Food fads: Let them eat kale

Marketing plays a huge role in determining the popularity of everything from croissant-doughnut hybrids to bitter vegetables. Alice-Azania Jarvis looks at how the tastemaker industry is responsible for what’s on our plates

Anyone who doubts the ability of a stalky, bitter brassica to capture the public consciousness, consider this: last year, 262 babies in the United States were named Kale.

The cruciferous vegetable has become an unavoidable presence on restaurant menus. It has been converted into crisps, popcorn, smoothies and cocktails.

You can buy kale hand cream, kale face scrub – even iPhone cases bearing the words “Keep Calm and Love Kale”.

There are no records of how many toddlers answer to the name “Cupcake”; christenings of “Cronuts” are unreported; and “Come here, Kimchi” has yet to echo across playgrounds

Nevertheless, all have achieved a similar ubiquity in recent years, becoming dinner party musts, restaurants staples or – in the case of the cronut – the subject of countless half-baked imitations.

We might think of taste as individual – but the way we fall for the same thing at the same time suggests it’s anything but. Why does this happen? And were do these trends come from?

“Marketing plays a tremendous role,” says the Canadian food writer David Sax, author of the new book, The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue. “Industry bodies get chefs to use an ingredient and they’ll commission studies into health benefits. Then it’s featured in the press.”

Taste trends: black rice Taste trends: Is black rice the next big thing? (Alamy) Much of Kale’s success is down to Oberon Sinclair, who runs the transatlantic creative agency My Young Auntie. Two years ago, the New York-based publicist was hired by the American Kale Association.

Exceptionally well-connected, with a background in fashion and music, she targeted New York’s coolest eateries, begging chefs to serve the little-known vegetable. Before long, it was appearing on menus at Balthazar, the Fat Radish, Babbo and Bar Pitti.

In early 2013, The New York Times hailed Kale’s “veggie chic”. “Whether at big-ticket galas or intimate dinners, the wintry vegetable has popped up at functions throughout the city,” it said. Sinclair ordered a line of sweatshirts and bags from the textile designers Prinkshop; kale‑inspired fashion was born.

If trends can be co-ordinated like this, can anything become the next craze? Would Sinclair have succeeded with turnips?

“No,” she says, firmly. She believes kale worked because it offers something tasty but wholesome at a time when diners are more health-conscious than ever.

“A good trend answers a need,” Sax says. “It’ll pick up on something in greater culture.”

The progress to ubiquity occurs when the mainstream catches on. Supermarkets and restaurants send staff on fact-finding missions to culinary hotspots – New York, Tokyo, Berlin – to see what the hip eateries are serving.

Marks & Spencer makes 20 such trips a year, as well as scouring London restaurants and paying attention to the latest diet and health advice. New products can be dreamed up as much as 18 months in advance.

“We all eat out – and not just for the day job,” Cass Suddes, one of the store’s trend hunters, says. “We’re exposed to new ideas 24/7.”

An entire industry has developed around predicting food fashions. “Retailers are investing more time and resources in keeping on top of trends,” Charles Banks, co-founder of the forecasting agency The Food People, says. “The cost of getting it wrong is high.”

He’s provided reports for most major retailers in UK, as well as restaurant chains and contract caterers. “We do everything from compiling data on menu combinations to travelling overseas – for instance, South Korea and Japan are very advanced with food technology adoption.”

Representatives from the hospitality sector congregate to discuss the Next Big Thing at conferences around the world.

In the US, the National Restaurant Association surveys 1,300 chefs annually to see what they’re cooking, using the answers to make predictions. Not all crazes can be anticipated, however. “Thanks to social media, if someone makes something delicious and people talk about it, it can spread around the world in weeks,” Sax says.

The cronut became a word-of-mouth hit after pastry chef Dominique Ansel created the croissant-doughnut hybrid last May. Aside from inviting a few friends in the media to taste it, there was no PR campaign.

But before long, queues were forming outside his New York bakery. Getting your hands on a cronut became worth boasting about on Twitter, or capturing on Instagram – much to Ansel’s bemusement. “I’m not quite sure anyone can properly explain it,” he says. “It went viral overnight.”

Since Ansel has trademarked the cronut name, imitators have made do with their own portmanteaus – droissants, crodoughs, even the Greggsnut. A year on, queues still form outside Ansel’s bakery but the frenzy is no longer what it was. Eventually, cronut-mania will pass.

The fondue is further along the trajectory. The Seventies staple has been démodé for decades. But what pushes a food from dish-of-the-day to culinary has-been?

Sax offers some interesting cultural theories for the fondue’s decline. The Sixties’ and Seventies’ communal ethos – peace, love, and a shared pot of cheese – faded. People were dining out more. And in the early years of the HIV/Aids epidemic, when the public was still largely uneducated on the realities of infection, sharing food was rejected out of fear. Other times, a trend fizzles simply because its novelty has worn off. Today’s cronut customers will still enjoy the same flaky pastry, the same sugar rush, as they would six months ago. They just won’t have the sweet sensation of being the first to do so.

As Sax puts it: “Food trends aren’t just about taste – we’re eating to entertain ourselves and be part of the zeitgeist.”

Then, of course, there are the food-fads-that-never-were. While they might have made a few fashionable appearances on menus, micro-desserts, bacon sweets and “pie pops” – pies on sticks – are among several recently vaunted crazes never to have hit the big time. Why not?  “Fundamentally, those are one-hit wonders,” Sax says. “They’re quirky and cute but don’t deliver on a need. You’ll try them once, and move on.”

He’s right – though surely part of this is hard luck. After all, is a pie on a stick that much more random than a croissant-doughnut hybrid? As for what’s next on the horizon, trends forecasts in January included gluten-free dining and haute vegetarian food, both of which have taken off.

Sales of gluten-free food at British pubs and restaurants are up 22 per cent on last year; the Grain Store in London’s Kings Cross is making veg-centric dining cool. Other predicted hits – fried insects and spam chips – are faring less well.

And for 2015? Suddes says Marks and Spencer is expecting more interest in the nutty grain, freekeh – already present in three of the store’s salads.

And Sax is putting his money on black rice: “White has become a staple, but there are lots of people cultivating different strands. I think we’ll see it on high-end menus and then it’ll work its way out.”

Black rice is the new black? You heard it here first.

FOOD TRENDS HIT OR MISS?

The Fondue

Seventies food gets a bad rap – but the fondue is due for a revival. Who doesn’t like bread dipped in melted cheese? Come to think of it, vol-au-vents, sausages on sticks and olives are pretty good too…

The Panini

The lunch-to-be-seen-with in the Nineties. At its worst, two slices of just-toasted bread and some filling, its coffee-shop incarnation was a long way from the Italian original.

The Cupcake

To some, the jewel-coloured cakes of the Noughties were a symbol of sexy, independent womanhood. To others, they were infantalising, overly sweet and too small by half.

Restaurant small plates

Delightful if you know exactly how much to order and there are just two of you. A nightmare in a crowd – particularly when the chips arrive 30 minutes before everything else.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    ICE ICT: Lead Business Consultant

    £39,000: ICE ICT: Specific and detailed knowledge and experience of travel sys...

    Day In a Page

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map