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The Golden Age of American Dining Is Over

The same factors that created 12 years of glory for the culinary scene have also led to its downfall

Credit: The Washington Post/Getty

In his new book Burn the Ice, Kevin Alexander surveys the last 12 years of culinary revolution across America, from the explosion and appropriation of local cuisines like Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville to the iconoclastic influence of Portland’s Le Pigeon. What follows is an adapted introduction from Alexander’s testament to the industry’s latest boom–and bust.

TThe United States of America is no stranger to revolution. For the better part of 400 years, it’s stubbornly refused to stand still. Perhaps more than any other nation in history, it’s constantly in a state of reinvention, and nowhere is this truer than when it comes to what, where, and how we eat. But for the last 12 years, the change has accelerated, reaching previously unseen speeds, and it has been incredible, a — perhaps the — golden age of American dining. And it may already be over.

But God, was it glorious: chefs bringing extinct crops back from the dead; bartenders finding ancient cocktail tomes in haunted attics and recreating the recipes found within; tiny farms and distilleries and breweries blossoming from Montgomery to Montpelier; food trucks run by French-trained chefs creating singular, perfect foodstuffs; cheeseburgers becoming fancy and then purposefully not fancy again; a Vietnamese immigrant’s small hot sauce company threatening ketchup’s place as condiment king while spending zero money on advertising; obscure cuts of meat becoming celebrated by butchers; butchers becoming celebrities in their own right; hotel bars and restaurants turning into genuine destinations rather than necessities; regional pizza styles (Detroit!) becoming national icons; bars making everything with fresh juices and better ingredients; third-wave coffee shops reshaping coffee’s identity into something to be savored; airport food becoming palatable and, in some cases, downright good; new delivery companies increasing the quality and scope of food you can get at home; European-style food halls flourishing in every city; more diverse cuisines being celebrated and reimagined to take their place in the culinary mainstream; bakers merging together croissants and donuts.

It’s been a veritable food Valhalla. And very quickly, as is our habit, we, the American people, have adjusted our expectations and palates during the food world’s tectonic shift over the last decade. Make it new, we scream with ever-increasing frequency and volume. So much so that it is very easy to forget our current food reality is still, in fact, very much a new reality. Mostly coming from unlikely locales.

It seemed as if an omniscient zeitgeist was orchestrating the openings of ramen shops and Neapolitan pizza spots and pre-Prohibition cocktail joints all over the country.

For generations, culinary creativity in the United States basically came out of two places: New York City (Delmonico’s, Lutèce, The Four Seasons) and the Bay Area (Chez Panisse and its progeny). There were exceptions to this rule — New Orleans in the late ’70s, Los Angeles in the ’80s, and Dallas in the ’90s, roughly speaking — but they tended to be exceptions that proved the rule. Each time the trend had run its course or a particular chef left, the momentum receded, and the torch was sheepishly handed back to New York City and the Bay for safekeeping.

But in 2006 this all changed, when Portland, Oregon, jumped out of the culinary backwater and became the new face of American gastronomy. Portland’s rise was almost as unexpected as the style that accompanied it. Young, fearless chefs like Gabriel Rucker were making bold, challenging dishes (sautéed lamb’s brain with mustard crème fraîche, foie gras profiteroles) with locally sourced foods, served to you in a no-bullshit, rough-hewn space on chipped plates by mostly laconic servers with myriad tattoos. It wasn’t clear whether the DIY aesthetic helped to spawn the menu or whether the menus being written called for a new kind of restaurant space, but a feedback loop came into being, and with it a playbook for young chefs in what had previously been second-tier culinary cities. It seemed as if an omniscient zeitgeist was orchestrating the openings of ramen shops and Neapolitan pizza spots and pre-Prohibition cocktail joints all over the country. Almost overnight, “the next Portland” became shorthand for smaller cities that were, all at once it seemed, and on relatively shoestring budgets, sprouting exciting food scenes. Places like Austin and Charleston and Nashville suddenly had something they hadn’t come in contact with for a while: national buzz.

The symptoms of this mania were remarkably consistent, but a few stood out above all: for one, an obsession with the idea of paying homage. This meant honoring those things that came before you, and it showed itself in everything from naming the restaurants and bars (Alden & Harlow’s “name itself is a nod to the history of the building… It refers to the architects of 40 Brattle Street”), to the interior, which had to use elements of the historical structure either in their original form (“original tin ceilings”) or repurposed in a creative way (“salvaged wood paneling”).

There was also an idea, especially as it related to food, that as more and more of life took place digitally, crafting something by hand became an especially revered profession, especially by the hipster movement’s rural-chic (big beards, lumberjack flannels and work boots, folkish music from groups named after animals, etc.) practitioners. Thus, everything had to be hand-crafted. Hand-distilled spirits. Hand-butchered whole hogs. Hand-churned ice cream. Hand-pickled… pickles.

Coupled with that was the quest to find or learn things in the most “authentic” manner possible. If you were going to do ramen, you better go to Japan and learn noodle techniques from Yuki Onishi at Tsuta. Neapolitan pizza? Get certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. In the past, American chefs seeking this sort of culinary enlightenment would almost always travel to France, but now, as you saw David Chang return from Tokyo to open Momofuku or Andy Ricker come back from Thailand to do Pok Pok, there was a groundswell of interest in going almost anywhere that something culturally distinct and specific was happening, and as much as anything, this was because competition was getting fierce and it was taking more and more effort to stand out from the crowd. Authenticity inflation was high: what was authentic today might very well be shamefully derivative tomorrow.

