The Chicago Tribune ran a piece this week about the supposed "ten worst dining trends" of the last decade. We all know top-ten lists are a great way to get people's attention, and a negative list like this really sets people off.
But are these trends really all bad? I don't think so. Let's take them one at a time.
10. Fried Onion Blossoms
That's all you got? C'mon, a fried onion blossom is basically just a great big pile of onion rings. Granted, they usually run a little greasy. But who doesn't like onion rings? I'm not recommending you have one of these for lunch every day, but once a year that is pretty good, fun eating!
9. Molecular Gastronomy
This is the one that really set me off. First of all, it is ridiculous to lump a bunch of things together under the term "molecular gastronomy." Every way that we routinely prepare food today was once an innovation that someone pooh-poohed. Many of the techniques of this movement are routinely used in preparing relatively unassuming dishes. You may well have had a piece of meat cooked sous-vide or a sauce thickened with an engineered hydrocolloid the last time you ate out and not given it a second thought.
When people think "molecular gastronomy," they think of the fantastical dishes from chefs like Ferran Adria or Grant Achatz, sometimes barely recognizable as food, with apparently wild flavor combinations in exotic preparations. Some of it almost looks like magic. And guess what? That's why some of us like it.
As Salvador Dali famously said, "sometimes there isn't enough surrealism in the world." Nobody, not even the chefs who cook this way, want to eat it for every meal. But occasionally it is great fun if your food engages your intellect and sense of humor, as long as it continues to taste amazing.
If you want pizza for dinner, don't go to Alinea or Mini-Bar and then complain that you couldn't get a decent slice!
8. The $40 Entree
Maybe in three or four of our fancy-pants cities you can find a $40 entree at a neighborhood bistro. Mostly this is just a straw man. If a place is charging $40 for most of the entrees, by definition this isn't a neighborhood bistro, though it might project that mise en scene. That said, restaurants that seek out great, organic ingredients from local farmers often have to pay premium prices, and that gets passed on to you. Instead of complaining, either appreciate the value in what you are getting or vote with your feet.
7. The Communal Table
Most of the time I'm looking for a meal, not a meet-and-greet. But again, it is a free country, right? A communal table can be great fun if you are feeling convivial, or just want to get out of your own head for an hour. I'd choose one for sure if I was traveling alone on business.
6. Proudly Obnoxious Fast-Food Options
OK, I can't argue. A 1,500-calorie hamburger isn't doing any good except pumping up the bottom line for your local coronary surgeon. Just this week, this seven-layer Whopper was introduced at Burger Kings in Japan in conjunction the release of Windows 7.
5. Knee-Jerk Online Reviews
You get what you pay for, right? There has been a lot of pushback from professional critics about how awful the Yelper and food blogger reviews are. I personally find them very useful. I take any individual review with a grain of salt, but reading the totality of a dozen or so screeds, I think I get a pretty good sense of what is going on. (Full disclosure: I also write the occasional review myself.)
Don't worry critics, I still love you. There is a lot to be said for developing a "relationship" with a particular professional whose work you can trust. For example, I read Jonathan Kauffman in the Seattle Weekly and find that through the depth and context of his reviews, I learn about the bigger picture of whole ethnic cuisines, as well as the state of fine dining in our city.
All information has value; the trick is to interpret it intelligently.
Fair enough, if the base isn't flavorful enough, a foam can be an empty mouthful of air. Used properly, it can be an interesting textural component to a dish. Mainly foam gets derision as the poster child for what is supposedly wrong with #9, molecular gastronomy. Or should we ban cappuccino and beer too?
3. The Menu as Book
I'm in violent agreement here. Personally, within reason I prefer a simpler menu description. Or better yet, none at all. My favorite way to eat out at a good restaurant is to simply let the chef make me whatever they think I will love.
2. The Chef as Media Whore
Wow, harshing on Rocco Di Spirito, that's original! Honestly, almost all of the celebrity chefs can cook their aproned buns off. If you don't believe me, go back and watch some episodes of Molto Mario. Sure, some of these guys are overexposed, and darn right they aren't in the kitchen when you go eat at their restaurants. We have nobody to blame but ourselves. The same folks who like to complain about this wouldn't dream of missing an episode of Top Chef.
Again, another swipe at modernist food. If all you do is take the components of a traditional dish and spread them out on a plate, that isn't anything to write home about. Done intelligently, deconstruction can allow you to experience a familiar food in a completely different way, often delightful way. Will a gazpacho of freeze dried cucumbers and spherified tomato replace the classic, refreshing soup? Absolutely not. Is it a whole lot of fun to try once? Absolutely.
The Bottom Line
So that's how I see it. This list is basically just a bunch of populist rabble-rousing, bashing of supposed elites who have become too effete to enjoy the pleasure of simple, rustic food. The only problem is, these creatures barely exist. Pretty much everyone who eats $40 deconstructed foam-laden entrees at the communal table of a celebrity chef's underground restaurant also is plenty happy with good $3 food from a serious taco truck. Or a bloomin' onion.
About the author: Michael Natkin is an aspiring professional chef in Seattle. As the founder of Herbivoracious and our Seriously Meatless columnist, he's on a mission to show the world that vegetarian cuisine can be modern, satisfying, and delicious. When he's not cooking, Michael is a senior software engineer at Adobe Systems. Or getting his knickers in a twist after reading top-ten lists.