2018's Top 18 Moments in Food
The good, the bad, and the ugly.
December 27, 2018 ● 13 min read
By Aralyn Beaumont, Richie Nakano, Roxanne Webber, and Cassandra Landry | Image via iStock, Art by ChefsFeed
We know we say this every year, but man, this year was long. The longest.
Does anyone remember the Olympics? We definitely don't. Here, in no particular order, is a collective list of what we do remember, from strange fads to triumphant returns and all the ways we blurred the lines between the kitchen and everyday life.
A swoosh of creamy labneh. Electric, Technicolor pickles. Handfuls of fresh herbs and sprinklings of sumac. If you weren’t luxuriating in some form of the Middle Eastern canon, you weren't dining out in America this year. Our love for Middle Eastern stylings may not be new—we all happily hopped on the Ottolenghi bandwagon about a decade ago, after all—but this year blessed us with new visions in cities across the country, from Bavel in Los Angeles to Dyafa in Oakland and Kish-Kash in New York.
Of course, Middle Eastern cuisine is so varied and vast, it would be impossible to pinpoint what we love most among the flavors and forms of Palestine, Syria, Israel, Iran, Lebanon, and Morocco in one go. Maybe it started with shakshuka and fluffy mana'eesh, or tahini-laced pastries, or harissa-roasted everything, or the power of a sprinkle of dukkah. At least everyone finally knows that za'atar is magic, which has to be a sign that things are looking up. —AB
Fermented foods in progressive restaurants are sooooo 2015, but 2018 was the year where your mom proudly showed off her scoby at Thanksgiving dinner. Fermentation has always had an aura of mystery around it (is this supposed to smell like this?) but with the release of The Noma Guide to Fermentation, a whole new world opened up for home and professional cooks alike. Nerding out on fermentations was the thinking person’s gateway into playing with food, and unlike the gram scale and immersion circulator food science set and the rustic, chitarra-wielding, semolina-throwing rustic gang, ferments offered a safe, fun, and often bizarre middle ground. Once the guesswork of “why is this sauerkraut fizzy, I can't believe I spent a month waiting for fizzy sauerkraut” disappears, a whole world of possibilities opens up. —RN
Remember brioche? We were so into brioche. It served as a too-flimsy vehicle for our house-ground burgers and came as airy toast points for chicken liver mousse. Then it started to show up everywhere—it was easy to find brioche rolls at the grocery store but almost impossible to find a loaf of Wonderbread. Enter the revival of Parker House Rolls. Previously the little buttery bread mounds only showed up at the holidays, but in 2018, it seemed like those glazed puffs were the bread of choice for everything from casual caviar service to fancy artisan bread service. After everything that happened this year, maybe we just needed something…softer? —RN
When the #MeToo movement took over Hollywood, I (like many, many others) wondered when such a day would come for the food industry. Then, exactly a year ago, the news broke about Mario Batali, and Ken Friedman, and John Besh and Johnny Iuzzini and Charlie Hallowell and Mike Isabella…and well, the floodgates were open. For many women and victims of sexual abuse, the fallout of those allegations has made this year equal parts cathartic and triggering, but hopefully, the tide is changing: more restaurant groups are finally implementing effective HR departments and safer work environments for their employees. —AB
This was the year we dragged all the parts of ourselves we’d rather not face into the light: our addictions, our phantoms, all the ways in which we cope with stress and fear and doubt and shame. The shock of Bourdain’s passing in June and the continued onslaught of disturbing details from each new exposé urged us to check in on one another, and collectively circle the wagons. In 2018, the industry learned how to stare it down, unflinching, and we continue to grapple with implications big and small: whether one’s sobriety is something that should be publicly claimed for the greater good, whether visibility and solidarity trumps privacy, whether we can up our mocktail game without being preachy about it, and whether our industry could ever be a place that didn’t insist on destroying itself from the inside-out. I’m feeling hopeful. —CL
Maybe it's my upbringing in Southern California, where fad diets exposed me to soy and almond milk at a young age, but the "foodie" consumer has been rotating "hot, new" dairy-free milk alternatives for decades. This was the year everyone realized they were lactose-intolerant and there was a run on the oats.
Believe it or not, though, Oatly—that nearly unattainable $20/carton brand of oat milk—isn't anything new. The Swedish company has been around since the early 90s, so I guess it actually makes sense that it didn't take off until 2018? Would you like some oat milk with your third-wave espresso, tiny sunglasses, and crop top? I guess you would, because coffee shops and grocery stores were thrown into a panic over the shortage, and some third parties began making a pretty penny by marking up Oatly cartons and selling them in bulk. Oatly has sold out in every country it's in and will probably continue to do so, because they won’t be cutting corners in the name of increased production anytime soon. As the chill Swedes told The New Yorker, "periodic shortages contribute to oat milk's charm." Maybe it’s time to get into sesame milk? —AB
A brief financial interlude: While delivery apps aren’t the subject of outraged think pieces the way they used to be, they haven’t exactly become friends to the industry either. There are exceptions to every rule, but if you weren’t an early adopter who saw lower fees and a lower percentage of sales that had to be forked over for every order, this year meant an all-time high for losses.
