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January 24, 2022

Hype Machine: The Anatomy of a Food Trend

These days, our eating and drinking habits are shaped by food trends, a shift that increasingly impacts the restaurant industry. But is this an innocent indicator of food’s growing space in our cultural imagination — or a sign of the way that capitalist hype cycles are defining what we eat?

Words: Neha Kale
Illustrations Ashley Ronning

It’s tempting to think of our appetites as fixed, like the colour of our eyes or a part of our personality. But for Caddie Mao, food cravings sometimes stem from forces beyond her control. When Mao was living in Japan, she saw a burnished dessert on the show Arashi Death Match. Later, in Sydney, her flatmate Naoka Kojo, a talented baker, would invent her own version of this crust-free concoction, better known as the Basque cheesecake. Their artisanal cheesecake business, 15 Centimeters was born.

“I’m not always a cheesecake fan, I find it too sweet,” Mao says. “The Basque cheesecake is burnt, caramelised. I think it has depth. On the day [Naoka] and I moved in together we had a party and she started baking Basque cheesecakes and our guests were like ‘wow, this is really good.’ When the pandemic came, she said ‘why don’t we sell it?’”

At first glance, 15 Centimeters is the epitome of a pandemic-era success story. Kojo and Mao hired a commercial kitchen. After much hard work and experimentation, they were soon fielding orders from as far away as New York and Shanghai for their Basque cheesecake, available in flavours such as Hōjicha milk tea. They were baking up to 700 cakes a week, delivered by a fleet of drivers that included hairdressers and builders who were out of work due to Covid restrictions.

But the rise of 15 Centimeters reveals another kind of narrative, one that sees a dessert that was invented in Spain in the 1990s speak, en route through Japan, to our collective desires in Sydney 30 years later. It’s a symptom of hype cycles that can see the same dish transcend borders, proliferating in endless variations around the world.

“One in three people order food or drink they don’t actually consume so they can post a picture of it on social media.”

Food has always crossed cultures. Think, for example, of the way that the Chinese dumpling evolved, thanks to travellers along the Silk Road, into the Turkish manti. Now, as Jane Choi points out in a May 2021 article in Mold, the immediacy of social media is reimagining old notions of provenance.

“Our dominant foodways are no longer governed by scarcity, by the principle of making do with  what we have, but rather by social media algorithms and influencers,” she writes.

The Basque cheesecake was conceived by chefs at the San Sebastian pintxos café La Viña. Type it into Instagram and you can find a rustic interpretation at Jolene in London’s Hackney. There’s another, stuffed with Oreos, at Francis & Francis in Stockholm.

Contemplate the custardy marvel on your smartphone and it feels as if it’s arrived from everywhere and nowhere. The context doesn’t seem to matter at all.

What makes a food trend?  Giovanni Sutjiutama believes that simplicity is a powerful drawcard. In late 2019, Sutjiutama helped start Meet Sando outside Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market. The shop, inspired by a café called Konbi in Los Angeles, is a shrine to the sandoitchi or ‘sando’, a mainstay of Japanese convenience stores, which has struck a chord, via Instagram, with a global community. The no-frills snack features a filling – egg salad, chicken katsu – between two slices of shokupan, or pillowy Japanese milk bread.

The sando is a study in visual brevity, a dish that speaks to an age in which we want to be unburdened by stuff. The last time I delighted in the crunch of panko, the softness of shokupan, at Sandoitchi Café on Sydney’s Oxford Street, it struck me that the sensory experience of eating a sando seamlessly fulfils the aesthetic experience of looking at a sando.

“A sando looks plain but it’s the kind of food you have to taste to believe,” Sutjiutama laughs.

How we choose to dine has always signalled markers such as class. But the idea that food and drink shouldn’t just be palatable to a diner but legible to a viewer is a modern phenomenon. An August 2021 US-based survey of 2,000 people by OnePoll found that one in three people order food or drink they don’t actually consume so they can post a picture of it on social media.

Evan Gargaro, the New South Wales state manager at Australian Venue Co, oversees Untied Sydney. The rooftop drinkery in Sydney’s Barangaroo is known for a self-service frosé bar that invites patrons to top drinks with garnishes such as fresh berries and gummy bears. 