Foods were unpacked and simplified and reduced to their core elements. You could hardly order a protein without hearing its “origin story.” You didn’t want the biggest, reddest strawberry; you wanted the sweetest, most local strawberry. At Husk in Charleston, Sean Brock was bringing back nearly extinct legumes and grains and only serving products made below the Mason-Dixon Line. In Portland, John Taboada’s restaurant, Navarre, put out a menu that changed daily based on whatever farmers dumped on his doorstep. Daily-changing menus and scratch kitchens (where everything is made in-house) became ubiquitous, as did the idea of serving them in an ultracasual setting.

Eschewing standard cooking demonstration fare, food television got markedly better. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations (and later Parts Unknown) gave viewers a knowledgeable, refreshingly respectful, unpretentious, yet still truly epicurean look at other country’s culinary worlds. Reality competitions like Top Chef expertly interplayed the dynamics of reality television (grudges! heroes! villains! people crying into the camera!) with the tension and pressure of a competition show, affirming the now unremarkable idea that cooking is a means of identity creation — and driving a frankly incredible increase in culinary school applications during the mid- and latter aughts.

Food media and criticism became a 24/7 proposition in earnest with the rise of blogs like Eater, which covered chefs like celebrities, and Serious Eats, the amateur food nerd’s paradise. Sites like DailyCandy, Thrillist, Tasting Table, and the unfortunately named UrbanDaddy sent out e-blasts five days a week, often covering whichever bars or restaurants were opening in the specific city you’d signed up for. Because these entities needed daily content and were in competition with each other, they were not picky about coverage, providing new avenues of exposure for restaurants and bars with limited marketing budgets that might not get a chance to entice the traditional food media gatekeepers.

Most of those independent, chef-owned, casual fine dining restaurants that came to define the last decade of dining have proven difficult to sustain.

At its peak, this movement — this social upheaval — was truly beautiful to behold, a serious step forward in connecting Americans with the food on their plates and educating them in what it would mean for their health and that of the planet, too. The idea of “foodies” being some tiny niche population of wealthy, retired couples excitedly standing outside suburban strip mall Thai joints, holding marked-up copies of Zagat and Michael and Jane Stern’s Roadfood, became increasingly outdated, as entire swaths of upwardly mobile twentysomethings, with their knowledge squeezed from Eater Heatmaps and Thrillist Eat Seekers and Yelp and Infatuation ratings, considered finding good food so obligatory that it no longer registered as a defining characteristic of one’s identity.

And then it all began to fall apart.

Over the past few years, in city after city, I’ve sat drinking small-batch gin and tonics and eating self-consciously retro bar snacks and talked about the last 12 years with chefs and bartenders and pitmasters and line cooks and waiters and farmers and food writers and thinkers and activists, and I’ve discovered that many of the very factors that caused this era to explode are causing its downfall.

Most of those independent, chef-owned, casual fine dining restaurants that came to define the last decade of dining have proven difficult to sustain as chefs burned out, rent and food costs increased, and the labor pool, especially in the back of the house, dwindled to near catastrophically low levels.

The 24/7 food media, which for so long published fawning profiles of mostly male, white, mercurial chefs and bartenders, has come to realize during the #MeToo movement’s awakening that male, white, mercurial chefs and bartenders are an imperfect, often highly troubling vessel for deification.

The social media that brought exposure to creative ideas without traditional gatekeepers now overexposes trends at lightning speeds while rewarding whichever bullies and copycats are willing to scream loudest into the void.

The small-town feel of many of these neighborhoods has become an oversaturated marketplace controlled by hostile landlords and aggressive developers intent on capitalizing on past excitement while whitewashing a neighborhood’s culture and history.

The words “craft” and “artisanal” and “farm-to-table,” once vitally important signifiers of the movement, have become so commonplace they’ve really stopped meaning anything at all — or, worse, have taken on a sneering, ironic edge in the mouths of cynics.

Plus, there are too many Top Chef spinoffs.

But even as this golden age dims like the Edison bulbs in its signature restaurants, something new is appearing on the horizon.

Technological advances in urban farming and the rapid development of plant and petri dish-based meats suggest the culinary world is heading into another bedrock-shaking moment. It is no longer a far-fetched science fiction fever dream to think, in the very near future, that a city restaurant could be getting its Ozark Beauty strawberries and cuts of Wagyu beef from the most local source possible — an industrial warehouse and science lab next door.

But, on the experiential side, it’s also not implausible to think restaurants will realize leaning so recklessly into the current social media saturated moment with their Instagram-friendly photo walls, and stunt rainbow and glitter foods and charcoal black cocktails served to you in edible emoji mugs is ultimately futile (and a bit sad). Taking a cue from movie theaters and comedy clubs, they could end up becoming phone-free sanctuaries, where you can partake in good food, drink, and conversation without the pressure to treat your dining experience like it’s being preserved for an anthropological time capsule, and dining experiences stop being based around visual sophistry and parlor tricks, and go back to focusing on the actual things you’re eating.

In the kitchen, the term “burn the ice” means to melt down whatever remains in the ice machine at your station at the end of the night. At the bar, it’s also used when someone drops glass into the well and you’ve got to burn off all the ice to find the glass. The first version suggests an end, a way to close; the second, a restart. And judging by the current American restaurant landscape, either version would be more than welcome.

From Burn the Ice by Kevin Alexander. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Kevin Alexander, 2019.

Author, BURN THE ICE (Penguin Press, July 2019). James Beard Award-winning National Writer-at-Large, @Thrillist |“No prawns at this altitude.”

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