The world of food is shifting. Where once rare and hard-to-find ingredients were all the rage, glamorised and endorsed by the first celebrity chefs, the new school values organic, local produce, leading the way for the more recent farm-to-table movement. But what comes next in culinary trends – and what does it mean for travellers?
Cecilia Nuñez, Director of Food and Travel Mexico, sees a future where honesty rules, guided by a sense of identity and place. “Chefs will go back to their roots and will focus on flavour – this will be more important than techniques, celebrity chefs or design.” She sees a clear division between the types of gastronomic experiences available – while travellers can still count on tasting menus for a taste of the theatrical and out-of-this-world, intimate dining experiences will become more down-to-earth and true to their destination.
An example of an intimate, authentic experience is the Restaurant Comedor Frida, hidden within the market in the town of Ocotlán de Morelos in Oaxaca, Mexico. This humble, communal table has become a destination in its own right thanks to the presence of Beatriz Vazquez, who cooks every day dressed as Frida Kahlo. She’s known for her magic, homemade beans; the stuffed chiles; the aromatic moles; the tacos; but, mostly importantly, for recognising the history of the area through her cuisine. “I cook from the heart, always thinking about the flavours of my childhood, using ingredients from the market. I did not know who Frida Kahlo was until people started to come to my restaurant. Then I did some research and realised Frida and I had a lot in common.”
Another kitchen expressing its cultural identity through food is Guzina Oaxaca in Mexico City. Chef Alejandro Ruiz – from the famous Casa Oaxaca Restaurant, named among the 50 best restaurants of Latin America by San Pellegrino in 2014 – has created a unique concept bringing the traditions of Oaxacan cuisine to the capital. The famous Tlayuda, or hard tortilla, is comparable to those in Oaxaca and is served with a homemade salsa, prepared at the table with local, seasonal ingredients; the menu features artisanal mezcales chosen from the best in the area, alongside tequilas and other Mexican drinks. But he’s gone beyond the cuisine to include art from Oaxacan painter, Amador Montes, and ceramist, Omar Hernandez, to create a truly Oaxacan atmosphere.
Food stylist Mariana Velasquez thinks vegetables are having their moment: animal protein is taking a backseat and instead chefs are creating entire menus and restaurants that solely celebrate fresh, organic, locally foraged ingredients. “This has a huge impact in terms of sustainability, of course, but also this vegetable-centric cuisine demands chefs who have impeccable cooking processes and techniques – it’s way easier to make a piece of steak scrumptious than a bunch of parsnips”, she says. Aside from making life easier for vegetarian travellers, this veggie-centric way of cooking puts the spotlight on often-overlooked elements of a dish and prompts diners to consider them more carefully – including their flavour and texture, yes, but also the context of their creation.
In the US, two restaurants lauding vegetables are Jean-Gorges’ ABCV and Thomas Keller’s vegetable tasting menu at Per Se, both in New York City. Dubbed a ‘vegetable restaurant’, rather than a ‘vegetarian restaurant’, ABCV is the most recent addition to John-Gorges’ restaurant empire and it’s clear from his language that he doesn’t consider the meat-free menu to be lacking anything. Meanwhile, of Keller’s two Per Se menus, the vegetarian offering is the more spectacular from a creative and culinary point of view – featuring thoughtful, meat-free dishes like broccoli velouté with brioche croutons, Marcona almonds and parmesan mousseline; delicate squash fondant with pickled cranberries, candied English walnuts, roasted beets and celeriac purée; and mascarpone-enriched potato agnolotti with forest mushrooms, swiss chard and crème de champignons; among other seasonal creations.
“Some of the best cookbook titles in the last couple of years are purely vegetarian… But not in a Moosewood Café sort of way (where tempeh and seitan were part of the language) – they feature much more complex recipes and processes that look not to replace meat, but to change the way we eat”, continues Mariana.
Further East in South Africa’s wine country, Babylonstoren is a historic Cape Dutch farm reimagined by tastemaker Karen Ross and her husband that not only seeks to change the way we eat, but also how the food makes its way to our plate. Originally intended as a garden with a converted stable-cum-studio for Karen’s editorial adventures, the project soon took on a life of its own to incorporate a hotel and spa, a dramatic greenhouse that doubles as a tea garden or informal lunch terrace, a farm shop, and a restaurant.
At the latter, Babel (which is booked up three months in advance), menus revolve around what the garden produces – with the added twist that the chefs are responsible for growing it. Here nothing is contrived, because all is ruled by nature: people eat what the garden gives, chefs have to think like farmers and vice versa. Menus are seasonal, designed according to colour, and meats play artistically around the focal vegetables and fruits – which, by the way, are placed generously and shared communally at the tables. Quickly expanding, Babylonstoren now has its own bakery, charcuterie and cheese-making facility; it also recently launched its own wine label, true to the vocation of the area.
Whether it’s the flavours, the ingredients, the décor or even the chef’s outfit, the new food scene goes back to the roots of its destination. The result is an authentic dining experience that brings people together and invites them to travel towards their own gastronomic roots.
Marcella Echavarria is a Colombian-born, New York-based entrepreneur contributing regularly about cultural and adventure travel, design and food to magazines in South America and the US. Alongside her work as a travel and lifestyle photojournalist and travel designer, Echavarria covers artisans around the world and works with them to preserve their craft by developing links between these vanishing communities and developed markets.