Is The Food Renaissance About To End?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Are you thinking about dinner right about now? Maybe you're cooking at home, but maybe you're thinking about a nice evening at your special date night place. Or maybe you're up for a build-your-own-bowl, fast casual, farm-to-table, brew pub craft cocktail kind of place - or food truck, maybe? Depending on where you live, the choices for dining out these days are endless, which makes this a golden age for the restaurant industry and for those of us who eat out.
But a new book by award-winning food writer Kevin Alexander says, hold onto your napkin because this food renaissance is about to end. The argument is outlined in Kevin Alexander's new book "Burn The Ice: The American Culinary Revolution And Its End." In postcards and chaptered vignettes from all over the country, he chronicles the trajectories of several chefs who've borne the weight of this last decade of food innovation in America. And Kevin Alexander's with us now from San Francisco.
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
KEVIN ALEXANDER: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: OK. Well, let's start with the good times. How did this restaurant boom begin? And when did you realize that this was a trend?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. So I've been covering food for 11 years. And really, in the last three years, as I've been traveling around the country, I - down to 40 cities, and I just sort of saw the same types of restaurants everywhere. You know, it was the Edison bulbs and the reclaimed wood and the farm-to-table food and a craft cocktail program. And it just seemed like there was this nationwide osmosis where everyone needed to include mescal and meatballs on their menus and everyone suddenly cared where their food was coming from. And all of these independent restaurants that were chef-owned seem to define the era. So what I wanted to do was trace that back. And when I did, I found that patient zero seemed to be Portland in 2006.
MARTIN: So it's like that tech term - disruption. You know, a lot of these people kind of disrupted the old ways, and, you know, lo and behold, people liked it. In fact, for a number of the chefs that you've profiled, you've made it clear that there wasn't some grand calling - that you put it in terms of the butterfly effect, a build-up of small events that led them to cooking or that led to kind of innovations.
So how much of this golden age, as many people have called it, do you attribute to this? I mean, was it chance? Or do you think that the industry itself was just ripe for something like this?
ALEXANDER: Well, I mean, I think it's really important to understand that 2006, there were a lot of factors involved. So that was the year that social media began to take off. That was when food television like "Top Chef" and "No Reservations" made the idea of being a chef seem cooler and more lucrative than it actually is. That was the rise of food bloggers like Eater and Serious Eats. And that gave restaurants a 24/7 news cycle and made chefs into celebrities.
And when Portland came onto the map in 2006 and got this national media attention, they had no culinary history and reputation to live up to. And what that did is it gave chefs and bartenders in other cities a chance to say, hey, look - we can do this too.
MARTIN: So why do you say that this renaissance is actually a bubble that is about to burst?
ALEXANDER: Well, we haven't had a recession in 11 years. And normally, I would say amazing, great. But what that means in the restaurant business is it means landlords can raise rents for 11 straight years. There are over 100,000 more restaurants in America today than there were 10 years ago. And as restaurant rents get more expensive, so to residential rents, which means workers getting priced out of being able to afford to live in cities.
I mean, there's been a labor shortage in the back of the house thanks to reverse immigration and a variety of other factors for years. And now it's sort of reaching a crisis point. And what that also does is limits the ability of restaurants to be creative with their menus.
MARTIN: You know, this is the kind of conversation where some people are going to listen to this and go, boo hoo, OK? Bring me your tiny violin...
MARTIN: ...Right? You know, like...
MARTIN: There are some people who are just struggling to make it. They don't - you know, they don't have health care. They're just struggling to get, you know, basics kind of met even in the richest country in the world and so forth and so on - you know, totally get it. But, you know, make the case. Like, why - do we care that this is happening? What - how do you want us to think about this?
ALEXANDER: I think restaurants are the lifeblood of culture, especially right now. You know, you think about the way that we viewed love in the '60s or money in the '80s, I think we think about food in that way now. And restaurants are a huge provider of jobs in America, a huge provider of jobs for immigrants in America. On the flip side of this is, you know, we've reached this sort of age of the operator.
And so in order to survive these things, you have to be part of a bigger and bigger restaurant group. And we always talk about small businesses in America. You know, politicians are always sort of hitting that. These are small businesses, and we want them to survive, and it's important for them to survive.
MARTIN: You know, there are a couple of big social issues that you write about in the book and that you - that are part of this story, and I don't want to glide past them. And the first issue is this whole question of cultural appropriation - chefs becoming famous for discovering ingredients or recipes or putting a premium price on food that actually comes from a specific place and time and person. And you addressed this in the book with the example of Andre Prince Jefferies and Nashville hot chicken.
And then, you know, there's a pushback against that. People are, like, well, what are you talking about? Like, what is art - all art, all culture is borrowed and exchanged and so forth. Like, so what's the big deal? So tell me, like, what's the big deal?
ALEXANDER: So the Prince's family started hot chicken. They invented hot chicken. And before 2007, it was just a dish that was in North Nashville. It was primarily African American community. And unless you sought it out, you weren't going to get it. And starting with the Hot Chicken Festival in Nashville in 2007, it took off everywhere. And so what you saw happen was - is folks came in and said, hey, you know what? I think I can do it better and bigger and faster. And so they started to take it and run with it.
And Andre had this really interesting perspective. And she said, you know, they started calling it Nashville hot chicken. And what she meant was they had taken Prince's Hot Chicken out of it. It no longer was about the family. It was about the city. And then once it became about the city, then it was permission for, you know, KFC to do Nashville hot chicken. What she cared about was getting credit - that as long as people still gave her and her family credit, she didn't have a problem with them doing it too.
MARTIN: So where does this leave us? I - for a lot of people, just getting enough calories - for a lot of people around the world, just getting enough calories is enough. So that's - let's just sort of say that to be true. But for people who feel that food is as vital a part of culture as art or music, right, where does all this leave us? I mean, won't a lot of good stuff get swept away? I mean, couldn't you see a scenario where the only thing that's left is bad food out of a can?
ALEXANDER: (Laughter) That's so dark. I mean, yes, from one extent. But if you think about the 2008 recession, that brought on the food truck revolution, right? So that was - basically, a lot of people couldn't get loans for brick and mortar spots. So, you know, you had these culinary grads, like, well, what would I do if I just - I would rent a catering truck, and I would just make this one delicious thing? And so you just saw the austerity breed this creativity. And, I mean, real, true chefs - they're artists, and when put in a position with their backs against the wall, they do some really incredible things. And I think you're going to see that similar type of deal if a recession hits.
MARTIN: Kevin Alexander's latest book is "Burn The Ice: The American Culinary Revolution And Its End." And the book is out now.
Kevin Alexander, thanks so much for talking to us.
ALEXANDER: Thank you for having me.
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