Don't Call It A Comeback: '80s Food Trends And What They Say About You As A Chef

A couple weeks back, I did a piece for this here blog about the resurgence in tapas/small plates restaurants and menus--a restaurant trend that hit big in the late '80s and early '90s and then just never faded away.

Shortly before heading south for San Francisco, Jonathan Kauffman laid down his predictions about what food trends would be big among the foodies and hipsters of the Pacific Northwest (peanut butter, fermented pickles), what trends had crested (marrow bones and PBR) and what would be the next big thing (macaroons, apparently, and high-end hot dogs). And just recently, while writing my wrap-up of the Seattle Weekly Voracious Tasting event, I found myself struggling to find a word that properly described the style of cooking represented by the tiny foie gras torchons with brioche tuille and rhubarb jelly being slung by the boys from Spur. What they were doing was certainly not "molecular gastronomy." It wasn't New American by any stretch and--being a torchon of fucking foie--couldn't rightly be described as modernist cuisine.

And then, just today (fully six days too late), it hit me: It was nouvelle cuisine--straight-up '80s-style nouvelle in all its tiny, Froggish glory. Small, sauceless, standing in bold opposition to the steamed-vegetable-and-water minceur style that ran counter to it, this single bite of blissfully good and fiercely controlled food could've easily served as some kind of porn-y food centerfold in the June 1983 edition of Gourmet magazine. And with the shiso leaf to add a little bit of Far East frisson? Jesus, this one single plate might've made chefs Brian McCracken and Dana Tough the absolute darlings of food's high society back in the dark days of American cuisine. That is, if they weren't both still children at the time ...

So with that in mind, I decided to go back, scour some of my reference material, and find what other dead-and-forgotten restaurant food trends of the '80s might be due for a little phoenix action. And below are my results: the best of the worst pro kitchen trends of the '80s and what utilizing them might say about you as a chef:

The Trend: Nouvelle Cuisine.

Originally styled as a revolt against the heaviness and pedantic nature of the holy French canon, nouvelle cuisine was a deliberate step away from the classic restaurant preparations with their heavy sauces and dependence on roux, flour and butter. As a replacement, young hot-headed chefs turned to reductions, emulsions and a completely improper use of fruits every-fucking-where. When this didn't get them enough attention, they then shrunk portion sizes to the point where garnishes had to be added with jeweler's tweezers and started treating plates like canvases--making art rather than dinner and starving an entire generation of gullible foodies.

The upshot? No one had to eat aspic anymore. Also, when your entire dinner comprised one leaf of basil, a teardrop of mozzarella, tomato essence and comes garnished with one of the chef's own fingernail trimmings, it became a lot easier to fit into those skin-tight Calvin Kleins.

What it says about you as a chef: Either you dropped out of art school and became a line cook because the access to drugs was better or you've realized that charging $30 for a plate of of tourneed vegetables in mango coulis makes a lot more economic sense than charging $8 for a bucket of fried chicken. Third option: you've been forced to give away the foie gras for free to a thousand drunk party-goers at the Paramount and don't want to completely lose your shirt on the food costs.

The Trend: Vertical Food

I have never forgiven Alfred Portale of Gotham in New York for starting this vertical food trend. Because of him, I spent years in kitchens fucking around with ring molds and precariously stacking things on top of other things. Granted, verticality was a bold departure from the standard fine dining plating ethos of the time (either covering everything in aspic, making it all one color, or walking it to a customer's table and then setting fire to it in the middle of the restaurant), but it got old fast.

What it says about you as a chef: Stacking food any higher than is absolutely necessary immediately signals to all girls in the dining room that you're trying to make up for other, uh ... shortcomings elsewhere. Seriously, serving vertical food is like driving around in a red sports car with your hairpiece waving in the wind--it immediately tells everyone that you have a small penis and feel badly about it--and the only reasons a vertical presentation should ever be done are a) to mock Portale in some very obvious way, or b) because you hate your wait staff and want to see them struggling to get the 11-inch tower of salad greens, poached egg and lobster tails out to the table without it all toppling over on them.

The Trend: Small Plates

Tiny bites of food served on tiny little plates. Like Nouvelle Cuisine for non-French speakers.

What it says about you as a chef: Your subscription to Food Arts ran out six months ago.

The Trend: Using raspberry vinaigrette, garnishing with starfruit or kiwi, making (or serving) mango-jalapeno salsa.

What it says about you as a chef: Your subscription to Cook's Illustrated ran out 16 years ago. Or perhaps you were Jonathan Waxman's coke dealer/saucier back in the day and have just been released from some sort of federal incarceration/witness relocation kind of scenario.

The Trend: Asian Fusion

There was a time in the 80's when it didn't really count as a meal out unless you'd ingested at least three of the following: cilantro, mango, gold foil, galangal, raw fish in a French sauce, a French main dish with fish sauce added, fish sauce all by itself, curry used in some horribly inappropriate way (like as a dessert topping), lemongrass.

What it says about you as a chef: You've realized the awesome power of the culinary multicultural mash-up but lack the stones (or the education) to come up with something less over-done than French-Asian. On the other hand, maybe you've realized the awesome power of the culinary multicultural mash-up and have also realized that most diners lack the stones (or the education) to eat anything other than French-Asian.

The Trend: Blackened everything

Remember when you couldn't eat out anywhere without running across some clever chef who'd spent three bucks on a bottle of blackening spice and was determined to use it on everything from the french fries to the creme brulee? Yeah, that was 1987 for ya ...

What it says about you as a chef: Unless you're Paul Prudhomme or currently live and work in New Orleans, let me be the first to welcome you back from that nasty coma.

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