December is a time for reflection, and once again we look back at what trends – from specific ingredients to entire social movements - have been shaping the way Americans eat in the past year.
Each year, I reach out to restaurants all over the U.S. for trends they’re seeing. Then, to narrow it down to the final 11, this year’s list of 55 ideas was sent to this panel of culinary experts for their commentary:
- Linda Burum is a freelance food writer and a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine and other publications for decades, and author of the landmark book A Guide to Ethnic Food in Los Angeles. She’s a frequent judge for the James Beard Foundation awards.
- Robin Selden is the current president of the International Caterers Association and was named their Chef of the Year in 2016 and Caterer of the Year in 2017. She is Managing Partner & Executive Chef of Connecticut- and New York-based Marcia Selden Catering & Event Planning. (Full disclosure: Robin and I are cousins.)
- Mike Thelin is a food and hospitality expert and advisor to many leading brands and organizations. He is co-founder of Feast Portland, one of America’s top culinary festivals.
- Bret Thorn is Senior Food & Beverage Editor of Nation’s Restaurant News with responsibility for spotting and reporting on food and beverage trends across the country. He has also studied traditional French cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
- Izabela Wojcik is Director of House Programming for the James Beard Foundation, organizing more than 200 culinary events yearly at the James Beard House in New York. She often moderates and guest judges culinary events and serves on the Kitchen Cabinet, the advisory board to the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Some of this year’s trends key off of previous years’, such as the emphasis on vegetarian cooking and sustainability. Others seem pulled from news headlines, from the Year of the Woman to cannabis cooking. 2018 may also turn out to be the year when fine dining definitively got more casual and wine lists more affordable.
It’s always useful to look at some of the trends on previous years’ lists. Some are well and truly here to stay: avocado toast, poke, foods in bowls, fried chicken, truffles, kale, Brussels sprouts and made-to-order fast food. Click for previous lists from 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011. Trends on previous lists weren’t considered since, well, they wouldn’t be considered trends, would they?
One can only wonder which of the trends on this year’s list we’ll still be talking about a decade from now.
1 – Cooking with Cannabis
“It’s undeniable that CBD is the hottest food and culture trend right now,” says Izabela Wojcik.
Mike Thelin calls it “the new oat bran.”
CBD (short for cannabidol), the second most prevalent chemical in cannabis, a.k.a. marijuana, is “largely legal (with some asterisks based on how it’s derived),” says Bret Thorn. Although CBD does not cause a high, unlike the compound THC also found in marijuana, thanks to the association with weed, it’s “still seen as naughty. That, and its widely touted curative properties, make it well primed for expanded usage.”
Those curative properties include anti-inflammatory to anti-anxiety effects.
Governing.com reports that 33 states and the District of Columbia currently allow legal use of marijuana in some form (medical and recreational in 11 of those jurisdictions, medical only in the rest), and a study by Harvard Medical School says that every U.S. state has laws allowing use of CBD to some degree for medical purposes. However, Harvard says, “the federal government still considers CBD in the same class as marijuana,” meaning illegal, although “it doesn’t habitually enforce against it.”
Meanwhile, says Linda Burum “the list of available goodies and products involving CBD is – excuse the trite expression – mind-blowingly vast.” CBD can be found in “every consumable from gummy bears to bitters and hundreds of variations on chocolate. Savory items haven’t escaped the trend either.”
Nor have coffees and cocktails. In L.A. alone, outfits like Alfred Coffee Roasters and the Prank Bar are making drinks with CBD and terpenes, oils extracted from cannabis.
“Not to be left out,” Wojcik says, “the Beard House hosted its first-ever CBD themed dinner.”
Thelin adds, “It’s only a matter of time before big soda and even fast food starts cashing in on the trend.”
2 – The Greening of Restaurants
“Out, out, damn straw!” says Mike Thelin, shorthand for the increasing greening of American restaurants. Although restaurants have been going greener for the last several years, 2018 seems to mark a tipping point, with ordinances in cities across the country banning plastic drinking straws the most visible sign and large chains like Starbucks getting into the act.
“Some of it has to do with the great millennial awakening, the idea of aligning purchasing habits with socially-conscious products and companies,” says Thelin. “Some of it has to do with the fact that we are doomed and are being urged to change our ways.”
Beyond replacing straws, restaurants are increasingly composting, recycling, filtering and bottling water in house (this trend actually started many years ago), using fewer disposable products like those straws and generally being ever more mindful of food waste, which debuted on last year’s list. Starbucks announced recyclable lids.
“This movement is definitely picking up steam,” says Bret Thorn. But, he adds, “it would be nice if more restaurateurs looked at this holistically rather than piecemeal. Sure, get rid of those plastic straws if you want to, but if you’re not also paying attention to overall energy consumption then you’re being kind of hypocritical. Maybe keep the straws but arrange for your employees to carpool.”
