It’s hard to remember a time before social media made instant celebrities of the latest bistro, cocktail bar, or fast-casual restaurant, and the heavily tattooed young chef behind them. Or when culinary innovations originated in New York and San Francisco, rather than Portland, Ore.; Pittsburgh; or Nashville. James Beard award-winning writer Kevin Alexander remembers. Alexander traces the seismic shift that occurred in the American food scene between 2006 and 2018 in his new book, “Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and its End.”
Alexander looks at rapid changes of the time by telling the stories of the people who were part of it, from Gabriel Rucker’s Le Pigeon in Portland to Andre Prince Jeffries whose family recipe for Nashville hot chicken inspired a national craze. Alexander, who grew up in the Boston area and served as the Boston editor for Thrillist in 2008, spoke about the book from his home in Northern California.
Q. Why did you choose to begin the story in 2006?
A. That was the year that social media really started to take off, which gave restaurants and bars this megaphone to kind of guerrilla market on their own. Television in America dramatically changed and improved with the launch of “Top Chef” that year and the second season of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.” That was right around the time of the launch of all the food blogs. Eater gave us 24/7 chefs as celebrities and cultural coverage, and Serious Eats was sort of the amateur food nerd paradise.
Q. How did Portland in 2006 become the model for so much of what came after?
A. The hottest restaurant group, Ripe, had just imploded, so there was a lot of talent wandering around. You saw folks scraping around to do these creative small projects, like Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok and Gabriel Rucker’s Le Pigeon. I think when expectations are low and everyone thinks you’re going to fail anyway, you can end up doing really creative things, and I think that’s what Portland captured. But it was that aesthetic, sort of the bold, challenging dishes, the sautéed lamb’s brain with mustard crème fraîche, and foie gras profiteroles and all of that sort of stuff.
Q. How did things spread to every corner of country?
A. I call it the New York food mafia, but the big food magazines and food publications that at that time really dictated what people focused on. And they started to put their sights on Portland, and those independent, chef-driven restaurants with that sort of aesthetic, the Edison bulbs and the reclaimed wood and the farm-to-table food and the craft cocktails. Those places really started to blossom. Portland had no culinary reputation. These other cities like Austin, Texas, and Nashville could see Portland do it, and that kind of created this template.
Q. Pretty quickly a lot of young chefs and other cities followed.
A. They’re seeing people like Gabriel Rucker, who’s 26 years old and getting named like Food & Wine’s best new chef and getting James Beard awards. And they’re like, why do I have to wait staging and as a sous-chef in these San Francisco and New York restaurants? Why don’t I just go back to my hometown, open my own place for cheap, and do these things and get a name for myself? You kind of saw that mind-meld spread all across the country. You could set up shop anywhere where there were cheap rents and enough young people and clientele to attract. That was sort of this cool, exciting, really wild-west time in a lot of these second-, third-, fourth-tier cities.
Q. How has this food revolution changed urban areas?
A. Beforehand you would say the best restaurants are going to be in the best neighborhoods, because they were going to spend the most money. What switched was that these people, in order to be as creative as possible with the food, needed the cheapest rents. And so that they would go to places that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as food destinations. So there’s always this line between revitalization and gentrification. That was why I was really fascinated by Freret Street (in New Orleans). In 2008 after Katrina, everyone said, you’re crazy to go and buy this building to the guys from [cocktail bar] Cure. And then by 2011 it was, wow, look at all of these other places that have been built up around. And in 2018, there are about 24 restaurants and you’ve got chains like The Halal Guys and Blaze Pizza and you’ve got the condos coming in.
Q. You say that some of the same factors that drove the growth of this revolution are driving its end. How so?
A. We haven’t had a recession in 11 straight years. But what that means from a restaurant perspective is that landlords can raise rents for 11 straight years. You think about the rising food costs. You think about the market saturation — there are 100,000 more restaurants in America today than there were 10 years ago. Now that social media spreads ideas very quickly, you can’t keep your idea to yourself. If you have a good restaurant idea, it’s going to be documented on social media within the first few weeks of you opening. You don’t have a chance to work out the kinks anymore, because everyone is documenting exactly what you’re doing.
Q. As we move to whatever comes next, how have things changed for the better?
A. There’s the overall idea of food as a part of our culture. I think there’s a lot more consciousness to the way we think about where our food comes from, the way we think about the quality of the food and the diversity of food. I think that people are much more open to eating non-Western European foods. I’m excited about the level of knowledge about food and the expansion of curiosity and interest in foods from other places. That’s not going to go away.