, good, natural, simple flavours.”

Le Gavroche owner Manuel Ferreira told the Straight the current food trend is to let the food speak for itself, and Michel Jacob, owner and chef at Le Crocodile, listed Pied-à-Terre, La Buca, and Les Faux Bourgeois as examples of local restaurants serving “real, tasty food”.

 

“You see certain things come and go, but at the end of the day, it’s the old classics, using good quality ingredients.…It doesn’t matter if they’re a bistro or a coffee shop or a high-end restaurant.…Everybody’s focusing back on that, because at the end of the day, [that’s] what works.”

—Domenique Sabatino, owner of the Water St. Café

 

So why have rich and rustic, often meaty and butter-laden dishes made their way back into the hot zone? Many restaurant industry insiders point to the flailing economy.

“Post-credit crunch, 9/11, and the whole bit, people are savvy with their money, and chefs and restaurateurs are getting back to cooking simple foods that offer some sort of a nostalgic attachment and conjure flavours that remind you of something,” Sedlak said.

Ned Bell, executive chef at YEW restaurant + bar, said humans are ultimately creatures of comfort. “We like what we like. We go to restaurants because there are certain things we want. We want to know that we can get the same thing over and over.”

Chewie's Steam and Oyster Bar chef Tyrell Brandvold, who previously worked in New Orleans, was surprised to see Southern comfort food staples like fried chicken, biscuits, and mac 'n' cheese trending on the West Coast. However, he noted that this kind of comfort food “is probably translatable in either place”.

Several of those interviewed listed authentic Italian pizza, gourmet burgers, and healthy fare as spinoffs of the no-fuss trend.

 

On new restaurants:

“We promote the hell out of anything new.…We’re a ‘flavour of the month’ city. I mean, it’s good for a lot of people, but at the same time, you really have to work hard to establish the permanent business.”

—Chris Bisaro, executive chef at Brix Restaurant and Wine Bar

 

“Everyone and their uncle is opening up a pasta joint, a pizza joint, the next best Neapolitan pizza…and it's not even over with,” said Francis Regio, co-owner of Cork & Fin. “Italian is a great trend because it lends itself to not just being the next ‘thing'. It's casual food at supposedly good prices.”

Gord Martin, owner of Bin 941 and Go Fish, noted burgers are everywhere. “I think there were just so many shitty hamburgers out there for so long…so people see a good idea and they jump on it.”

On the flip side, the trend towards healthier eating isn't necessarily new, but many in the restaurant industry believe that diners are going to see even more of it.

“There's a food revolution going on, where people are just not going to put up with heavily processed, cheap foods,” asserted Gil Langevin, co-owner of El Taco. Bishop's owner John Bishop voiced a similar sentiment. “The future of food is going even more towards healthier choices,” he said. “We have more people that can't have dairy, can't have wheat, they're vegetarian….Ten years ago, you would hardly ever have anyone who was celiac or couldn't have dairy….Now in any evening, we can count at least four people who cannot have this or cannot have that.”

But regardless of current trends, Laurent Devin, co-owner of Bistrot Bistro, said some things never go out of style. “One thing that will always be trendy is value for money. Good quality, good service—at the end of the day, that's what people want.”

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