9 Trends That Defined Food And Dining In 2021
This year more than ever, headlines — from the Covid-19 pandemic to racial reckoning, TikTok to digital tech — have transformed the way we eat.
And this year more than ever, the pace of that change has been breathtaking.
For this annual food trend list, each year I reach out to culinary and restaurant pros about trends they’re seeing (about 40 ideas this year) and run the ideas by a panel of professionals for vetting, to get to the final list you see here. This year I received comments from 9 accomplished, articulate experts:
Andrew Freeman is the founder of af&co., a hospitality marketing, media relations and brand consulting firm headquartered in San Francisco, and co-founder of Carbonate, a creative services and brand communications agency. The firms have launched concepts for over 100 restaurants and hotels nationwide, and Andrew has been named one of the Top 25 Most Extraordinary Minds in Sales and Marketing by the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International.
Anna Francese Gass is a senior editor @thefeedfeed and contributing editor for Bon Appetit, Food52 and MSN.com. She appears regularly on Good Morning America, Food Network and Access Hollywood and just released a bestselling cookbook, Heirloom Kitchen – Heritage Recipes and Family Stories From The Tables of Immigrant Women.
Simon Majumdar is a global traveler, journalist, author and broadcaster. He is a well-known Food Network personality appearing on shows such as Tournament of Champions, Iron Chef America and Guy’s Grocery Games. He is the restaurant critic for Time Out Los Angeles and has written three books on his food travels, including his latest Fed, White and Blue, about his move to American citizenship. He also writes and hosts the successful food history podcast, Eat My Globe, now in its seventh season.
Richie Nakano is the chef/co-owner of IDK Concepts, a pop-up restaurant in San Francisco. His brick-and-mortar ramen noodle shop earned him a 2013 StarChefs Rising Star Community Chef Award. He also manages hospitality industry talent and relations for the food media company ChefsFeed.
David Rose is executive chef and spokesperson for Omaha Steaks and brand ambassador for Nissan USA and Big Green Egg. He was a finalist on Food Network Star (Season 13) and is currently a regular Food Network personality. Based in Atlanta and a summa cum laude graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Culinary College there, he identifies as a southern chef who incorporates French culinary training with his family’s Jamaican recipes.
Robin Selden is a past president of the International Caterers Association and was named to the BizBash 500, celebrating the top 500 event professionals in 2020 in the United States. She is Managing Partner and Executive Chef of Connecticut- and New York City-based Marcia Selden Catering and Naked Fig Catering, a plant-based joint venture with celebrity chef Matthew Kenney. Full disclosure: Robin and I are cousins.
Bret Thorn is Senior Food & Beverage Editor of Nation’s Restaurant News with responsibility for spotting and reporting on food and beverage trends across the country. He has also studied traditional French cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Jess Tom is author of Food Whore: A Novel of Dining & Deceit, called “the Devil Wears Prada for foodies” by the New York Post, and co-winner of Season 14 of Food Network Star. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, and Eater and she has cooked on Good Morning America, Today and at major food festivals.
Izabela Wojcik is Director of Fundraising Initiatives at the James Beard Foundation and spent close to two decades programing events at the historic James Beard House in New York City. She often hosts and guest judges culinary events and serves on the Kitchen Cabinet, the advisory board to the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
The year’s trends are below. To see how much things have changed in just one year, check out the 2020 trend list here.
1 – Focus on BIPOC and Women-owned Businesses
“Amen to this trend,” says Izabela Wojcik. “It does feel like there is a movement to highlight these types of businesses on lists and in the press, but the national conversation and growing awareness of systemic racism revealed a truth we didn’t want to know. Let’s keep this going.”
“I think this is the single most important food discussion in America right now,” Simon Majumdar says, both in terms of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) groups and the cuisines they represent.
One example: several of our experts noted increased interest in Afro-Caribbean cooking. Izabela Wojcik calls it “The long overdue and real recognition of the role that African and Caribbean heritage played in shaping America’s regional cuisine,” noting James Beard Foundation award winners Nina Compton in New Orleans and Kwame Onwauchi in Los Angeles.
