In 1982, Wolfgang Puck opened his now-famous restaurant Spago in West Hollywood. It didn’t take long for this elegant-yet-casual space to become a Hollywood hot spot; the menu featured high-quality ingredients that were beautifully presented, and focused on Mr. Puck’s unique California-flavored concoctions influenced by a mix of various ethnic cuisines, from American to Mexican to Asian.
By the time Spago became a Hollywood staple, the dot-com boom was re-shaping the American work place. ‘Casual Friday’ evolved into ‘business casual’ and even after the dot-com bubble burst office workers kept the new dress code. Suits were out, and casual dress was in. Naturally, restaurants found themselves needing to address this trend as well—hence the rise of “casual fine dining.”
We are dining out more than ever before, and our collective culinary IQ is rising. Americans are now savvy culinary consumers. Not surprisingly, the restaurant industry now has over $1.4 billion in annual sales and is second only to the US Government in size and scope.
American diners want more—and less. They want higher quality ingredients, more innovation, more flavors—in a casual environment. We are more willing to try new things, and restaurants have increasingly varied and unusual menus to accommodate our new palette. This has led to the growth of small, chef-driven restaurants in cities across the country—haute cuisine is no longer limited to upscale dining establishments with nearly out-of-reach prices. Casual chic restaurants offer the best of both worlds, and are now the pervading identity of American dining.
These new smaller restaurants usually offer a host of innovative concepts, featuring multiethnic cuisines, unstructured menus and fresh regional ingredients. Tappås (small plates) are prominent, allowing customers to sample a wide range of flavors and styles. The plating is always high concept, and the portions are trimmed down to suit the atmosphere. These restaurants often feature low light, lots of natural woods, and work by local artists filling the walls.
The best news about the rise in this type of dining is the incredible flexibility it gives to chefs. No longer confined to traditional recipes, chefs can fuse together Asian and Latino food styles to create their own signature dishes. Menus are limber, which allows for even greater experimentation and innovation.
But this does present challenges to those studying the Culinary Arts. If this new trend continues to define the American (and even the International) dining scene, how can budding chefs focus their studies to keep themselves marketable once they’ve completed their studies?
Well, you can’t be inventive without knowing what you are doing—and a culinary arts education gives prospective chefs a solid knowledge base that allows them to embrace their innovative side. So the first job of any culinary student is to excel in the basics of cooking first—and experiment later.
Additionally, exploring ethnic cooking while in culinary school is an excellent idea—particularly Asian and Hispanic cuisine, although Middle Eastern cooking is also becoming popular. Culinary students may want to consider doing their culinary internships at an ethnically-themed restaurant as well, further expanding their knowledge and increasing their skills.
Lastly, it’s important to keep abreast of the latest dining trends. For instance, even though ethnic cooking remains fashionable, American comfort foods are staging a comeback. Perhaps as a reaction to being a nation at war, but you are just as likely to find a chef’s interpretation of “Mom’s meatloaf” on the menu as you are a “barbequed duck spring roll.” So—master the basics, expand your knowledge, and keep up on the trends and you’ll find a home as a chef in a casual dining hot spot!