From Sriracha to cronuts, David Sax explores food trends in his new book, The Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue (PublicAffairs), released May 20. Based in Toronto, the author also focused on food in his previous work, Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen.

Sax opens The Tastemakers with the oft-told tale of the cupcake. “Not even two decades into its rise, the humble cupcake has become a power instrument of globalization, spreading good old-fashioned American culture throughout the world.”

Amusing and informative, the chapter on the miniature cakes details how a dessert, once dismissed as kids' stuff, manages to rebrand itself through luck (Sex and the City), savvy (Magnolia Bakery) and circumstance (9/11). Indeed, this cultural trend got so hot that cupcakes can now be found and adored from Tanzania (Dots Cupcakery) to Uruguay (Muma's Cupcakes) to Baghdad (Home Made Cake).

Los Angeles figures prominently in The Tastemakers, by fomenting culinary desires around the world. Local chef Ricardo Zarate (Picca, Mo-Chica, Paiche) even gets his own chapter for drawing global attention to Peruvian food and ingredients.

“In the battle to establish the next food trend,” writes Sax, “chefs are the equivalent of Marines. Many aspire to join the top ranks of their field but few are chosen.”]

David Sax; Credit: PublicAffairs

David Sax; Credit: PublicAffairs

According to Sax, Zarate's unique and discrete take on food, from grains like quinoa (quinoa locro), to alcohol like pisco (grape brandy) to spice like aji amarillo (hot pepper), in his restaurants can create trends that ripple outward. Something like the relatively obscure Peruvian pepper could eventually translate into, let's say, a Taco Bell aji amarillo taco.

Doing the translating for these potential fads are, what the author calls “trendwatchers.” From bloggers to food events consultants to corporate food think tanks, trendwatchers keep an eye out for new flavors and bring them to the attention of corporations looking for the next big thing.

Kara Nielson, trendologist (that's her actual title!), spends her days providing “innovative product solutions to the food business.” “I'm seeing South American beyond just Peruvian,” Nielson says in the book. “Pistachios have totally popped, and the Pistachio Council has done a great job. It's not just a snack anymore.”

Of course, the difference between a chef and a trendologist has a lot to do with timing.  As Sax puts it, “Ricardo Zarate can have an idea at lunch and it will be on Picca's menu by dinner.” In the case of a company, like Pepsico or Denny's, “ideas are brainstormed, prototyped, kitchen tested, debated within dozens of boardrooms, tested in select markets, subjected to refinements and focus groups, prepared for a launch, advertised to the public, and slowly rolled out store by store, state by state and country by country.” Whew!

The Tastemakers delves into food trends from various angles, like the importance of money, food politics and marketing. Says Sax, “I wanted to find out what drove these trends and made them such a potent force in our daily lives.” Sax also explains why and how trends emerge. Often, but not always manufactured, sometimes a whimsical choice can snowball into a mass obsession.

One such mash-up that seemingly came out of nowhere is the Mc10:35. Named for the time of day when McDonald's stops selling breakfast and begins serving lunch, the Mc10:35 combines an Egg McMuffin with a McDouble hamburger. “Discerning McDonald's fans coast to coast are now ordering it,” writes Sax. “One day soon it will probably migrate to the official menu.”

In the end, most trends emerge from a few core places in the food world, according to Darren Tristano, head of foodservice research at Technomic, a fact-based research and consulting firm serving the food industry. From global-flavored trends that travel from smaller immigrant group into the wider population, to supplier-originated trends, driven by branding campaigns to chef-led trends. 

And finally, there are the true tastemakers, people like Cathy Strange, the head global cheese and specialty product buyer for Whole Foods. Sax writes, “When Strange makes a pick, a trend begins its move into the big time, and her choices resonate so deeply in the industry that they not only shape the way other retailers buy food but also the way food is made, packaged, and sold around the world. As Anna Wintour is to clothing and Harvey Weinstein is to film, Strange is to gouda.”

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