In part four of our series looking back at the past 10 years, our correspondent revisits the decade's culinary trends.
A foodie's retrospective of the past decade
To say that the international restaurant scene has been bizarre since the new millennium is like saying the sea is a little damp. The past decade, after all, was when top chefs became as famous as sports stars, vacuum packs and spray nozzles replaced piping bags in fashionable kitchens and the most hyped meat came from cattle that were pampered with massages.
Yet the 2000s have been boom years for restaurants - and, with an increasingly well-travelled public, they have been subjected to more scrutiny than ever. All this attention created a strange tug-of-war at the heart of the industry. Restaurants continued to woo customers by scouring the world for exotic ingredients, yet a new environmental consciousness meant that sustainability and local character became equally fashionable.
Much of the fascination with dining was acted out in the media - chefs promoted themselves on reality TV yet were eviscerated for their shortcomings in print. The internet democratised the decade's gastroboom. Restaurant blogs sprouted like mushrooms and every customer became a critic. Here are the top 10 trends that this body of gastroscribes were discussing. "Local" has been one of the past decade's buzzwords. There was a time when restaurants used to woo customers by boasting of exotic produce "freshly flown in today". But with concerns about carbon emissions, the tables have turned. There is a new emphasis on seasonality and local character and restaurants have rediscovered the joys of ostensibly unglamorous local specialities. This is good (if small) news for the environment, but it is in itself a product of international traffic and globalisation. With middle and upper-income restaurant-goers travelling the world like never before, exotic food just isn't as exotic. It's far better to return home from holiday to an idealised version of what your stay-at-home grandparents ate. While many restaurants are going semi-local, some are taking it to extremes. One London establishment (Konstam at the Prince Albert) cooks only with ingredients from within the London ring road, while the excellent Danish chef René Redzepi's insistence on seasonality goes as far as using vegetables to make surprisingly delicious desserts in winter.
Given that organic produce was arguably the biggest food retail trend of the past decade, organic food has, in contrast to local produce, retained a surprisingly low profile on restaurant menus. Understandably keen to keep costs low, most restaurants kept their basic ingredients conventional, while the establishments that went entirely organic tended to be simpler, cheaper places that placed more emphasis on healthy food than flavour, presentation or ambience. What did crop up often, however, was an almost ubiquitous preoccupation with pedigree ingredients, with many restaurants going part-organic in areas where it notably affected taste. Instead of plain old lamb, menus would boast, say, "organic Herdwick Lamb" with details of where it was reared, while fish would be announced as line-caught or wild.
Restaurant dishes didn't just become obsessed with pedigree, however - they increasingly became smaller, as fashionable dining got bored with the standard three or four courses. Pandering to diners keen for maximum culinary titillation, small plates filled menus (if not customers) at many hip restaurants. The novelty of offering tiny dishes allowed diners to pick at up to 10 plates within a single meal without gorging. In part, the trend was a reflection of the rise of the Spanish influence on global trends. With Catalonia and the Basque Country emerging as the world's new gastronomic axis, the Hispanic tapas tradition was taken as a model by many. Small plates were also ideal for another great restaurant trend: chic gastro palaces where the skinny, fashionable clientele were more interested in posing that guzzling. While many restaurants handled the trend beautifully, it still had two common drawbacks: meals where nothing seemed to go well with anything else, and lower prices per dish often adding up to horrendously high bills.
The chances are that if you found yourself paying top dollar for tiny dishes in a slinky little posing spot in the past 10 years, it may well have been serving up another of the decade's food fetishes: pan-Asian food. Mixing such unrelated dishes as Malay beef rendang and Japanese sashimi, pan-Asian menus were wildly promiscuous affairs, culling food ideas from all around the eastern Pacific. While pan-Asian restaurants proved popular, critics often loathed them. Restaurant writers, after all, love nothing more than lecturing readers on crimes against authenticity, and the glitzy stylings popular in more expensive restaurants (occasionally bordering on tacky) provided a wonderful opportunity for journalistic forays into arch snobbery about WAGs and wide boys.
To be fair, they had a point: it's true that diverse cities such as Singapore already have a superb range of cuisines based around pan-Asian fusions, but when restaurant chefs are expected to cover half a dozen cuisines, they can tend to be masters of none. While some establishments proved excellent, too many served food at inflated prices that could be found cooked better in small ethnic places. Still, with their breezy atmosphere and frequent offers of sharing plates, pan-Asian restaurants at least remain less stuffy than more traditional fine-dining establishments.
While pan-Asian was a reasonably populist movement, there have also been some pretty arcane innovations at haute cuisine's cutting edge. The 2000s was the decade when a new brand of Willy Wonka-style chef-wizards took over haute cuisine. Turning their kitchens into laboratories, molecular gastronomists like Ferran Adría, Heston Blumenthal and Thomas Keller deconstructed traditional dishes and put them back together again, just upside down. Dishes created by the likes of Adría, whose Catalan restaurant El Bulli was first named the world's best in 2002, are curious, conceptual affairs concocted from flavoured jellies, ice crystals and even flavoured air. Meanwhile his colleagues Blumenthal and Keller have made headlines with dishes such as snail porridge and tapioca pearls with oysters and caviar, sometimes heightening the conceptual flair of their cooking by providing diners with iPods playing evocative sounds. It's hard not to be curious about this groundbreaking, poetic approach to dining - wanting to actually eat such outlandish creations, however, is another matter. Given the amount of technological gizmos needed for proper molecular gastronomy, and the challenges it poses for the wary, it's hardly surprising that the trend hasn't really trickled down from the top of the range. That said, Adría and his colleagues must take the blame for the international epidemic of one particular culinary fad -
Yes, that's right: foam. Few restaurants with pretensions to fine dining have been without fluffy, bubbly little sauces in the past decade. The one innovation that left molecular gastronomy to go mainstream, these cappuccino-like froths have an airy lightness to them but can still pack a flavoured punch. Yet while they melt in the mouth, typical restaurant foams are anything but simple. Made from stock or juices, they are typically set to a gel with a flavourless (and perfectly healthy) agent such as agar or lecithin, then sprayed through a nozzle using liquid nitrogen as a propellant. This newfangled approach was a pleasantly whimsical idea, but it arguably wasn't as amazing an innovation as its popularity implied. Nowadays, a little foam squirted around a plate is too often a sign of vacuous faddishness, a finicky addition to a dish that makes the plate look fussy without noticeably boosting pleasure. Such is the way with all fashions, however - that this once charming chrysalis has become a great lumbering moth isn't necessarily a reason to hate it.
While great chefs have always attracted public attention, they have never created as much of a hoo-ha as they did in the 2000s. Coming out of their kitchens and on to our TV screens, chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Mario Batali became internationally recognised brands who were loved or loathed by people who had never eaten in their restaurants. With sizeable empires and massive media profiles, celebrity chefs managed to get people who hadn't thought much about eating out interested in quality food and drummed up a good deal of excitement. This overexposure inevitably posed a question that was difficult to answer: if these chefs were managing worldwide empires and appearing on TV constantly, how much time could they find to spend in the restaurant kitchens that made them famous in the first place? With the public and media growing bored of the darlings they had created, grumblings started to be heard - people wondered aloud if the fact that the superchefs' restaurants almost inevitably received Michelin stars wasn't a stitch-up, while Ramsay's more recent openings frequently received bum reviews. With the polished glamour typical of arch-restaurateurs such as Alain Ducasse looking a little dated during the recession, it looks like these figureheads of the last decade's gastroboom may be in for a bumpy ride in the years to come.
Other trappings of Noughties luxury may also be on the way out. The ultimate gastronomic status symbol of the boom years, unfeasibly tender, maddeningly expensive Japanese Kobe or Wagyu beef has become an international fetish. With its truffle-like tenderness and superfine marbling of moistening fat, this luxury beef bred from Wagyu cattle in Japan's Hogyo Prefecture is also served heavily seasoned with hype. But for the slaughterer's knife, the grain-fed cattle that go to make Kobe beef live remarkably cushy lives, even receiving regular massages. The result is meat veined with tiny seams of fat with unusually high levels of omega, keeping the meat succulent and all but disappearing with cooking. While the texture and juiciness of Kobe beef is indeed outstanding, its high price tag means it is one trend unlikely to cross over from restaurants to homes.
Mind you, not all meaty trends of the past decade have been so high-flown and pricey. Many restaurants in the Anglo-Saxon world have been returning kidneys, oxtail, head cheese and even lights (lungs to you and me) to their menus - though it's true that beyond the Anglosphere, they never really went away. While this makes ordering in some restaurants tough at times for the squeamish, it taps into a contemporary concern with authenticity. Addicted to steak, chops and other prime cuts, we too often turn our noses up at more obscure meaty offerings, so the reasoning goes. Not only is insisting only on prime cuts wasteful - if you're going to kill an animal, you should at least pay it the courtesy of using as much of it as possible - it also means we miss out on some of the most delicious morsels there are. Just like eating organic or choosing local food, the rediscovery of nose-to-tail eating gives diners a pleasing impression of getting back in touch with an earthier, less fussy past.
And things have been changing even in that most basic of dining sectors: fast food. Strange things have happened to McDonald's in the past 10 years. In many cities its branches have been transformed from garishly strip-lit, utilitarian feeding stations into brightly coloured, more softly illuminated utilitarian feeding stations. Their menus, meanwhile, have diversified from hamburgers to bland salads and diluted Asian food. Clearly customers are tiring of their once standard brand of identikit burgers and yearning for something a little more healthy and satisfying. This nervousness on the part of the great chain has been counterbalanced by a big trend of recent years: the rise of high-quality fast food. Across the US, chains such as In-N-Out Burger, with its better-quality beef and use of cholesterol-free vegetable oil, have given a new respectability to a previously junk-laden corner of the market. Quality-conscious Manhattan is practically sinking into the Hudson under the weight of gourmet burger joints, with some charging up to $40 (Dh147) a pop for burgers made with Kobe beef. While the phenomenon is an especially American affair, the rise of British chains such as Hamburger Union and the international popularity of cheap conveyor belt sushi and Middle Eastern snack foods such as shawarma suggest that even when they want a quick bite, customers have started to demand a little more.