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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
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

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker