Recently someone asked us what we thought was the next big food destination. We were slightly stumped. It seems that most places have been well-explored and in some ways food is becoming more homogeneous. As cultures expand and restaurants proliferate, they go through a stage of exploring other styles of cooking. Restaurants specializing in classic French techniques, modern cooking techniques, food from around the world abound and then ever so slowly the tide begins to turn. Chefs and cooks reach a level of expertise that allows them to embrace their homeland. They begin to refocus on what they have at hand, the ingredients, the history, the local specialties, and their own memories of food come together to create a renaissance of sorts. That type of revival is happening here in the United States right now and that's why we think this is the place to eat this year.
In the 70's it was a common practice for Americans to travel to France on gastronomic pilgrimages. WIth their Michelin guidebooks and a few key reservations they would drive across the country enjoying great meals. I believe that we've hit a point where people can, with a little judicious research, crisscross this country and eat great food everywhere they go. The level of cooking has increased to the point where you can find passionate chefs creating great food in almost every small city or large town and even in a few out of the way areas where you'd never normally think to look. From Charleston to Austin, Baltimore to Providence, and Pittsburgh to Seattle, you can find a great gastronomic experience. The best part of it is that because we have such a large country with so many regional variations, if you look carefully you can find old favorites and classic ingredients slowly coming back into the spotlight. Of course as diners we have to do our part. When we find great places we have to support them. We have to actually eat there every so often and tell all our friends about it. Passion and good press will only take a chef so far, it takes actual customers to keep the doors open.
In 1979 Raymond Sokolov published Fading Feasts, A Compendium of DIsappearing American Regional Foods. When I first read it there were many things I had never heard of or tasted and now many of them are newly popular once more. It's a great book full of great stories, recipes and information. Sokolov covers a wide range of ingredients and regional dishes including persimmons, gooseberries, abalone, sea urchin, Pacific salmon, Country ham, key limes, Minnesota wild rice, moonshine, chili con carne and morels. It's gratifying to see that all of them are still around and many are thriving. We have an important food history in this country and its wonderful to see chefs like David Kinch, Sean Brock, Tony Maws and Spike Gjerde leading the charge to embrace it and share their knowledge. There is an incredible bounty of chefs and ingredients available to tantalize any palate and it's time to give them their due. It's no longer just about New York and California, it's all of us, working together to create an environment that fosters great food in restaurants and in home kitchens.
Family restaurants are on the rise and instead of or in addition to making biscuits and gravy, meatloaf and fried chicken, these places are turning out handmade pastas and salumi, making cheeses and pickles, growing gardens in back lots and on rooftops, and simply taking their food to the next level. FIne dining has become incredibly fine and focused ever more on pristine ingredients and graceful flavors, modern cooking techiques and high tech equipment have made new things possible in the kitchen and smart chefs know that some things can be improved upon and others are perfect just the way they are. Home cooks are also breaking barriers, using weights and measures, making their own sourdough starters and strudel dough, curing sausages and smoking bacon in their backyards. Admittedly none of this is new to the American cook but it is wonderful to see the enthusiasm and passion that blossoms over social media and through books, blogs, television and magazines. Home cooking is a relatively affordable activity that allows us to indulge our differents needs to make something tangible with out hands, be creative, socialize and actually feed ourselves something delicious.
Professionally there has never been a better time to be an American chef. FIfteen years ago the majority of famous American chefs were originally from France or other parts of Europe. Now it's anybody's game. Most of the best known American chefs are home grown and with the advent of food television and media it's easier than ever to get your name out there. It's also easier than ever to get your hands on quality ingredients and to find your audience. The local restaurant has come a long way from SIzzler and Perkins. Yes, those places still exist and do a booming business, but places like Niche in St. Louis and Bluestem in Kansas City are thriving right alongside them. While doomsayers say that chains will take over the world, our industry is so much more than that. Given a choice people will choose great food at an affordable price point over mediocrity almost every time. In addition to that there is access to other chefs and information that was never possible before. There is enough room for everyone to be successful and that realization has enabled us to develop a great culinary community that is more focused on camaraderie than competition. How can you not love that?
December 15, 2008