“The discussion can bring joy as more people ‘discover’ the glory of these cuisines,” Simon Majumdar adds, “but it may also bring painful discussions as we look to right the wrongs of two-and-a-half centuries.”
From the perspective of a female business owner, Robin Selden says, “I can speak from experience.” This month she was sworn in to the Connecticut Restaurant Association. “They even told me they needed more women business owners on their board.” She was also hired by a national luxury car company seeking help with rebranding from a woman’s perspective.
“We continue to seek out women and people of color to profile, and I think we do a decent job of it,” says Bret Thorn, “but there are so many established white male restaurateurs with great PR machines behind them that it still requires a lot more work to track down and cover less-represented groups. The struggle continues.”
“We have a long way to go here,” Richie Nakano concurs. This could be a 5,000-word essay and still barely scratch the surface of how deep this problem is.”
2 – Digitized Service in Restaurants
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, had you ever used a QR code to download a menu or pay for your meal? Me neither. You began to see them as restaurants went contactless out of health concerns. Now they’re a well-established business practice.
“This isn’t just a trend,” says Andrew Freeman. “Digital tableside ordering and payment will be the norm within the next few years,” and not just at quick-service and casual restaurants. “This emerging tech allows restaurants to create a more efficient labor model and increase staff wages.”
“It also tends to lead to more accurate orders,” adds Bret Thorn.
Izabela Wojcik calls it “One of the few positive outcomes of Covid and a real service innovation.”
There’s still a way to go, though. It’s taking a while for some diners to master the technology, and some restaurants haven’t gotten the hang of it either. “I was at a restaurant the other day that had four separate QR codes to scan, and the menu was in 8-point font,” says Richie Nakano.
3 – Ghost Kitchens
Simon Majumdar says that the pandemic forced restaurants to look outside “the traditional ‘I sit, I order, I eat, I pay’ model. Now that the crisis is beginning to recede, some have even decided not to have restaurants at all, offering their food direct to home from ghost kitchens.”
These remote cooking locations offer “Multiple concepts in a single facility, allowing diners the ease of ordering across cuisines and the economy of scale,” says Izabela Wojcik. “We want our food delivered fast and ready to eat, and ghost kitchens are only happy to serve. Many customers probably don’t even realize this is the system that delivers their favorite meals.”
Robin Selden calls them “Hugely successful and popular. Like culinary WeWork spaces.”
But, Wojcik also cautions, “There’s a real dark side to all this, especially when it comes to issues of staffing, wages and how people are treated.”
4 – Hard Seltzer
“Hard seltzers are popping up everywhere…quickly!” says chef David Rose. “They come in a variety of combinations: mixed with wine, a myriad of spirits or fruit flavors, and super calorie conscious.”
“On one hand, this is a seismic shift in the way people drink,” says Bret Thorn, “but on the other it’s a continuation of a cyclical trend of light, easy-drinking, culture-free drinks that started with wine coolers in the 1980s, and then Zima in the 1990s and then ‘malternatives’ such as Smirnoff Ice around the turn of the century.”
The difference, he says, is “The consumption rate of hard seltzer is much higher than those previous beverages.”
“Every beer and spirits brand is jumping on the hard seltzer train!” says Andrew Freeman. “While White Claw put the category on the map, it will be interesting to see what other varieties rise to the top of this very crowded pack. We’re even seeing THC infused seltzers.”
“The beer aisle at my local market is 1/3 seltzers,” says Richie Nakano. But, he asks, “Do we really like these? They taste like somebody dissolved a bag of Skittles in a can of Sprite.”
5 – Vegan Cuisine Gets Decadent
When plant-based cooking first appeared on this trend list in 2013, it was out of diners’ concern for their health and the health of the planet. But, as Andrew Freeman says, “Vegan food is no longer synonymous with tofu, sprouts, or even necessarily health. These days you can rack up as many calories on a vegan cheesesteak as the meaty variety.”
