A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to speak at a “trend conference”. Big companies want to know what’s happening out in consumer world and they reckon that a writer in the area has their finger on some sort of pulse – or is at least in a position to make some useful generalisations. It’s a fun way to spend the afternoon and they often have nice biscuits.
But in preparing for this one, making bullet points out of “queuing”, “molecular gastronomy”, “haute takeaway” and “new street food”, I started to suspect that I’d been missing something. Many of the trends of the past few years look like they might actually be part of the same “meta-trend”, something that in hindsight might well turn out to have been a movement – an idea that, until a better name comes along, I’m going to refer to as New Localism.
It’s important to separate New Localism from the “locavore” movement, which is still big in the US. For a while we too wanted to care about food miles in the UK – and one or two heroic tries were made for restaurants serving food from their own allotments or, for those in London, sourced within the M25, but they soon teetered under the weight of their worthiness. The UK is too small and it’s hard to explain to anyone who cares about their dinner that not only is it wrong to eat a San Marzano tomato when our own farms are in turnip season, but we also can’t have Scottish smoked salmon and have to make do with Thames crayfish. The locavore thing is praiseworthy but faintly silly, and we’re looking for something bigger.
The most publicised food trend has been molecular gastronomy, which has been widely reported for its experiments with foams, smears and vapours. Behind it, though, is a very big idea. Molecular gastronomy was the public face of a move towards cooking based in cold hard science and not in the historical canon of French cuisine. It’s hard to stress just how big a change has occurred now we have the first generation of young chefs for whom Harold McGee’s book on the science of food means as much, if not more, than Escoffier’s on recipes.
It was a huge step, but loss of the French influence has been a main strand throughout New Localism. After the parlour tricks had impressed us all, Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, René Redzepi and a generation of young chefs all over the world had a clean start and with it they could think in a new way.
Adrià began to talk about the food heritage of his region. Blumenthal built a huge library of books from the richest period of British culinary history and began reimagining Victorian recipes. Redzepi launched a career on foraged ingredients and interpretations of local, traditional recipes. Suddenly, where the chef was located, in both a geographical and a cultural/historical sense, seemed very important. Newer names, like New York Korean chef, David Chang, are even beginning to mine their urban locality. There is classical French in his training but his food is influenced by the fast food and melting-pot cultures of a modern city upbringing.
When a food writer is asked for a restaurant recommendation, they can usually answer with their latest enthusiasm: ‘You should definitely check out Restaurant X.’ This has been traditionally followed by the supplementary, ‘What kind of food do they serve?’ to which the answer was French, Italian, diner, haute, bourgeois, peasant, fast or comfort. It seemed that a restaurant almost needed a theme – someone else’s pattern – to exist at all. As New Localism spreads it’s becoming gratifyingly more difficult to answer that question as we gain the confidence to love our own foods, cooked innovatively and well, in our own tradition.
There’s something inherently daft in being asked to post-rationalise a trend – even with the promise of biscuits – but it does seem that most of the highly publicised food fashions of the past decade have strong common strands. A growing confidence among young chefs and a more relaxed attitude among diners seem a logical evolution and rediscovery of local inspiration – a New Localism, the natural corollary.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer.