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The Trendy Food Cycle

Have you ever noticed how popular foods move in a predictable cycle?

It starts with a wonderful, tasty flash of inspiration from a chef. Experimenting in the kitchen, they come up with a new combination of flavors that works phenomenally well together. At this stage, the ingredients are fresh, sometimes hand picked by the chef. Each part of the dish is lovingly crafted to the artist’s strict specifications, using knowledge gained from preparing the same ingredients before.

Guests to the chef’s restaurant try the new dish on the specials menu, and immediately recognize the skill and effort that went into the innovative creation.  It seems so obvious, they’ll say. But they never thought to do it, and now that they’ve tasted it, it’s all they can think about! They tell their friends, and their friends tell their friends.

If this is sustained long enough, then it usually catches the attention of one of those food channel specials.  You know the ones.  The programs titled, “Amazing Foods that You’ll Never Get to Have” or “The Best Restaurants in the World that are too Exclusive for You”.  But, as a result of being on one of these shows, and exposed to mass amounts of people, there is at least one other cook who realizes the potential, and takes it a step further.

Now it moves into the next stage. Brave home cooks will seek out the ingredients needed to recreate the dish, given the information that they have.  It may not be a faithful representation, but they’ll either settle for what they’ve been able to cook, or keep iterating the recipe until it gets as close as possible.  At this point, higher end restaurants might catch on, and also add it to their specials menu, and will usually get pretty close to recreating the dish.

This stage is a gradual progression downward to respected, but not quite as high-end restaurants. This usually consists of smaller chain restaurants, where some of the quality of the original recipe is lost, but the integrity is still solid enough that the flavors, textures and sensations continue to amaze the diners.

But then, inevitably, it all falls apart.

Everyone realizes how popular and amazing this flavor sensation is, and folks trying to make a quick buck dumb it down to the simplest elements to attract the lowest common denominator.

Low cost, chain restaurants take whatever ingredients they have on hand that approximate the original idea, and add it to their menu.

Multinational companies create processed foods based on the original idea, but usually end up being only a salty approximation. In the case of potato chips, it usually ends up tasting like Sour Cream and Onion, Salt and Vinegar or Barbeque – regardless of what it actually says on the package.

At this point, it would probably be good to list some examples of once-great ideas dumbed down to oblivion. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Anything with Roasted Garlic
  • Something Tex-Mex with Fire-Roasted Tomatoes
  • Italian food that has either Pesto, Sun-Dried Tomatoes or a specialty Mozzerella – often simply referred to as “Tuscan Style”
  • Buffalo-style flavoring, which strangely does not always involve chicken.
  • Chipotle-marinated meats, or Chipotle mayo.
  • Balsamic reduction over fruit or ice cream.
  • Loaded Baked Potato flavored anything
  • Anything on small buns, commonly referred to as “sliders”.

A lot of these are great if done right. But they’ve been iterated and overdone so much that they’re tired and exhausted, and it takes something truly unique and lovingly crafted for these ideas and flavors to make your mouth water again.

And that’s when a strange thing starts to happen – in an act of desperation, chefs will “re-discover” one of these overused flavor tropes, and reinvent it back to its original glory. Usually it’s too late to change any of the mass-market crap derivatives.  But if you’re lucky, you’ll find a chef who truly cares, and reminds us all what made the dish so popular in the first place.

And the cycle begins anew…

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