The frosé craze started in 2016 when a video of a bartender at New York’s Bar Primi blending rosé, vermouth and strawberry puree in a frozen drink machine went viral. The unlikely rise of this photogenic drink is also partly linked to a wider cultural obsession with “millennial pink.” It’s a shift that, as Molly Fischer points out in a March 2020 article in The Cut, shaped the  worlds of fashion, design and hospitality from 2016 onward.

But frosé is also part of moment in which the slushie cocktail has come to symbolise the thirst for fun that’s a hallmark of post-lockdown drinking.

Gargaro believes that hospitality is being shaped by a wider shift that’s seen dining out become part of the ‘experience economy.’ Experimenting with food trends, he says, is a matter of carefully balancing classic and unexpected elements.

“Rosé will never go out of fashion,” he says.

He believes that businesses need to find the line between innovation and gimmick.

“If you go too far, that is what leads to its fickle nature,” he says. “But if you create something that is innovative and adds to the customer experience then you will find yourself with a nice, sustainable product.”  

Kate Reid has firsthand knowledge of hype cycles. Back in 2013, the director of Melbourne’s visionary Lune Croissanterie accidentally invented the cruffin, a hybrid of a croissant and muffin. Since, she’s seen her creation everywhere from her local Coles to an Instagram feed in Dubai. 

Reid tells me that she has two kinds of customer, the traditionalist and the experimentalist.

“There are the ones who will come in and buy a box of traditional croissants, pain au chocolat, almond,” she says. “And then there are the customers who want out-there flavour combinations.”

Like Gargaro, she recommends building your business around a food that is universally appealing.

“The traditional croissant is a pastry that’s been popular for centuries – it is the staple food of an entire nation,” she says. “Found your business on something that will have regulars and then a hype product can add a layer of complexity.”

A hype product – in Reid’s case, a hot cross cruffin that sold out almost instantly – can spark opportunities for invention. But, she points out, she’s less interested in following trends then she is in setting them.

“I want my team to come up with new ideas,” she says. “The Lune account doesn’t follow other patisseries. I don’t care what anyone else is doing.” 

“The sando evokes our primary school lunchbox. Frosé is the grown-up equivalent of an after-school treat.”

It’s easy to equate food trends with a moment in which our tastes are formed by algorithms. But they could also be rooted in a simpler longing for the way in which a slice of Basque cheesecake or a bite of a cruffin offers respite from an adult world whose pressures are growing ever more complicated. 

 “[We make] a peanut butter and jam cruffin,” Reid says. “You get the nostalgia of being a child, the feeling of jam oozing out, sugar on your lip.”

The sando evokes our primary school lunchbox. Frosé is the grown-up equivalent of an after-school treat.

For Jonathan Nunn, a London food critic and the editor of Vittles, this brand of nostalgia, which is mostly led by millennials who use Instagram, is being supplanted by teenagers on TikTok.

“Instagram has previously been the driver of trends and the average user is probably late 20s, early 30s, and driven by nostalgia for the 90s,” he says. “TikTok is mainly teenagers, and the new experience they want is a sense of adulthood that they can get from cooking their own food as well as eating out at cheap, casual places .”

But Nunn, who wrote about the trajectory of modern food trends in the March 2021 essay ‘Dispatch from the Frontiers of Hype’, says that social media can breed a global homogeneity – one that preserves the power dynamics of the food world.

Think about how many dishes which have been judged to be worthy by a cultural elite in New York or Los Angeles turn up in London,” he says. “This always used to happen, even when that elite consisted of about 10 people. It now just happens a lot faster.”

In theory, social media has made food more democratic. Any café with access to shokupan can capitalise on the rise of the sando. However, this also points to the paradox of the food trend – that building your business around a dish that’s wildly popular can offer a short-term way to connect with customers. But it may not be a substitute for cultivating a sense of imagination, technique and originality in the longer term.

Mao says that orders for Basque cheesecake dropped 50 percent once Sydney came out of lockdown. Now, she says, 15 Centimeters is inventing new products – such as a custard pudding cheesecake, topped with a layer of burnt caramel.

“It’s getting a lot of positive feedback,” she says. “It doesn’t really matter if the cheesecake is originally from Spain or Italy or France. If we find something we like we will make it unique.”

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