Like the rest of the world, because of the coronavirus outbreak, the restaurant industry is in the midst of a serious reckoning. As of writing, 23 American states have shut down restaurants except for takeout and delivery. In the UK, McDonald's has completely closed every location, including takeout and delivery. Despite campaigns like Tuesday's nationwide hashtag #thegreatamericantakeout, urging consumers to order takeout from local restaurants, many are shuttering for good. Even delivery logistics are proving a challenge, as illustrated by the large, non-socially distanced crowds assembled outside of Carbone in New York City, waiting for comfort food to go.
Ever since fifth grade, when I made beef jerky with Mrs. Swanagan in a trailer behind my elementary school, I've been fascinated by the process of creating inedible food out of perfectly good ingredients by removing all of their moisture. Dried fish, fruit leather -- the list is endless. However, in the past few years, chefs at high-end restaurants have been rescuing the technique of dehydration from River and Dawn's camping supplies and elevating it to haute cuisine. Take Il Fiorista, a new boutique and Mediterranean-inspired eatery in Manhattan that specializes in edible flowers (il fiorista means "the florist" in Italian). Everything on the menu incorporates flowers, whether it's geranium aioli or duck cappellacci with rose petal pasta.
Recently, I spent the afternoon traipsing through the streets of Brooklyn for Gowanus' annual open art studios tour. It's a yearly ritual for me because the industrial neighborhood, which is full of warehouses turned CrossFit gyms, is a veritable playground for creative types. Every abandoned-looking building opens its doors to reveal dozens of artists' studios.
When I think about how many milligrams of cannabis I've consumed on my quest for a good-tasting edible, I imagine their little strings of THC DNA orbiting Earth at least two or three times, flipping me the finger as they whiz by. I didn't realize this would be such a massive endeavor a few years ago when, as a food writer focused on craft chocolate, I wondered if anyone was combining quality cocoa beans with marijuana. Since then, I've sampled dozens upon dozens of products, each figuratively dashing my taste buds' hopes against a rock -- along with my few remaining brain cells.
I don't think of cooking as a production or a nuisance so much as a sporting event, and holiday meals take the place of the Super Bowl. In our house, my husband Marcus and I train for months, testing out different recipes, techniques and timings so that on the big day no one runs out of steam at 2PM when it's clearly going to take another 10 hours to serve dinner. "Who are you competing against?" a possibly saner person might ask. If it's a potluck, the answer is apparent (everyone). When you're hosting, it becomes an internal sort of competition. In the perfectionist's case you can never really win, even if everyone says they love your slightly burnt pie crust and don't at all mind eating Christmas lamb at midnight.
After a long morning of sweating through the first glimpse of New York City's 90-degree summer, I found myself inside a West Village bar called Existing Conditions. Its shiny leather banquettes, expensive art and mood lighting proved that the area now belonged not to the writerly bohemians of old but the Instagram influencers of new. Fortunately, as a microinfluencer, I fit right in. But I hadn't arrived two and a half hours before the bar opened out of mere enthusiasm. After following a trend of bartenders (excuse me, mixologists) using centrifuges to craft cocktails, I wanted to taste one for myself. As well as -- let's be honest -- steal the recipe to make at home.
I wish I could say that I only recently encountered the trend of transforming used grain into something edible, but then I'd be ignoring evidence of me eating dog treats made at a microbrewery a few years back. The worst part is that I tell Zagat on camera that "these are some of the best I've had," full-on admitting that I've consumed pet food before. My tastes don't usually run so beastly. But those treats didn't contain much more than grains, oats, honey, peanut butter, and the like, so no judgment, please. When Hops & Grain started making these things a few years ago, it was called recycling food waste. Because no one wants to eat anything deemed waste, another term is now in vogue: upcycling.
Although I haven't had any formal training as a chef, I consider myself an above-average eater. So when I was presented with a whipping siphon -- the ruffian responsible for the foam craze that once plagued high-end restaurants and now appears in trendy cocktail bars -- I was confident my taste buds would make up for my lack of what you might call skills. It all started earlier that week when I'd learned how to use the siphon from James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Michael Laiskonis. At Manhattan's Institute of Culinary Education, he'd demonstrated how to make his famous three-component pre-dessert from Le Bernardin called the Egg.
Forget France. In the 21st-century artisanal cheese world, all roads lead to the tiny town of Greensboro, Vermont, home to the Cellars at Jasper Hill. There, brothers Mateo and Andy Kehler craft some of the best cheeses in the world: Jasper Hill has won at least one award from the American Cheese Society every year since 2013, as well as global recognition at the World Cheese Awards. Their ability to raise dairy cows, create cheeses and age other companies' products in their $5 million, 22,000-square-foot facility has made them role models for the 500 or so indie cheesemakers in the US.
It's beef night at Instant Pot superfan Susan Fox's house. Earlier today she loaded five pounds of chuck, beef broth and spices into one of her six-quart Canadian pressure cookers and pushed a few buttons so that shredded beef would be ready when she returned from picking up her two young kids from viola and violin lessons. "Monday is meatless, Tuesday is chicken, Wednesday is beef, Thursday is fish, Friday is chicken, Saturdays we go out and Sundays we roast!" the 40-year-old ball of energy explained to Engadget in one of her effusive emails. "I know my six-quart Instant Pots like I know my own children."
In the 1990s, the cacao farmers of Brazil fell into a collective depression. Some hanged themselves, others dosed themselves with rat poison, still others walked around crying and saying they didn't have anything to eat. The cacao pods on orchards throughout Bahia sat stagnant on their branches, rotting from the inside out. A coven of foreign, tightly gnarled stalks covered the trees themselves. The country had been the world's third-largest producer of cocoa beans, but it had fallen from grace and even had to import beans from West Africa to satisfy its residents' sweet tooth. Juliana Pinheiro Aquino remembers it well. "My father was depressed. He was very sad," she said.
Rob Anderson is a geek. So he makes chocolate for other geeks, or, more accurately, "people who really like chocolate and geek out about it." What does he mean by that? If you change one step of the chocolate-making process, you change the taste of the resulting chocolate entirely. And Anderson wants to show you exactly what that means. Fresco Chocolate, his company, roasts beans four different ways and conches (aka aerates and stirs) chocolate four different ways to create totally unique bars that bring the eater into the factory with him to be part of the process. Oh, and by the way, he built most of the machines he uses himself. The thing is, Anderson isn't alone. He's part of a new movement called bean-to-bar chocolate that is revolutionizing chocolate by making it from scratch with a strong focus on flavor. This distinctly American phenomenon has expanded in the past 12 years from five bean-to-bar chocolate makers to around 200 as of this writing. Almost all of these folks construct some of their machines themselves, and a large portion of them come from the tech and engineering world. Why? It all comes back to good old geekery.