My favorite barometer for socio-cultural trends is – by far – food. What’s happening in restaurants, food and beverage brand offerings, foodie movements, and literally “in the field” reflects some of the fastest-emerging, most provocative trends.
It helps that I am a self-described foodie, too.
The idea of small bites really has my attention at the moment. When you think of small bites, you might think of tapas – the traditional snacks, canapés or finger foods that originated in Spain.
But tasting menus for both food and beverages are now everywhere – they’re even trickling into mainstream restaurants and chains.
Take tastings a step further and you’re in the realm of curated tasting plates, where – like with starters – chefs often take higher risks than they do with entrees. These are flavors designed specifically to delight as a collection.
That delight can come in the surprise of these newly-created taste combinations – or in the story the flavors, textures and experience tell. From NYC’s most expensive tasting menu at MASA (sushi-centric and $450+!) to Olive Garden’s Taste of Tuscany samplers, the trend is showing up at every price point.
Arguably, the restaurant Next in Chicago raises the bar even further with ongoing thematic experiences ranging from childhood (think hyper gastro-molecular cuisine), to Taste of Thailand, and Sicily (authentic home-inspired recipes). The NEXT experience isn’t just in one meal – it’s in the delight of surprise and change with each return.
So what’s driving the small bites trend?
The cynical side of me would answer “consumer attention deficit” – a subject near and dear to my own heart. Why enjoy just one taste when you can flick about like a drunk fly and taste ten or twelve things in a single sitting?
But I believe the answer lies much deeper; it lies in our inherent desire to explore and discover.
Not just new flavors, but in a new story.
The provenance, the method of preparation.
Tastings are literally like a box of chocolates – and even the least adventurous of eaters enjoys the ritual of biting in to reveal what’s inside. If you don’t like it, you simply move on to the next chocolate. It’s low-risk adventure. So it’s no coincidence that the travel industry – cruise lines and airlines in particular – have helped bring tastings mainstream.
As part of its Height Cuisine program, British Airways has charged Tom Babcock with directing their cheese program. (Yes, they have a cheese program.) Tom creates collections that include small batch and vintage cheeses designed to delight in the challenging environment of 30,000 feet. While Babcock’s passion is to keep an artisanal, niche food culture thriving, what he delivers in the air is discovery.
It’s low-risk, high-reward eating for the adventurous food traveler in the sky.
In Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, he shares insights into his mother’s kitchen in 1950s Des Moines, Iowa, and what may create pent-up demand for food discovery.
In Bill’s home, the following foods were never prepared or served:
“Pasta, rice, cream cheese, sour cream, garlic, mayo, onions, corned beef, pastrami, salami or foreign foods of any type except French toast; bread that wasn’t white and at least 65% air; Spices other than salt, pepper and maple syrup; Fish that was any shape other than rectangular and not coated in bright orange bread crumbs.”
And the list goes on.
Having been raised by exceptional cooks, I can’t even imagine this level of food wasteland. My own childhood was full of food discovery memories – most of them curated by my parents.
No S’mores at our house. We were simmering oxtail soup and sautéing Coquilles St.-Jacques. It’s remarkable to me to see those same parents now experimenting even more, with new and complex ingredients and techniques – and in smaller portions.
For many food lovers, the issue hasn’t been an interest in discovering new tastes – but rather, access and risk. Restaurants are delivering relief, and so are consumer product goods.
Phil Lempert, the “Supermarket Guru” and food trends forecaster, included “The ethnic food revolution” in his Top Ten Food Trends 2012. He believes that the reason food trucks are replacing gourmet and specialty shops as a food channel is the ability for diners to “experiment and discover new food choices”.
It’s interesting that while SKU proliferation has killed some CPG categories, many shelf-stable food categories are literally exploding.
If you’ve recently shopped for honey, salts, hot sauce or caramels, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And you don’t need to go to a specialty store, either. Pick your own curator at OpenSky.com or check out Gilt Taste’s new launch of Around the World in 80 Plates Marketplace.
So I’m reveling in this small bites trend as long as it lasts – right through mainstreaming and hopefully as it comes home to roost for good. When I go to my favorite wine bar and opt for a flight of wine over a Prosecco, I already know that I love.
I’m enjoying the discovery.
I literally can’t help myself from exploring something new. I’ll give up a sure thing for the chance to try three new things anytime.
Because whether you’re creating your own dinner or sitting down to order, food discovery never really ends.