3 – Fine Dining Goes Casual
The meaning of fine dining is changing. “Fewer people are interested in investing three hours of their lives in a tasting menu,” says Bret Thorn, “and they don’t want to dress up for anybody.”
Izabela Wojcik adds that “There is a sense that millennials…don’t want to bother with pretense but are looking for quality and value.”
Linda Burum calls this more casual trend “virtually de rigueur for high-end restaurants opening today, whether in the Rust Belt, New York’s Meat Packing district or in an abandoned warehouse in L.A.’s industrial neighborhoods. What’s behind the appeal? The thrill of seemingly discovering a brilliant talent, cooking with pristine ingredients in an unexpected setting.”
Izabela Wojcik cites “a proliferation of fast-casual but with-better-food brands (by Chloe, Dig Inn, Made Nice, etc).”
Although Mike Thelin allows that rising labor costs are also a factor in the less fancy restaurants, ultimately “there’s a new generation that only knows good food, and they want it everywhere.”
4 – Affordable Wine Lists
“Wine is having its great, democratizing moment,” says Mike Thelin. “Sommeliers like Jorge Riera of Frenchette in New York City are leading the way with fun, well-priced, natural wine heavy wine lists that are inspiring a new generation of wine lovers.”
“It’s the outcome of trying to highlight small producers, small and obscure regions, and creating a distinct personality to your wine list,” says Izabela Wojcik, calling it “the idea of bespoke.”
Caterers, too, “look for small production wineries that offer great value and have varietals of wines that are not sold in stores,” Robin Selden says.“This enables us to offer affordable wine lists that are unique and delicious.”
In sum, in the words of Mike Thelin, “There has never been a better time to drink wine.” We’ll drink to that.
5 - Year of the Woman
If 2018 was the Year of the Woman in politics, business and entertainment, it also brought new focus on women in the culinary world. Even if our experts wonder if this year marked a new trend or greater visibility for a movement that’s been gradually gaining steam for decades, it’s undeniable that the influence of women in the restaurant industry is on the rise.
“We’re a long way from true gender parity in the restaurant world,” says Mike Thelin, “but many of the chefs and restaurateurs leading the pack – like Seattle’s Renee Erickson and Ashley Christianson from North Carolina – are female. There’s a whole new generation of role models that’s going to change the face of the hospitality industry forever.”
Linda Burum notes that “this ‘new’ trend has been simmering on the back burner for decades, mirroring the rise of women in other machismo-driven professions.” She mentions pioneering chefs such as Barbara Lynch, Alice Waters and the Too Hot Tamales (not to mention Nancy Silverton, Lidia Bastianich – above – and more) who “shoved the doors open a crack” decades ago. Later, food competition television shows “illustrated just how well women could vie with their male peers.”
Then there’s the essential media component. “If other writers are feeling the pressure that I am, they’re on the lookout for minority- and women-owned businesses to broaden their coverage (this is a good thing),” says Bret Thorn. “I don’t know if that means more restaurants will be owned by women, but those that are are likely to find it easier to get press.”
6 – Oat Milk
“Oh my God,” says Izabela Wojcik. “All I keep hearing is how much people love Oatly oat milk.”
Bret Thorn calls oat milk “the trendiest of the non-dairy milk substitutes. Its devotees say it’s creamier than other plant-based counterparts, and oats already have a built-in health halo thanks to years of promoting oatmeal as a nutritious breakfast.”
“Great flavor, great mouthfeel and works with coffee drinks,” says Mike Thelin, calling oat milk “the fake milk that we’ve all been waiting for.”
Chef Robin Selden concurs. “We turn to oat milk to give our desserts a creamy rich non-dairy flavor and texture. Its great in puddings, panna cotta and sauces and has a naturally sweet taste.”
7 – Salad for Breakfast
Virtually each year our list mentions some new vegetarian or vegan trend, and this year it’s breakfast. As Linda Burum says, “Salad is a staple on breakfast buffets in Asia. Now morning greenery is migrating stateside.”
She points to California restaurants Sweetsalt in Toluca Lake, Split Kitchen in San Francisco, and the veggie-heavy Turkish-style breakfast offerings at L.A.’s Kismet. Other Middle Eastern breakfast salad staples like tabouli and white beans in vinaigrette are making their way to U.S. menus.
“We find that people welcome this fresh take on breakfast as it’s filling, delicious and a healthy alternative to last year’s breakfast toasts,” says Robin Selden.