With options including plant-based “meats” like Impossible Foods and Beyond Burger, to vegan butters, cheeses and even bacon going mainstream, pretty much any restaurant can offer viable, tasty and decadent plant-based offerings.
David Rose cites the Slutty Vegan in his hometown of Atlanta. “It’s a locally-based restaurant that has made their name in that arena and is taking the country by storm, boasting the guilty satisfaction of a beefy cheeseburger with all the fixin’s and fries — minus the meat and dairy, with no lack in flavor!” Izabela Wojcik mentions Southern California’s Plant Power Fast Food.
On the top end of the scale, “Eleven Madison Park [one of New York City’s most renowned restaurants] has become entirely plant based,” says Anna Gass. “Now that’s progress.”
6 – Nostalgic Cocktails
“It’s strange that people born in the 1990s have ‘nostalgia’ for things that happened before they were born,” says Bret Thorn, “but apparently they do.”
“There’s no question that the espresso martini was the drink of 2021,” Andrew Freeman says.
Izabela Wojcik calls this ‘90s throwback cocktail “the bane of bartenders but so delicious.”
In addition, says Anna Gass, “Negronis have made a serious comeback.”
While these gin, vermouth and Campari concoctions have been a thing for – depending on your location – anywhere from the late aughts to a few years ago, Izabela Wojcik says that some restaurants now have entire negroni sections on their menus, including “white negronis, mezcal negronis, and negronis made with a range of boutique amaros instead of the traditional Campari.”
7 – Air Fryers
“For absolutely no reason at all, I have been an air fryer hater,” says Richie Nakano. “but now I’m seeing chefs that I have a ton of admiration for embrace them. Man, it is tough admitting I was wrong.”
“These incredibly easy-to-use countertop convection ovens provide a healthy alternative for the home cook,” says Robin Selden. “In a matter of minutes, you can have anything from Brussels sprouts and French fries to grilled cheese and crispy salmon filet. You can reheat leftovers and even hard boil an egg. The possibilities are endless.”
Izabela Wojcik says that new ratings from the Good Housekeeping Institute and Consumer Reports have helped make air fryers the “coveted kitchen tool this year,” citing “tasty, crunchy, healthier versions of our favorite fried foods.”
“I’m still never getting rid of my tabletop deep fryer, though,” Richie Nakano says.
8 – “Special Meals” Get Redefined
Pre-pandemic, a special occasion dinner meant going to a favorite restaurant or fussing for hours, if not days, in the kitchen. In the pandemic age, that definition has changed, says chef Jess Tom. “Maybe you do a picnic basket from a Michelin-starred restaurant, an online cook-along with a celebrity chef or get a meal kit from your favorite spot across the country.”
“Chefs,” meanwhile, “are realizing that they can make good money just doing livestream classes, and that they don’t necessarily need to be in a restaurant day to day to make a living,” observes Richie Nakano.
“It’s all about diversifying revenue streams and expanding your brand past the four walls of your restaurant,” Andrew Freeman says.
“Going forward,” says Jess Tom, “I think we’ll see even more novel ways of experiencing food. My hope is that these will be both fair and fun to diners and chefs.”
9 – Viral Food Videos
“There’s no denying it,” says Andrew Freeman. “TikTok and the viral food videos created on the platform are one of the top places where trends emerge these days.”
Robin Selden agrees: “You cannot log on to social media without being bombarded by one-minute, mini how-to videos of trendy food fads. TikTok has put many of these foodies on the map,” among them Jenni Hayrinen (baked feta pasta), Emily Mariko (salmon rice bowl), Hannah Cho (whipped Dalonga coffee) and Jeremy Scheck (crispy potatoes).
Izabela Wojcik raves, “This has been an absolute blast to witness, a global trend, mesmerizing as any food porn. The videos are fast, fun, mouthwatering and absolutely compel you to get in the kitchen and try your hand, then post on social media, ensuring the trend keeps moving.”
And bringing it full circle, she says, “TikTok just announced it will open ghost kitchens next year, providing an outlet for all those viral food trends.”