It’s getting hard to tell restaurant fare from home cooking, and vice versa, says our food trends expert
If there’s one overarching trend in cooking this year, it’s this: Restaurants have embraced home cooking, and home cooks have never had such easy access to the tools and techniques of the professional kitchen.
The newcomers in the fast-casual restaurant segment allow diners to personalize meals like they would at home, with options that go far beyond “wit or without,” while new devices that have come to market over the past few years have emboldened home chefs to create dishes they’ve only had in restaurants.
But what’s really new is the speed of change. In the past, the restaurant industry simmered like a soup.
You’d take a bunch of ingredients (a new idea, some fancy kitchen tools, a handful of early adopters, a pinch of social media, and celery, because there’s always celery), stir them together, add heat, give it some time—everything good took time—and new concepts would emerge.
But then came Instant Pot, and Instant Pot makes everything move faster.
It’s usually hard to pinpoint the exact tipping point when a trend takes off, but that’s not the case with Instant Pot. It occurred on July 12, 2016, on the totally made-up corporate holiday known as Amazon Prime Day. During that hot Christmas in July, Amazon moved 215,000 Instant Pot electric pressure cookers in 24 hours, sending hundreds of thousands of people to YouTube in search of recipe videos and launching breathless news articles with headlines like “Why Is Everyone Obsessed with This Pot Thing?” (Confession: I got my first Instant Pot for Christmas, and the things it can do to short rib in 30 minutes are astonishing.)
There’s a simple reason why Instant Pot took off—the device seems to be idiot-proof. Home cooks who may have been intimidated by old-fashioned pressure cookers and their potential to explode pea soup all over the kitchen can find comfort in the sleek, push-button technology that allows you to set cooking times and styles to cook everything from beef stews to yogurts. (Those who might still need inspiration can find it among the many Instant Pot obsessives of Pinterest, or increasingly in New York Times recipes.)
But pressure cookers aren’t the only restaurant tool that ambitious foodies found under the Christmas tree this year. Also popular: the as-seen-on-TV “Steakager.”
“It was just a perfect example of Big Brother Facebook marketing,” says OperaDelaware General Manager (and accomplished home cook) Brendan Cooke. “Something came up on my Facebook feed —I guess my interests include meat—and in a weak moment in the middle of the night, I clicked on it. And then the ad starts following and following you.”
The Steakager, as seen on CNBC’s not-quite-Shark-Tank Make Me a Millionaire Inventor, fits inside your fridge and works to replicate the walk-in dry aging facilities of major steakhouses. The website says you can “age your beef for a minimum of 12 days to however adventurous you are,” which sounds decidedly like a dare.
“After you get 30 days in, it starts to develop a more beefy flavor,” Cooke says. “Longer than 40 days, it starts to take on the funk of a blue cheese, which is not really my thing. The sweet spot to me on the ribeye seems to be a 35-day age. You lose some moisture, it intensifies the flavor, and really changes the texture. What’s normally pretty toothy in a fresh steak becomes like butter.”
Cooke also has been experimenting with his new sous vide device (technically, a Christmas gift for his wife). Sous vide is a method where food is vacuum-sealed and placed in a temperature-controlled water bath for long periods of time. It’s used by top chefs for uber-precise cooking of everything from steaks to eggs.
“The device looks like a stick blender and it hangs on any vessel—I have a big plastic Rubbermaid container for it—and I can control it from my phone,” Cooke says. “The beautiful thing about that is that you literally can’t overcook things.”
The Chipotle of Eating Out
At the same time pressure was building at home, so to speak, fast-casual restaurants like Roots Natural Kitchen and honeygrow were expanding throughout Delaware, offering natural, fresh, and often locally grown fare. At honeygrow, the cooking happens right in front of you, as if you’re standing in a friend’s kitchen, with ingredients you both recognize and that are personalized to your tastes and dietary needs, before they are assembled into a bowl and handed over the counter.
“People want to know what they’re getting, unfiltered, and when possible where it’s coming from,” says Justin Rosenberg, founder and CEO of honeygrow. “I eat the same way. It never was about following a trend—more so about building a brand that exhibits the same values that my family and I share.”
It must be a bitter irony that the restaurant style popularized by Chipotle—pick your base, your protein, your toppings and your sauces, and promote their all-natural origins—has taken off at the same time Chipotle itself is seeing its profits plummet. Sales dropped after E. coli sickened a few burrito eaters in 2015, while similar ideas exploded in many markets, including Delaware.
“It’s a trend to see restaurants going with smaller footprints, with less overhead, for fast-casual food,” says Eric Aber, customer development specialist at Gordon Food Service.
It’s called the “Chipotle effect,” and those smaller shops around Delaware include places that might be called the Chipotle of Indian food (Zaikka Indian Grill, with your pick of protein and style of curry), the Chipotle of donuts (Duck Donuts, on Newark’s Main Street, where you decide the glaze and the sprinkles and whether your donut should come with bacon, and yes, the maple donut should come with bacon), and the Chipotle of pizza (Snap Pizza, with options on sauces, cheeses, meats, organic veggies and even finishing oils, on a pie that’s baked in just a few minutes).
The idea of quick-fired pizzas has spread beyond its fast-casual roots. When La Banca restaurant opens in Middletown, it will come equipped with a Marra Forni 800-degree rotator oven that will allow the restaurant to cook a 10-inch personal pizza in about 90 seconds, according to General Manager Adam Cofield. The menu for La Banca hasn’t been finalized yet, but that speed should allow for very personalized personal pizzas indeed.
And the menu at honeygrow reads like what any Whole Foods shopper might put together on a Thursday night. Whole-wheat noodles with roasted FreeBird chicken and a red coconut curry? Sounds good, and if not, the menu is “fully customizable,” with ordering on Wawa-style screens for people who want to linger over whether to include bean sprouts.
But even in a time when fast-casual is on the rise and home chefs dry-age their own sides of meat, the traditional restaurant experience still has its appeal.
“I will say that I do froth at the mouth when I see Xavier Texeido’s Facebook posts about the 45-day aged ribeye at Harry’s,” Cooke says. “We might give that a try.”