Mike Thelin cites seminal Israeli-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi and the popularity of Israeli cooking and Mediterranean cuisine in general for pushing the breakfast salad trend forward, adding “James Beard Foundation award winner chef Michael Solomonov [of noted Israeli restaurants in Philadelphia] in the U.S. is definitely having an impact on breakfast.”
8 – Tinned Fish
“Years ago people equated canned tuna or sardines with the brown bag lunch fare of last resort,” says Linda Burum. Then sophisticated American diners became familiar with a different kind of tinned fish while “buzzing around Spain’s tapas bars or stateside Spanish restaurants such as the Bazaar by Jose Andres in Beverly Hills or Cúrate in Asheville, N.C.”
How much has changed stateside. “Quality canned seafoods from Italy, Spain, and Portugal, where they’re known as conservas, are now readily available,” Burum says, and chefs might put them in other dishes or serve them straight from the tin. “Hayden in Culver City, Calif. offers a conservas plate (your choice of mussels, trout, lemon sardines or mackerel) garnished with the mayonnaise-caper based sauce gribiche alongside artisanal bread and butter.”
“It’s all about sardines, anchovies, sprats, and mackerel,” says Izabela Wojcik, some of which used to be considered “trash fish.”
“It’s only a small leap from fresh to tinned, and from tinned to fabulous tapas,” she says. Plus, using tinned fish, “We are reminded that sustainability of seafood is critical.”
Mike Thelin calls this “a trend to applaud.”
9 – Tea in Cooking and Cocktails
“Tea adds immediate health appeal to anything it’s in,” says Bret Thorn. “There are a lot of teas on the market now, giving chefs a wide range of flavors to choose from and letting them add nuanced bitter and smoky flavors to their food.”
Case in point: Robin Selden recently used the Guayusa Cacao tea from Rishi “to steam red snapper and then made a Thai curry sauce, with a coconut milk base and infused with the tea. We also braised short ribs with their masala chai tea and finished it with a shiitake beurre blanc that was also infused with the tea. It was so delicious that you could literally drink it!”
Teas are also finding their way into cocktails, lending unexpected flavors and complexity. Says Selden, “Our favorite cocktail is our hibiscus rooibos ‘Mar-tea-ni’ made with cold brew tea, pomegranate vodka and fresh yuzu simple syrup.”
“The real health benefits of cocktails come from the fact that they relax you and make you happy,” Thorn says. “Never mind that alcohol is inherently carcinogenic according to current science; if people feel better about drinking cocktails with tea in them, then I suppose they should go for it.”
10 – Cabbage
“Move over kale…here comes cabbage!” says Mike Thelin. Once the humblest of veggies, “cabbage is having a moment, for sure, and partly due to the popularity of fermented foods, sauerkraut, kimchis, etc.”
Bret Thorn calls cabbage “an under-appreciated vegetable, sitting in the shadows of its more popular cousins, such as kale and Brussels sprouts.” But, he says, “I could see an upsurge in popularity for this vegetable, particularly if the possible increase in Eastern European cuisine takes off.”
“So versatile,” proclaims Robin Selden. “Like kale it holds up to dressing and remains crunchy for a slaw or salad. It’s awesome fermented, pickled and sautéed, pairs well as a side for fish, meat or chicken, and is great to add crunch in tacos, sandwiches or bao. Can you tell I love cabbage?”
11 – The New Citrus
Sure, you know oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruits, but what about Buddha’s hand?
“Global influences have brought us yuzu, naranja agria, calamansi, pomelos, key limes, mandarins and a dozen tangerine varieties,” says Linda Burum. “Chefs and mixologists are spending a lot of time tweaking flavors, taking advantage of the bitter-sweetness and tart juicy jolt of the fruits.”
She mentions Jean-Georges Vongerichten who serves kumquat chutney with duck breast, cheese plates or veal chops. Meanwhile, “Chef Dale Talde of Rice & Gold in New York City showcases an array of citrus in a dish that includes the grapefruit-like pomelo, Meyer lemon, served with calamansi and yuzu granita.”
Chef Nicholas Houlbert of Bluebird London in New York City calls these new citrus fruits “healthy, versatile, leave no waste, exotic and intriguing,” adding that the unusual shapes and vibrant colors add intrigue to a meal.
These offbeat fruits, with their offbeat shapes, also work at the bar. “Buddha’s hand [in the citron family, with many finger-like offshoots] is guaranteed to get a conversation going and they smell great! We love having them on a bar at an event to create curiosity as they look so cool. We candy them and garnish a lemon gin drink that we make with them.”
And Linda Burum notes that “The Walker Inn, cloistered inside the Normandy Club in Los Angeles (listed on the World’s 50 Best Bars), offers a libation omakase experience based entirely on various citrus varieties.”