A restaurant with really great margins usually hovers in the 10-12 percent range. Say you sell pizzas. For every pizza you sell, you lose 30 percent of that amount of money to food costs, another 25 percent to labor. Once rent is paid and payroll taxes are processed, there’s not much left; 12 percent or so if you’re lucky. Add a delivery app’s cut into the mix and a restaurant is in the red on every single order—we’ve heard rates as high as an additional 30 percent from chefs, which is a huge amount of money to give away with an order of food. They can either hope to make up the difference on volume or jack up prices on delivery items to cover the costs but risk alienating their customers. 2018 didn’t offer a solution to this either way, but one thing is for certain: we need to come to terms with soaring delivery costs, or watch our favorite eateries go out of business. —RN
Damn, it’s nice to live in a hotel golden age. Can we call it a golden age? The proliferation of properties like Ace, the LINE, the Freehand, The NoMad, The Eaton, and all their boutique contemporaries has an undeniably cosmopolitan throwback feel that we're incredibly into. Whether it’s the swanky lounge bar lined with bookshelves and low lamps, the sunny breakfast nook strewn with brightly patterned rugs, the rooftop tiki bar that requires a ride on a clattering service elevator, room service that's worth paying a small fortune for, or the signature restaurant buzzing on the ground floor, imbuing a single building with an all-encompassing, immersive strain of hospitality suddenly feels like the grown-up equivalent of a theme park. Let's just say I've swiped a healthy amount of snazzy coasters. —CL
No drink captures the convergence of several drinking trends—simplicity, Japanese whiskey, lower ABVs—better than the highball, which has re-found its place on menus high and low, punctuated by the appearance of the Suntory Toki highball machine (a beast of a contraption that exposes water and whiskey to a flash freeze and a blast of CO2, giving the drink an unbeatable effervescence) at more and more bars in major cities.
“[A highball] isn’t just a whiskey and soda. There’s a way of artfully doing it. At its core, a highball is a base spirit, soda water, and a modifier,” says Kevin Diedrich, owner of Pacific Cocktail Haven, the first bar in the US to feature a Suntory behind the bar (and a highball happy hour to go with it). Though the highball has been a driving force in the industry for the last few years, Diedrich sees the recent push as a result of an enduring curiosity surrounding Japanese culture; the average guest at Pacific Cocktail Haven has seen the highball light on a trip to Japan and wants to find something comparable. “The modifier could be a syrup, a lemon twist, orange twist, vermouth. The biggest factor is the soda water and getting the correct ratio.” For a highball that makes for a gentler jumping-off point to the night, Diedrich recommends 1.5-2 oz. spirit to 4 oz. of soda water. —RW
Where previously our attention for all things Japanese has been focused on ramen and sushi, somehow, we missed katsu. Sure, it’s what you order for a kid when you’re eating at a sushi restaurant, but the myriad versions on offer in Japan will make your head spin. Want Iberico pork tonkatsu? (Yes.) Or a chicken katsu sandwich while riding the Shinkansen? (Obviously.) Luckily, katsu sandwiches have started popping up over here too, at spots like Konbi in Los Angeles, or Stonewall Matcha in San Francisco, where perfectly trimmed katsu “sandos” lie in wait. Who knew lunch could soothe our Twitter-fueled anxiety? —RN
Chicken is Cool Again!
