These are interesting times in the high-end food and drink world. Anthony Bourdain spoke last Monday at the National Restaurant Association show and elaborated on just how much the restaurant industry has changed. It used to be that the Maitre D' was the most important person at a restaurant and the chefs could hide in the back, where they used to be most comfortable. Now, as we all know, chefs are stars in their own right. For some, cooking has taken on a sense of authorship, with chefs staking their reputations on having a particular vision for creating, or sometimes re-inventing, certain dishes.
Restaurants and chefs now pride themselves on bringing history and the story behind the dishes, what certain ingredients meant to people during historic times, to the table. Food has become an experience of time and travel, as much as a means to fueling up. In a recent interview with Executive Producer of Check, Please!, David Manilow, David noted that being at a restaurant, and snapping a few photos of the food, is how people want to see and be seen. In Bourdain's National Restaurant Association speech he concurred, stating that being the first of your friends to find the best off-the-beaten-path joint is now a sign of status. In other words, being a foodie brings certain street cred.
What you eat is also a statement about who you are. Buying organic or, as I do, ethically treated meat in both life and processing, is a position that people are ready to take arms over.
All of this and more is true in the libations arena, as well. One need only walk into DAVIDsTEA to understand. People gather for a whole new community and experience around tea. Indeed, there are tea guides at every store who can walk you through the process of finding the right tea smell and taste for you and how you feel. Much like finding the right belt, pumps or perfume, tea is now something that one can use to accessorize their lifestyle, and DAVIDsTEA even puts out collections of tea by the season, along similar lines of haute-couture.
When I asked co-founder of DAVIDsTEA, David Segal, when he knew that this new chain of tea stores would be successful, he was very clear. "I knew the first day we opened. People were engaged and interactive with the teas, which they experience as an expression of themselves, a journey." The desire for a unique experience and expression through food and drink has become pervasive and The Tea Team of DAVIDsTEA search the world over to make exotic blends of tea, which can also be used as rubs in cooking and with mixed drinks.
If you really want to see foodies gather in status libations heaven, a visit to Chicago's recent James Beard Award winning mixed drink spot, The Aviary is a must... if you can get in. After the National Restaurant Association show, The Aviary hosted a party, sponsored by Groupon's new restaurant focused products, Breadcrumb and Reserve, touting drinks like a Rooibos (Cointreau, lemon, brandy) and small bites like the dreamy Potato Custard. To be sure, the place was a-flash with a good portion of the guests sending off photos to friends near and far of the private experience, special drinks and fashionista like nibblets.
These are interesting times. These are exciting times. There is much to be reveled about the fact that, more and more, rich history and family stories are being brought forward to the table by soulful chefs, entertaining magical spices, flavors and teas from around the globe. In a world where we are often more and more disconnected from each other and ourselves, it is reassuring to see chefs create with a sense of purpose, using themes from their personal past or a certain flavor from an historic period.
As Bourdain intimated in his speech, if you are a chef and you can't cook better than any Italian Grandma in Italy, what are you doing? Cooking and concocting, as well as being the hippest trend, also has meaning again. It is now cultural communication: it is intimate, it is personal. When asked if we have peaked on the foodie scale, Manilow was enthusiastic. "We are in the golden era." And it's just the beginning.