When nostalgic chefs decide to resurrect bygone culinary trends, they tend to dip into pre-industrial cookbooks and bar guides issued before Prohibition. But Kathy Casey, who was one of the nation's few female executive chefs in the 1980s, thinks her younger colleagues are remiss in overlooking a decade now remembered mostly for Equal packets and pasta salad.
"It was really when American cuisine came about," says Casey, who was charged with creating the 1980s portion of SkyCity's celebratory 50th anniversary menu, offered through the end of May. "It was the heyday of the restaurant industry."
By James Beard Foundation rules, none of the nominees for its Rising Star Chef award can be older than 30, which means such current culinary luminaries as Daniel Bowien, Thomas McNaughton and Christina Tosi were probably more familiar with Fruit Roll-ups and string cheese than Jeremiah Tower and Barry Wine back when they were making the case for local ingredients and American cuisine.
Casey says the excesses of the era might seem anachronistic now: "Everybody used to order Louis XV cognac and really crazy expensive bottles of wine," she says. "It was fancy-pants." But many of the dishes associated with the decade still hold up, such as the warm spinach salad Casey contributed to the Sky City menu.
The salad, made with smoked duck, mushrooms and a sesame dressing, wowed guests at a menu preview party earlier this month.
"Younger people were like, 'I love that salad'," Casey says. "A lot of that food would be on par with what we do today. I used to make an onion marmalade that would be hip today."
When Casey had the chance to cook for Craig Claiborne in the 1980s, she shipped wild salmon and two different kinds of huckleberries to New York. The berries were picked by members of the Love Israel commune. "So I was bringing all this super weird stuff," she recalls.
Although local ingredients have remained an important element of high-end cooking, many chefs today have dropped the classical techniques which were practiced devoutly in the 1980s. "Everything was kind of French," says Casey, who once concocted a souffle with gummy bears. "There were these interesting sauces that you don't see, or kind of see oozing back in."
"To really 80s it up," Casey added a triangular sesame cracker with a "pouf of wasabi goat cheese" to her salad.
"It was all about triangles," she says. "If I could wear that hair again...I love that hair."
At the tasting event, Casey sampled the dishes prepared by other participating chefs, including poke from Shiro Kashiba and kimchee fried rice from Tom Douglas, who ribbed Casey about having to handle an earlier decade.
"They're still really good," she says. "I would totally serve my salad now. I might sex it up even more."
You can serve Casey's salad too: Kathy Casey Recipes - 50th Tasting Menu - SkyCity