There was a period there, in the pork belly-obsessed late 2000s, when chicken was almost frowned upon. It was considered boring, safe, pedestrian. Over time, we allowed in some caveats: If it’s rotisserie chicken, I’m ok with it. Well, I do like fried chicken though…and there is that yakitori place I like that only does chicken…
In 2018, complaining about chicken being dry or boring was no longer a signifier that a person was well-informed about food; rather it signaled that a person hadn’t yet learned its potential. From the release of the jaw-dropping Yardbird cookbook, Chicken and Charcoal, to the fast-casual set's total embrace of the rotisserie, to higher-end restaurants like Angler serving a roasted chicken with no accompaniments for sixty American dollars, chicken is fully cool again. Now if we could just get an Atlanta-area chicken wing spot to win a Beard Award, the circle will be complete. —RN
Seeing as food television in the early 2000s was mostly dudes eating foods that caused them to be in agony for 26 minutes, we’ve come a long way. Faced with a Bourdain-sized chasm on our screens (and our collective hearts), the universe responded with an embarrassment of riches: Netflix alone brought us Nailed It!, The Great British Baking Show, new episodes of Chefs Table, The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, and Ugly Delicious. But it was the lush, soothing, informative tones of Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat that became the warm hug we all needed. It turns out we didn’t we didn’t need a “new” version of Parts Unknown, just something that felt heartfelt and authentic. —RN
“I’m gonna be annoying real quick,” is the standard code for “Don’t you dare touch the food we ordered until I have taken a dozen photographs of it.” Nearly a decade of poorly-lit food pictures on Instagram and an influx of saccharine influencer content has led us to the natural consequence: Chefs who are less interested in tweezing foraged greens and applying colorful dots via squeeze bottle, and more interested in plopping delicious food onto a plate and sort of shoving it towards you with a minimum of fuss. Perhaps it's a general craving for truth, but we seem to care less how a plate looks, as long as it tastes incredible. How far the pendulum will swing away from highly-composed, over-garnished Instabait dishes remains to be seen, but it’s nice knowing that taking a bite before your friend takes the perfect shot probably won’t risk your friendships anymore. —RN
Wood-fired cooking carries with it a certain vibe. Think rustic Mediterranean cooking, Chez Panisse, or the high drama of Fogo de Chão. In 2018, we turned to our inner cavepeople and sought out the truest form of cooking we've ever known; wood-fired grills started populating kitchens like Guerrilla Tacos in Los Angeles, while charcoal burning binchotan grills have become so ubiquitous that calling up a neighboring restaurant and asking to borrow wildly expensive Japanese charcoal has a sense of normality to it. Live fire cooking just tastes better—and now its flavor extends far beyond pizza. —RN
Finding cooks has been impossible for…well…ever now. Cooks leave for lots of reasons: cooking is hard, the hours and pay suck, it’s easier to do almost anything else for much, much better pay. Restaurants continue, impossibly, to find ways to stay afloat—even in the most fallow times, dinner service carries on. Now, there’s a new threat on the rise. Legalized cannabis has opened up a whole new world for someone skilled with sharp objects: Trimming marijuana plants. Pays anywhere from $15-25 an hour, cash, without the stress of making sure the aioli doesn’t break during service. We hear the benefits are pretty chill. —RN
We bid farewell to the legendary Jonathan Gold this summer, after a cruel battle with pancreatic cancer claimed one of the preeminent voices of joyous modern food criticism. Bill Addison hung up his country-crossing hat over at Eater to take up the post left by Gold at the Los Angeles Times, and here in San Francisco, Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer set down the mantle after 32 years of bylines. He was replaced by a young Vietnamese-American woman from the Midwest, a writer with chef credentials and journalistic chops who’s appeared on this site from time to time—Soleil Ho. Pete Wells carries on in New York.
The tenor of food criticism has changed. After she awarded Aqui four much-deserved stars, the Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook walked readers through her decision to review the controversial restaurant. Her step-by-step consideration, the mental volleying, reads like a proof of concept in a new age: A review, despite what some will insist, is still a powerful thing, and must be wielded thoughtfully. Food is only the tangible expression of a much larger narrative.
Our interview with peacefully chipper political malcontent Tom Colicchio was the most-read piece on the site this year—closely followed by Ho’s chat with Samin Nosrat—and this missive from Matty Matheson remains my all-time favorite thing to watch when I worry about the state of things. This is the world we live in. Purists need not panic: The noise levels of the room will still piss people off, and mind-bending flavors will still win high praise—only now we’ll have a deeper understanding of all the forces at play. —CL
Averaging eight puny inches in length, straws are so small you lose them in your takeout bag or under your car seat more often than you ever use them, and yet, the idea of living without them has caused American consumers an inordinate amount of anxiety. What better exemplifies our reliance on convenience and obsession with personal autonomy than an uproar over having to ask for a straw? Sure, restaurants and bars can use straws made from reusable materials like bamboo, metal, or corn products, but bamboo straws fall apart before you finish your cocktail, many corn-based materials take years to break down, and metal straws are difficult to wash on a large scale. What say we take one for the marine animals and learn how to sip out of a cup?? —AB
Not gonna lie, there was a period there where I was drinking mushroom coffee like it was the elixir of life. I asked for ashwagandha in a smoothie or two and suffered through the chalky havoc it wrecked. In the office, we experimented with Moon Dust and Beauty Dust and Sex Dust, and in our haste used La Croix as a base—which I would NOT recommend unless you’re thrilled by the experience of consuming something entirely powdered and also fizzy at the same time. CBD juice did not make me feel calmer about the incessant raging of the internet hornet nest, but it was good juice, so not a total loss. Collagen pills leave a very primordial taste in your mouth for hours after you choke them down. We made Richie drink charcoal lemonade and go goop. Are we glowing yet? I feel like I’m glowing. —CL