These days, it seems we are constantly discovering a new food that will make us healthier, happier, or even somehow smarter. In this eye-opening, witty work of reportage, David Sax uncovers the world of food trends: where they come from, how they grow, and where they end up. From fondue in Florida to food trucks in DC, Sax goes in search of the farmers, chefs, and even data analysts who help decide what you’re having for dinner. The Tastemakers is full of entertaining stories and surprising truths about what we eat, how we eat it, and why.
Momofuku’s David Chang, whose stratospheric success launched a thousand pork belly–stuffed buns, hip ramen restaurants, and kimchi-topped dishes, found his early realization that he was a trendsetter profoundly unsettling. Chang would walk into a new restaurant in Denver and find himself face to face with nearly half of his menu and the same minimalist plywood décor that he’d used at Momofuku Noodle Bar. “I try to take it with a grain of salt,” he said. “I try not to eat at those restaurants. I try to avoid them. It would be like watching the cover band of the band I wanted to see. It’s too meta-fucking-weird.” For a while Chang resented the trends he started and all that they had spawned, but as he has matured and his restaurant business expanded, Chang realized that his power as a trendsetting tastemaker was actually liberating. “It allows us to do other things,” said Chang, “to finance and pursue new flavors and more interesting projects. I fully embrace it, and I want to serve the best buns, the best ramens, the best fried chicken of all time.”
Chang also worried that the increasing importance of food trends for chefs and the restaurant business was skewing the priorities of young cooks, who are less interested in learning the fundamentals of the classical kitchen than they are with whipping out a bag of edible fireworks, as Michael Whiteman explained. He also has a deep problem with appropriation, which has increased in pace dramatically now that the minutia of every single menu is posted online almost instantly. When Chang first heard about Catalan modernist chef Ferran Adrià, who operated the surrealist restaurant El Bulli in northern Spain, he had no idea what was being described, how the dishes looked, let alone how they were made. Those who wanted to find out had to travel there, work in Adrià’s kitchen, and pick up the knowledge by hand. “But now with the Internet, cooks don’t have to travel and see how something is done.” They can just replicate it from photos and recipes posted online. “Food trends are a very dangerous thing,” Chang warned me. “They can spark innovation but also kill innovation.”
Chang acknowledged that food culture is an evolution, and even the foolish trends are what push our culture forward. No one creates their ideas in a vacuum. Even when it seems like someone is putting one more molten chocolate cake on their menu, if the chef is tweaking it in any way by, say, adding Mexican-style chilies and cinnamon to the chocolate or making it with something crazy like pig’s blood (something I tried once, and actually liked), it opens up another road for our taste buds to venture down. Trends are the process of a feedback loop, of competition between talents, and they are a balance between following the herd, pleasing customers, and letting creativity flow. Without them restaurants would serve the exact same dishes they did forty years ago—we’d still be eating roast beef, mashed potatoes, and frozen vegetables night after night after night.
“Sax has done his homework—and probably put on a few pounds. A solid overview of trendsetting foods brought to life with colorful examples.”
“Sax declares, food trends, though sometimes annoying, deepen and expand our cultural palate, spur economic growth, provide broad variety in our diets, and promote happiness.”
“David Sax has written a fascinating and surprising story of why we eat what we eat. It's a tale of overhyped chia seeds, rebranded fish and unseen influencers. I will never again look at a grocery store aisle or my restaurant entree the same way again.”
—A.J. Jacobs, New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically and Drop Dead Healthy
“With forensic specificity, and, better still, a terrific sense of fun, David Sax explains precisely how foods du jour such as cupcakes, Greek yogurt, and Korean tacos ‘happened.’ The trends may seem silly, but The Tastemakers is not. Sax has given this gastro-exuberant time the whizzy, full-gallop treatment it deserves.”
— David Kamp, bestselling author of The United States of Arugula
“They say there’s no accounting for taste, but David Sax makes sense of the mysterious forces that shape our personal food preferences, through stories so absorbing and witty that I wasn’t even sorry to discover that my taste buds are hardly my own. I devoured The Tastemakers like an oat bran muffin in 1989—or a chia-seed muffin today.”
— Karen Leibowitz, author of Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant
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US Edition, published by PublicAffairs
Hardcover | 336 pages | $25.99
Canadian Edition, published by McClelland & Stewart
$29.95 (Canada) | ISBN: 978-0771079122